How to share research, Part 3: Dance your PhD

The horror!
Does the word “research” make you do this?

What do you think of when you hear the word “research”?

Many people who are not based in a very academic setting (e.g. a university) hear the word “research” and immediately think that it will be boring, dry, confusing, esoteric, irrelevant to “real life”, or that it will take them forever to read and understand a research publication. Of course, sometimes research is like this — but it doesn’t have to be!

I work for a publisher and a key part of my role is to help our teams integrate research findings into ELT courses, materials, methods and approaches. I’m also a teacher trainer and do my best to ensure that I’m up-to-date with research findings from applied linguistics, so that the recommendations and guidance that I give teachers are sound and likely to genuinely benefit teaching and learning. My own experience is valuable, of course, but there are also many things I can learn from others, and research is particularly valuable when it leads me to question my own long-held beliefs, ultimately strengthening, changing or adapting them in the face of new evidence.

One of the challenges I face on a daily basis is how to make research interesting and engaging for the people who need or want to apply research to their daily practice, and who tend not to enjoy reading long academic texts which are often only published in journals, behind a paywall that is prohibitive for most teachers. There are many alternative ways of sharing research findings. This blog series is a collection of some of my favourites.

One way researchers can share their findings is through dancing.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Dancing is perhaps the most enjoyable way of sharing research that I’ve ever come across (not that I’ve ever done it myself), and certainly the most hilarious. The annual AAAS/Science Magazine Dance Your PhD Thesis Contest sees PhD students past and present interpreting their thesis as a dance (involving other people and props, if they like), then uploading it to YouTube.

The 2017 competition was just launched last week, and this year is the 10th anniversary so they’re bound to be looking out for a particularly special entry. As they explain on the official website:

Any style of dance is welcome as long as you, the Ph.D. researcher, are part of the dance. The final product should be not only fun to watch, but helpful for others to gain an understanding of your scientific research.

They further explain (in the small print) that:

the best dances not only insightfully reveal the scientific content of the PhD thesis, they not only show artistry to create a compelling spectacle, but they also creatively combine these two aspects into a successful execution.

So if you’re doing your PhD (and if you’d like a $500-$1000 (USD) prize and eternal glory), why not enter?

Silliness aside, there are many benefits to this way of sharing research, both to the researcher (dancer) and the audience:

  • It demonstrates to non-academics that it truly is possible to communicate serious scientific research findings in an entertaining, light-hearted way and in a non-written medium.
  • It provides welcome comic relief during a profoundly stressful period of life. Laughter is one very effective way to reduce stress and can also lead to uplifted feelings and feelings of fulfilment.
  • It provides physical exercise, which has been demonstrated in multiple studies to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. For mild to moderate depression, for example, “the effect of exercise may be comparable with antidepressant medication and psychotherapy“. Mental health is a very serious consideration when undertaking a challenge like a PhD.
  • Similarly, physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is closely related to learning.
  • The requirement to be insightful, artistic, compelling and creative forces participants to engage in lateral thinking. They need to consider: will a non-specialist audience understand what I’m trying to tell them? How can I make the relevance and utility of my research clear? How can I make it compelling? What would my research look like if I tried to express it in a non-written (and non-verbal) medium? What are its particular characteristics, and which will people find especially interesting or insightful? The skill of lateral thinking has applications in many realms other than university study. (See Edward de Bono’s work on this topic.)
  • It reminds researchers not to take themselves too seriously – a risk which many in academia would readily acknowledge! (For example, meet this lovely group of scientists.)

If you’re still not convinced, here’s the 2016 Dance Your PhD winner, all about a polymeric prosthetic heart valve (!). (And if you enjoy this one, be sure to scroll down that page and watch some of the others.)


This post is part of my “ELT Research In Practice” series.

2 thoughts on “How to share research, Part 3: Dance your PhD

  1. What absolute genius! I’ve just spent a very enjoyable half an hour watching some of the winners from last year, and learning some stuff too 🙂 Thanks Laura!

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