An engaging thesis

As part of our Engaged Futures consultation, we have asked people to share their visions of what the engaged university might be like in the future. Here Richard Holliman, University Champion for Public Engagement with Research, The Open University (, shares his views.

Completed ThesisImagine it is January 2033. You are one of a small team of prospective co-supervisors for a postgraduate research project. The supervision team has advertised for a new postgraduate research student to begin work in autumn 2033. The studentship is fully funded, covering fees and a stipend for living expenses. It is based on a ‘1+3 model’: the first year involves a programme of intensive research training; subject to satisfactory progress, three years of PhD-level research would follow.

Integrating the dimensions of public engagement

The supervision team has selected a broad area of study, inviting candidates to prepare a proposal for a research project as part of the recruitment and selection process. What the supervision team is looking for is an excellent research proposal that addresses relevant research literature. This is a given. But you are also looking for evidence that the candidate has integrated the various dimensions of public engagement into a coherent proposal for research. These dimensions, represented as six ‘Ps’, include:

  • People: Who are the publics who could and should be engaging with this research? Has the candidate discussed their research with the publics they wish to engage with?
  • Purposes: What are the aims and objectives of this engaged research? Have the publics been consulted and what they would like the impacts of the research to be? If not, what proposals are made for consulting with publics about the purposes of the research?
  • Processes: How will the research involve relevant publics in meaningful ways? When, and how often, will publics be involved? Where are these interventions likely to take place, and through what mechanisms?
  • Participation: What measures are proposed for exploring how the publics, researcher and supervision team participated?
  • Performance: What measures are proposed to explore the quality of the engagement processes? How will the findings be used to improve future practice, and shared with other researchers?
  • Politics: Has the candidate demonstrated knowledge of the wider context for engaged research in 2033 and the localised political context of the publics involved with the research? 
The dimensions of public engagement

The dimensions of public engagement

The supervision team for the project includes a representative of the publics who are likely to be affected by the research. They will help to select the candidate for the PhD studentship and support the development of the research alongside the academic supervisors. When the candidate submits their thesis for examination this research report would include a description of their engaged research, documenting how they have addressed the 6Ps outlined in their original proposal. To this end, the examination panel would also include a representative of the publics affected by the research. This person would make a judgement, alongside academic peers, of the quality of the engaged research.

Mainstreaming public engagement with research

As someone with a responsibility for exploring how an engaged research agenda could be embedded within the research culture of a university I can see considerable merits in embracing a research agenda that is both valuable and meaningful to the publics affected by both the processes of research, and, potentially, by the findings. The key issue then is whether this vision could be mainstreamed across all research domains. In some areas of research, particularly fields where participatory research methodologies are valued, such a vision for the future of an engaged thesis may be welcomed as a validation of existing practices. For prospective supervisors in other fields, this vision may strike fear into their hearts. It’s reasonable, therefore, to consider how such a scenario could come to pass.

Professional development, recognition and quality assurance

The current training provision for all levels of researcher is increasingly focusing on the need to support a wider set of research skills. This reflects the need to support researchers as they submit grant applications to Research Councils, where they are expected to plan for research impact [1]. Illustrated by the Researcher Development Framework [2], these resources include a requirement to develop skills in public engagement. Given that today’s PhD students already undergo this training but without formal assessment, it seems reasonable to consider whether a PhD thesis examination in 2033 could judge how well these skills have been put into action.

We should also consider the implications of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework [3], given the likelihood that UK researchers will have undergone several further research audits by 2033. In 2014 UK universities are being assessed in three main ways: outputs; environment and impact. To be submitted under the impact section, a case study needs to reach the minimum threshold of 2* in terms of the quality of the research. In the post-REF 2014 world universities will be more strategic in how they plan for the next research audit, valuing those who have produced high-quality impact case studies for REF 2014. These researchers are likely to be recognised for these contributions and encouraged to focus at least some of their time on research impact for the next research audit, and the ones after that. Of course, nothing is set in stone for the next research audit. Realistically though, it’s fair to make the assumption that research audits are here to stay and that the conditions of REF 2014 will shape the strategies of UK universities in the coming years.

It follows that public engagement with research has the potential to become more mainstream within the UK’s research culture, with increasing numbers of researchers integrating an engaged research agenda within their career path. These changes to patterns of professional development for researchers, allied with a greater number of engaged researchers, could increase the likelihood that supervision teams will be advertising in the future for engaged PhD research proposals.

Do you agree with Rick, or do you think the engaged thesis will be very different. Let us know.


[1] Select for the RCUK website on ‘Pathways to impact’.

[2] Developed by Vitae, the Researcher Development Framework can be found at:

[3] Select for the REF 2014 website.

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