Research dissemination as an academic ethos: Reflections from a PhD candidate

I have the unusual distinction of being the first person to be a finalist or selected speaker in all three major graduate research dissemination events at the University of Waterloo: Three Minute Thesis (3MT), GRADtalks, and, most recently, GRADflix. When I was told this, I joked that the University should come up with a name for this category, like the EGOT label used by the American entertainment industry for those who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. Upon reflection, I offer the claim seriously, if only because I think we should entice researchers to prioritize these events as distinctions rather than distractions.     

When my supervisor pointed to the 3MT poster on his office door almost two years ago and told me I should compete, I gave him my typically bemused smirk. Where am I going to find the time for that? When I asked other competitors their thoughts, I found I wasn't alone in this perspective.

Jason Lajoie performing in the 2018 3MT university wide finals.

Jason Lajoie talks about his research in under 3-minutes during the 2018 University of Waterloo Three Minute Thesis (3MT) university-wide finals. 

Yonatan Strauch expressed a similar reaction to undertaking a GRADtalk, but, like myself, ultimately found the process crucial to better understanding his research. Strauch refers to this process of translating research for a general audience as a productive "distraction" that allowed him "to see [his] work more clearly from a distance". 

After winning the Arts Faculty heat in the 2018 3MT competition, I actively pursued the chance to speak at GRADtalks. I applied to two before I was finally selected to present. The process of applying required me to understand and articulate what was important about my research, and why it had value beyond the confines of my all-too insular academic discussion. Crafting the talk was another challenge since I had never presented for an academic audience outside of my specialty before. 

Jason Lajoie and Caitlin Scott answer questions at GRADtalks

Jason Lajoie and Caitlin Scott answer questions from the audience during GRADtalks: Ethical Living in a Modern World.

Working through this approach has allowed me to achieve new kinds of clarity about my research, my field, and my place in both, which I carry with me into each new project. Now I think of these events as productive interactions with one's research and field. To translate the breadth of your research into other words and for other people requires a holistic exploration of your topic. While benefiting the researcher, these events also benefit the research. 

By the time the GRADflix competition was announced, I was in the final stages of completing my dissertation, applying for academic tenure-track jobs, and several grants, so I actually had no time to devote to the competition. Nevertheless, I was excited by the challenge of translating my research yet again, this time into a visual format. I thought about how I might compress the sum of my 300-page dissertation into a hopelessly brief 60-second video. To maximize my efforts, I repurposed the 50-word script I wrote for my video for my cover letters.  Whenever I am asked at interviews if I have any experience with research dissemination and community engagement, I cite all of the footage generated by the 3MT, GRADflix and GRADtalks.

Jason Lajoie accepts his 2nd place GRADflix prize from Jeff Casello

Jason Lajoie accepts his second place prize from Jeff Casello, Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs, at the GRADflix showcase.

There are countless reasons why we should make time for these events, as participants and as audience members. For me, these events afforded rare opportunities to capitalize on all the times I spent arguing with myself while doing chores, or scribbling reflections in notebooks about my research. The act of translating my research allowed me to devise effective ways of inviting others into my work. I gained a sense of community in my university as I came to know the people at these events--who usually show up to more than one. More broadly, these events allow researchers to engage in a dialectic with their research in the role of a layperson, but with a repertoire of critical tools available only to experts. These critical practices are the foundations of the academy, and worth embracing. The distinction--and the prize money--is a bonus.

Jason is a PhD Candidate in English who explores how queer identities are constructed, shared and negotiated through media and technology.

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