PhD students trained to make an impact

Published Nov 28, 2017

KTH Royal Institute of Technology wants research to have an impact on society. It’s a mindset that the PhD students need to get to grips with, says Tobias Oechtering, head of impact at the School of Electrical Engineering, which offers the course ‘From research to impact’.

Fifteen PhD students have secured a place on the over-subscribed course. The idea is to keep the group small so there is space to work on how your own research can make an impact. This afternoon, they will be listening to talks and giving their own presentations.

Tobias Oechtering is responsible for the course, along with Wouter van der Wijngaart. He describes why it is important to be able to reach out.

“In the future, anyone who pursues an academic career will have to show that their research impacts on society, education or other research. You need to have a vision of where what you’re doing could lead,” states Tobias.

When it comes to promoting the research, the key is to find what is known as a lead user.

“It should be someone who appreciates how the research can help society to develop, who can take the research to the next level. The ideal is to have someone who is involved in the project from an early stage,” advises Tobias.

Applicability of research

Earlier on the course, Gustav Notander from KTH Innovation spoke about how PhD students can assess the applicability of their own research, and so identify their lead users.

Janosch Hauser, Micro and Nanosystems, is attending the impact course during his first year as a PhD student.

“It’s great to have known about this from the beginning. The course gives a good overview of the potential.”

Babtiste Cavarec, Information Science and Engineering, says that PhD students are not used to thinking along these lines.

“We need practice at creating an impact, how to make our research public and stand out from everyone else who is publishing articles.”

And practice is exactly what they are going to get on this course. The students have to create their own webpage as a vehicle for presenting their research. They also have to carry out an activity of their choice on social media, such as tweeting or posting something about their research on Wikipedia.

Externally focused activities

Another task is to draw up a plan for externally focused activities that can then be put into practice after the course. They are given feedback on their work by the course leaders, guest speakers and their fellow students. The guest speakers come from KTH Innovation and the Communications Departments at KTH and the School of Electrical Engineering.

Tobias Oechtering stresses the importance of communication.

“Publish your results not just for your immediate colleagues but for a wider audience. Seek out a company where you could organise an internship. Explain what you’re working on and ask them to explain their problems.”

Marie Maros is doing her PhD in Information Science and Engineering. She hopes that the course will make it easier for her to get her work out there.

“My research, applied mathematics, is seriously theoretical. I want to know how I can explain what I do and why it’s important.”

Mikel Armendariz Perez, Electric Power and Energy Systems, already has many contacts outside KTH. He works with energy firm Vattenfall and has been a guest researcher at the Berkeley Lab.

Working with businesses is a strong motivator for him, as it can lead to practical improvements in the research project.

“The industry can supply you with real data that is really only available this way. The collaboration also means that you get to practise presenting and defending your ideas in front of experts and lay people alike. And finally there’s the professional network that you build up.”

Course makes an impact

The collaboration also has benefits for the other party.

“The company gets a highly qualified person who can perform tasks and who is familiar with the very latest scientific advances,” states Mikel Armendariz Perez.

The afternoon ends with a few of the Ph.D. students sharing some of the literature they have read. It is about going from research to impact, giving an ‘elevator pitch’ and creating an innovation plan – different ways for them to get their research out there in the future.

But the fact is that the participants also make an impact during the course, according to Tobias Oechtering.

“They tell each other about their research. And the communications officers who come in as guest speakers will also be able to pick up on ongoing research.”

Text: Ann Patmalnieks

Fact box

  • Impact is all about creating value for society. KTH wishes to consciously influence social development and increase collaboration with businesses, organisations, the public sector and other seats of learning. Tobias Oechtering is one of ten lecturers with special responsibility for impact at KTH’s schools.
  • The course ‘From research to impact’ is run in the autumn by course director Tobias Oechtering and Wouter van der Wijngaart. The guest speakers are Gustav Notander from KTH Innovation and Annika Engström from the Communications Department. Several alumni of the School of Electrical Engineering also contribute as lecturers.
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