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A doctoral student can spend years upon years exploring (and tens if not hundreds of pages writing about) a single, narrow topic for an audience of dissertation committee experts in the field. Consequently, it can be hard to sum up that work in a few sentences for a general audience.

But falling back up the rabbit hole – in the form of a 30- to 60-second video to be submitted along with their dissertations – is exactly what one Duke University genetics professor has proposed asking graduate students there to do. And the idea is gaining traction for the benefits it offers students and the world outside their institution alike.

“I’ve always been convinced of the need for scholars to be able to speak ‘in plain English’ to people outside of the academy,” Huntington Willard, director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, said in an e-mail interview. “I teach [students] to imagine explaining what they’re learning to their parents or grandparents.”

The newly proposed video requirement is a natural outgrowth of that philosophy, Willard said, and likely will be instituted next year as part of a new Duke initiative to forge connections between academics and other community members, called Scholars and Publics (Willard serves on the program’s core leadership team). Although Willard said the need for clear communication between academe and the general public is particularly critical in the sciences, he hopes the idea will adopted over time across the disciplines.

“It’s just as important for the public to hear why studying Shakespeare or music or culture or language is significant in some way,” he said. “[O]ver time, this might grow to be a distinctive signature of how Duke thinks about scholarship and how it serves the broader interests of the public.”

Duke’s Graduate School dean was not available for comment. But Laurent Dubois, professor of romance studies and history and director of Scholars and Publics, said he supported the plan, in part because of how it fit into the larger, ongoing discourse on reforming doctoral education, including preparation for possible careers outside academe, or “alt-ac.”

“I and others in the group think that we should be training our students to take on a variety of roles both within and beyond the academy, and part of that involves finding and communicating with diverse publics,” he said. Training in writing for and otherwise communicating with diverse audiences isn’t stressed enough in enough disciplines, he added.

Cathy Davidson, a professor of English at Duke who also serves on the Scholars and Publics leadership team, agreed. “I think higher education in general has done a very poor job making connections between specialized knowledge and the way we all live in the world,” she said.

Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University in Ontario and a board member for the Council of Graduate Schools, said she’d heard of similar initiatives, including a voluntary, “3-Minute Thesis” research communication competition in which her institution participates. (Other council board members noted other graduate students’ attempts take their research mainstream, including a YouTube channel created by Ohio State University astronomers to share “coffee briefs” of their latest research with those far outside their department.)

But the idea of a mandatory, videotaped elevator-type pitch for graduate students was novel and timely, Sekuler said.

“People need to understand why research matters and universities matter, and students need to be able to share that information with the general public,” she said. “There’s so much great research out there, but if we all publish in our own specialized journals, the world won’t be able to use it” to the extent that it could otherwise.

Although 30 to 60 seconds may strike some as too short a time to effectively communicate one’s research, she said, it’s a concrete opportunity to prove one’s “mastery” of a topic, and one that could help a graduate student connect with employers outside academe, considering the growing numbers of Ph.D.s taking jobs in other fields.

Ultimately, Willard said, “the academy serves no one unless what we learn is heard. Private knowledge is just that. But knowledge made public lives on, both through our students and through direct communication to our neighbors.”

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