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Public engagement and initiating change in a tangible, real way

Public engagement in research can initiate change in a tangible, real way. For researcher Jamie Khoo, recognizing this has meant that she’s always made public engagement a major part of her research; at every stage, asking how it might relate beyond academia and create impact in the wider sense. This included entering the Vitae 3-Minute Thesis competiton (3MT), a competition which Taylor & Francis is proud to sponsor.

Jamie won the 3MT People’s Choice Award for her thought-provoking presentation ‘But is she pretty? How women respond to beauty ideals’. We spoke to Jamie about public engagement and the different ways she’s reaching beyond academia with her research; from entering 3MT to writing for The Conversation. Read on for tips and insights.

Jamie KhooBringing my findings back out into society

I went into my PhD knowing that I didn’t want my research to stay in an ivory tower of academia. Coming from the magazine industry and after feeling increasingly disillusioned and frustrated by the limitations of the media, I eventually decided to study women’s responses to beauty ideals in a more formal, structured way. I hoped I might be able to bring my findings back into society to initiate some more tangible change. Public engagement has therefore always been a big part of my PhD. At every stage, I’ve asked myself how it might apply to the world beyond my academic life and prompt change in a practical way.

Articulating what your research is about – what we’re doing and why

During 3MT training at our university, a fellow finalist shared an excellent way for talking about our research and making it accessible: pretend you’re at a pub and telling your friends about your research. This is harder than it sounds. We become comfortable being in a space where many concepts are taken for granted and understood. The biggest challenge is in un-learning a lot of what has become second nature, and putting it back together for someone with no training in this area at all. Many times, I think, we probably even struggle to articulate to ourselves what our research is actually about. It is easy to get so caught up in complex, abstract theories or infinitesimal details of our data. We start to lose the bigger picture of what we’re actually doing and why.

Sharpening the direction of my thesis with 3MT

The 3MT experience was an excellent exercise for getting back to the basics of our research aims and questions. I’d been at a stage in my thesis where I was overwhelmed by many possible directions I could take. Stripping everything down into just three minutes (about 450 words) was extremely helpful for honing my focus and research objectives. The clarity I found has since helped me shape and write two analysis chapters, and sharpened the overall direction of my thesis.

Ironically, I had first decided to do the 3MT at my university as a distraction. I’d been feeling stuck, and felt that if I wasn’t writing the actual thesis, then I could, perhaps, still be productive by participating in this competition. If nothing else, I hoped it would press a reset button for my research and get me thinking creatively beyond the tight corner I’d wound myself into.

Working across disciplines

The 3MT also provided the change to meet and train with people from diverse departments. Academic life can be quite isolating and opportunities to work across disciplines aren’t always available. So being among people from all faculties was really fun! It was refreshing to bounce ideas off people who had no idea what my work was about and hear about what others were working on, or how research is conducted in their disciplines. Several of us have stayed in touch, worked on cross-disciplinary projects together and become good friends.

Initiating change in a tangible, real way

I’ve come out feeling more confident about disseminating my research, speaking publicly and engaging with others about my work. I am feeling more invigorated about my writing and research now. I have since gone on to publish with The Conversation, been invited to give talks around the country and been inspired to take elements of my 3MT presentation to kickstart a mini Twitter campaign. More than all this, the 3MT has been an acute and important reminder to me of why I started this PhD in the first place: of the changes I had hoped to initiate and of how to do this in a tangible, real way.

Want more advice on public engagement? Then listen to our 15 minute podcast exploring this very topic


Jamie is currently in her fourth / writing-up year of her PhD, examining women’s responses to beauty ideals. As well as winning the People’s Choice Award at the UK national 3-Minute Thesis competition 2018, Jamie participated as a finalist in Falling Walls Lab, Surrey 2018. These activities reflect her strong interest in public engagement and in bringing her research to non-specialist audiences. 

A portfolio of Jamie’s selected academic and commercial publications can be viewed here.