Students + Campus

Straight talk: Doctoral students learn to connect with mainstream audiences

UCLA's new Dissertation Launchpad teaches students to communicate their complex research in ways the rest of us can understand

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Veronica Yan
Paul Connor/UCLA

Cognitive psychology doctoral student Veronica Yan at the Dissertation Launchpad Showcase.

Had you asked UCLA cognitive psychology doctoral student Veronica Yan a few months ago about her dissertation research, she likely would have told you about metacognition, enhancing self-regulated category learning and other dizzying concepts that would leave you more mystified than edified.

But at a presentation she made last month, Yan wowed hundreds of academics and non-academics packed into the California NanoSystems Institute auditorium with an eight-minute, jargon-free, straightforward talk about her research on how people do some of their best learning when learning is a struggle.

In fact, the audience voted her talk one of the best of the evening’s 10 presentations made by Ph.D. candidates who were all practicing their newfound skill — communicating to a mainstream audience.

Yan and her fellow presenters, all of whom are close to completing their dissertations, credit their new ability to speak plainly about complex ideas to the new Dissertation Launchpad Program. Inaugurated last quarter in the Division of Social Sciences in the College of Letters and Science, the program was conceived and led by Dean Alessandro Duranti, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, in partnership with Associate Dean for Research and Innovation James Stigler, a professor of psychology.

Meeting every Thursday evening over 10 weeks, the students gathered with their teachers over sandwiches and coffee in Murphy Hall to talk, listen, challenge and encourage one another to find ways, as Duranti put it, “to talk to the world in a language the world understands” about the importance of their work.

“We want to make graduate students bilingual,” said Duranti. “They get plenty of training in the important skills of speaking and writing academically, but the more they learn that, the further they get from the way they should talk with somebody they’re sitting next to on an airplane or at a dinner party. If you’re doing interesting work, you’ve got to be able to talk about it rather than say, ‘Well, just read my book.’”

Proficient communication with a broad audience, Duranti said, can also help bridge the gap for the many Ph.D.s who will go on to non-academic jobs, either by choice or out of necessity. Recent surveys show that only 50-60 percent of newly minted Ph.D.s in the social sciences will land tenure-track faculty posts.

Keziah Conrad, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate specializing in psychological anthropology, did reams of research for "Loving Your Enemies: Subjectivity and Relationship in Mixed-Ethnicity Families in Post-War Bosnia-Herzegovina," based on several years she spent in Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. She worked with organizations that led reconciliation efforts in the aftermath of the bloody “ethnic cleansing” of the 1990s.

“Find your story,” Duranti and Stigler instructed Conrad and her cohorts, a mantra oft repeated by Barbara Seymour Giordano, a professional presentation coach who worked with the students individually. Off campus, Giordano has worked with corporate executives and scientists crafting TEDx talks. On campus, she’s coached students in the Startup UCLA Accelerator, a program for budding entrepreneurs that was launched three years ago by the social sciences division.

“Storytelling,” explained Giordano, “is the oldest form of expression,” breathing life into content and adding an emotional dimension. “We want more people to fall in love with our subject.”

Conrad found her story in recollecting her stinging disappointment at the failure of institutionalized political reconciliation efforts in Bosnia, coupled with her unanticipated discovery of a deeper kind of peacemaking that unfolded in interracial families. In her Launchpad presentation, now titled “The Extraordinary Power of Ordinary Life in Post-War Bosnia,” she shared what she had learned from families creating wholeness by transcending distressing memories and divergent politics — findings that could change the way societies recover from a painful past.

A linguistic and medical anthropology doctoral student, Anna Corwin incorporated personal memories as a 6-year-old visiting her ailing grandmother in a nursing home into her Launchpad talk, “Prayer, Nuns, and the Language of Aging Well.”

“Down the hall …. I heard moans and cries for help,” Corwin recalled. “As I stood staring at her, holding my breath, I could see fear in my grandmother’s eyes. I didn’t want this to happen to my grandmother or anybody I loved.”

Corwin studies how everyday interactions shape the way people experience their lives, in hopes that she can use her expertise to improve the lives of elderly individuals at the end of life. Her dissertation centers on ethnographic studies she did of elderly nuns living in a Midwestern convent whose health and other quality-of-life measures surpass those of many others their age. Corwin has found a link between the nuns’ well-being and the concise ways they word their prayers to engender everything from social support to spiritual sustenance.

“Dissertation Launchpad was a great opportunity that I'm extremely grateful to have participated in. As someone who works on aging and well-being, I am motivated to make my scholarship both accessible and relevant to audiences outside of academia," said Corwin, who, like Yan, was voted by the audience as one of the evening's top three presenters.

“Barbara was tremendously helpful,” Corwin said of her coach. “She is the master of a genre most people have never tried to speak in, and she was extremely dexterous at helping us create and shape stories in this new genre.”

Corwin also extolled the value of working with an interdisciplinary group of scholars. “In graduate school and beyond, we primarily interact with people within our own discipline and even within the subfields of our discipline. Our conversations therefore become more and more highly specialized and sometimes insular,” she said. “Dissertation Launchpad provided the opportunity to hear the questions, ideas and concerns of a group of interested, bright scholars outside my field.”

For Conrad, the anthropology Ph.D. candidate, the class rekindled her excitement about her work. “It  reminded me why I came to graduate school.”

“We produce these really great Ph.D.s. in disciplines where students can become very specialized,” Duranti said. “This is a great strength, but the flipside is that you lose track of the bigger picture in terms of students’ interests in making a better world. This is an opportunity for them to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing and to learn how to communicate it.”

Dissertation Launchpad Showcase videos.

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