Beyond the Academic Journal: Three Ways to Communicate Your Research to a Broader Audience

 October 23, 2019

Communicating to a wider audience

Picture this: you’re at a family reunion, spending a long summer weekend with your relatives and away from the worries of graduate school. You’re laughing and having a good time until someone asks, “So, what’s your research all about?”. You freeze. In reality, your research is looking deeply at a complex genetic pathway that could have implications for the treatment of inflammatory diseases. But that’s all way too complex to explain, and your family member wouldn’t understand much of it anyway. So, you just smile and say, “I’m studying genetics.”

Have you been in a similar situation? Have you ever felt frustrated by the seemingly huge gap between your research and the real world?

As a student getting my Ph.D. in nursing, I find myself in this situation all the time. Many people don’t even grasp what nursing research is, let alone my specific dissertation topic. I often field questions such as “Oh, will you be a nurse/nurse practitioner/doctor when you’re done?” (Answer: No, I’ll be a Ph.D.-prepared nurse in a research career) and “Is nursing research the same as medical research?” (Answer: No, there is a ton of overlap, but generally speaking medicine is more focused on the cure or treatment of disease while nursing is more focused on the prevention and management of chronic illness and the role of care systems). I’m incredibly passionate about my research, but trying to translate complex science into casual conversation can be challenging.

More and more, though, this is becoming important in science. At every conference I’ve been to in the last year, there’s been some discussion about the need to translate published evidence into real-world action. I’ve heard calls for schools to consider adjusting their criteria for promotion and tenure to include a researcher’s impact, rather than the number of publications or grant dollars. And as a graduate student, it can be disheartening to think that all the effort that goes into our Ph.D. may only be important to a small group of scholars in our field.

That’s why in March, I attended a two-day Media Intensive Training through George Washington University’s Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement. Hosted by two internationally renowned nurse leaders, the purpose of the workshop was to develop nurses’ skills in translating scholarship to action through the use of media.

Throughout the workshop, we learned the importance of tools like Op-Eds, interviews with journalists, and social media in order to take our research from the pages of a journal to real life. We drafted and got feedback on Op-Eds, we learned how to use Twitter to spread important new knowledge and connect with other scientists, and we practiced giving an interview on our specific research areas. I left D.C. feeling excited—perhaps my research wouldn’t just sit on a shelf after all.

While the training was specific to nurses, as nurses are often highly underrepresented in health news stories, the major takeaway points are applicable to all disciplines.

Consider writing an Op-Ed related to your research.

For example, a history Ph.D. student might uncover new documents that could change the way we view a historic event. Op-Eds are often fairly easy to publish and will likely be read by a wider audience. That’s not to say you couldn’t publish in a journal as well—in fact, your Op-Ed could summarize your newly published findings while directing readers to the study. Duke’s own University Communications provides an Op-Ed Toolkit that can help you formulate your content and strategy.

Tackle Twitter.

If you aren’t already on Twitter, create an account and follow both colleagues and journalists. You may choose to follow journalists who are local or those who focus specifically on your field. For health sciences researchers, some great journalists to follow include Julie Rovner (@jrovner), Bernard Wolfson (@bjwolfson), April Ryan (@aprildryan), Margot Sanger-Katz (@sangerkatz), Ivan Oransky (@ivanoransky), Melanie Evans (@_melaevans), and Sarah Kliff (@sarahkliff). Sometimes, journalists will tweet out a call for individuals to be interviewed about a specific topic. If they do, reach out and consider being interviewed! Even if it’s not in your direct area, you may have a colleague in that area who would be an expert resource.

Connect with local journalists.

Find a few a local journalists to email and explain your research expertise. State that you are happy to be a resource to them should they ever need to interview someone for a story in your area. Journalists often work on a deadline, so they’ll appreciate having an expert on hand to reach out to rather than spending time trying to find someone.

It can certainly be daunting to present your research to a larger audience and in a different format than what’s allowed by a scholarly journal. But think back to why you entered your graduate program. If you believe that the research you are working so hard on has the opportunity to make a difference, remember that you are the expert–and your scholarship has the potential to make the world a better place. You just need to share it.


Jacqueline Nikpour
Jacqueline Nikpour

Ph.D. student, Nursing

Jacqueline Nikpour is a Registered Nurse, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar, and a Ph.D. student at Duke University School of Nursing. Her current research is examining ways to utilize advanced practice nurses to address the opioid crisis while still effectively managing chronic pain. Jacqueline's previous work includes examining the utilization of school nurses, using dance as an intervention to improve physical activity among West Philadelphia families, and addressing adolescent tobacco use. Jacqueline wrote a recent op-ed for Penn's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. Follow Jacqueline at on Twitter @NurseNikpour.