By Claire Aitchison

These days there is an increasing expectation that research has ‘impact’. There is more to this than government policy (such as Australia’s Engagement and Impact Assessment). The impact agenda has particular resonance in a world where research funding is increasingly constrained and universities compete for influence and reputation in order to attract funding. ‘Impact’ also connects to quality, and accountability.

Impact is sometimes narrowly conceived of as countable measures of the uptake of research (ie publications, citations and grants) but it also includes less easily quantifiable things like influence on practice, resultant applications, the generation of new ideas and outcomes, and longer-term subtle change. This perspective relates to ideas about the public good and the public intellectual – in other words, it is about being connected to, and giving back to, society.

But how does this impact agenda affect doctoral research and writing?

I think there might be a number of ways. Firstly, considerations of ‘impact’ can constrain or influence the choice of doctoral research topic. For example, an aspiring doctoral candidate may have a personal passion or interest in floral art – but is this alone worthy of 4 years of public funding? If, however, their research concerns the re-imagination of the cultural aesthetic, an exploration of commercial value, or the preservation of endangered flora for floristry, the potential impact becomes clear because the benefit of the research is clear.

A key task of a doctoral thesis has always been to identify the purpose and the significance of the study. When we consider ‘impact’ this becomes even more important – potential impact not only justifies the choice of research project, it also validates the chances of lasting influence or ‘contribution’.

Research impact counted through scholarly publications and citations is an end-on activity, occurring after publications are in the public domain. If doctoral researchers are able to publish during candidature they can complement claims of potential impact with evidence. A shift to demonstrating impact during candidature may contribute further to the rise in doctoral student publishing and may result in research dissemination being reconsidered not simply as an end-of activity, but rather, an organic part of the doctoral writing process across candidature.

Concerns for impact may necessitate different practices during candidature regarding dissemination and profile-building for the doctoral student. Because scholarly publication is notoriously slow, doctoral students (and academics more generally) are using social media platforms to build learning networks, and to disseminate and discuss their research.

How and where to write about ‘impact’?

It seems to me that doctoral writers who aim for impact need to undertake careful positioning work within traditional ‘big book’ theses – as well as develop strong digital communication skills. The expectation for social accountability, or relevance, requires a rhetorical balancing act on the part of the writer who needs to satisfy, sometimes quite different, conceptions of ‘relevance’ and ‘doctoralness’.

For the thesis writer, purpose, significance, contribution and relevance are all part of the narrative of impact. It is not always easy to produce this kind of writing. Stylistically it can feel awkward and self-promotional if done poorly. To maintain a credible and authoritative stance, claims for significance arising from findings need to be tempered in strength against the evidence (sample size, statistical relevance and so on) and in light of a (social) value. Claims for impact will be largely propositional and may be complemented by evidence where it already exists.

Traditionally, doctoral writers establish the rationale and justification for their research primarily in relation to a gap in the literature. In grant writing, we see that the justification for the research turns not so much on a detailed account of what we don’t know (as evidenced by the gap in the scholarly literature), but rather on the impact of this absence of knowledge in relation to something of importance. Thus a grant writer is appealing for financial support not simply because the discipline is interested in finding out something, but because that knowledge has implications/applications that will benefit society in some way. A grant writer knows that if they can cannily connect their research to a bigger agenda – especially if that coincides with a national priority or one identified by the granting body – their chances of success increase significantly.

A doctoral writer does not always have such clarity about the audience and purpose to help frame this kind of rhetorical performance. Oftentimes they are ‘writing blind,’ knowing with confidence what the gap in the literature identifies as a worthwhile study, and imagining the relevance to a setting such as a school, farm or industry. Connecting the research to ‘what matters’ requires the writer to be connected to an industry or social community outside the academy. In other words, the doctoral writer needs to convince their examiner that this project is worthwhile in a way that goes beyond academic curiosity.

There are key places in a traditional thesis where this work needs to occur. The abstract should highlight the importance of the work – and if there is already strong evidence of impact, this could be referred to directly. The Introduction traditionally gives the rationale for the research (based on a research problem demonstrated to be of some importance). Then, in arguing the significance, the writer needs to provide a measured outline of possible areas of influence or application. If there is already evidence of how others have found value in the work (such as citations, media acknowledgements, Twitter feeds), then these can be cited as evidence of this claim. Personally, I believe it is useful to find opportunities to self-cite relevant publications early in the Introduction to establish the profile of the research early on. (But be careful – not all disciplines approve of this practice – and don’t over do it!) There will be other places in the thesis for more detailed reference to impact or significance – as long as these references are relevant. The Conclusion is a good place to restate important examples of where the research has already demonstrated impact because this is where contribution is generally given most space.

‘Impact’ is founded on the idea that the research project will have some kind of life, value and influence beyond and outside of itself. This is a worthwhile aspiration – so, early on, plan for it, and practice writing about it.