When Alessandro Duranti decided to offer Ph.D. candidates at UCLA the opportunity to describe their research in terms that the average lay person could understand, he thought he was doing the students a favor. The 10-week program would help these young academics connect with a wider audience and give them skills to sell themselves.
Duranti is the Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA, and his project, the “Dissertation Launchpad Showcase,” positions and brands the university and its programs with a brilliance usually reserved for the sharpest marketing professionals.
The showcase selected nine Ph.D. candidates from among the disciplines of Anthropology, Economics, Gender Studies, Geography, History, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology. The students met once a week over 10 weeks with Duranti and an associate dean, as well as with a coach who tutors professionals in how to speak publicly, including for TED talks. The students will present their eight-minute presentations on March 12, 2015, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. The public is invited to attend.
Duranti has said he wants the students to learn how to communicate outside their own academic disciplines, where everyone speaks the same language of ethnographic studies and metadata. “We want them to be bilingual,” he says, so that they can explain their work in human terms and tell stories about the important insights they have discovered. Communicating through stories of those they studied will help people understand their work, and might even prompt some to act.
But Duranti has achieved something beyond that goal. By taking an existing product – the work that students do when researching and writing their Ph.D. dissertations – and repurposing it in a unique and unexpected way, he has created opportunity for the university and his division.
The showcase leverages the time and effort that goes into a dissertation, not just by the student, but by the institution, and markets the university by showing the public that a Ph.D. is not just an academic exercise. The program demonstrates that the university is supporting its Ph.D. candidates by giving students training in how to present and promote themselves, and it encourages the students to position themselves as experts, which will be a useful skill in the world after they earn a degree. Duranti’s showcase directly addresses the most current and insistent question about higher education today: whether students are not only enjoying the pursuit of the liberal arts, but are also employable upon graduation.
The lesson is valuable for all of us. Everyone can repurpose and leverage their work. We all should be looking for opportunities with everything we produce. Even if we don’t have the reach of UCLA, we can expand our marketing to connect with others in non-traditional and useful ways.