First impressions – describe yourself and your research in 5 words

What would you say to someone you have just met in order to attract their attention and make them want to know more about you? The rules are simple – talk about yourself and your research without being too specific and going into complex terminology and concepts; do that in five words or phrases; you have three minutes to capture their interest; go…

I was given this task as part of a workshop on Networking, which I have to say was eye-opening a great deal.  My immediate thought was ‘Oh, this is easy, I can talk about myself and my research plenty!’. Well, it didn’t turn out to be the case. Narrowing down my personality as a researcher, my thesis topic and interests into five phrases was quite a struggle. I was unsure as to what to include, how specific to be and how much information to give so I changed my list several times, especially with the idea of meeting the interest of a lay person rather than a specialist in my area, because networking is about making connections will all sorts of people who are not necessarily in the immediate field. Yes, this includes other researchers, teaching staff, administrative staff, you name it. Taken out of academia and conferences, networking in my case also means communicating with teachers, senior staff and non-teaching staff in schools – people who will not be familiar with the nitty-gritty of my research topic and my fancy terminology.

Going back to my five phrases, here’s what the first try looked like:

  • educational researcher
  • English as an additional language (EAL)
  • primary – secondary transition
  • research assistant on school improvement projects

I did feel a bit frustrated with what I wrote. First of all, I didn’t even manage to come up with five phrases. Secondly, it seems very dry and descriptive and thirdly, if I was that other person, I am not sure I would have been interested. I think I failed in making that punchy first impression, that catch of attention and interest which was actually the goal. At the same time I was stating plain facts and actually reciting my CV.

[several minutes of editing and thinking, thinking, thinking…]

I came up with a final version to read out loud to the group and I felt this list was more attractive and juicy (I think):

  • teacher, researcher, practitioner
  • children learning English
  • creative research methods
  • educational change
  • school improvement

I managed to capture the essence of myself and my research in a very simple and accessible way with just 5 phrases or 13 words. Yet, it seems to say a lot in a much more engaging way. From describing myself as an educational researcher I opted for teacher, researcher, practitioner and this does show an awful lot more about my skills – I am not just trained to do research, I can do other practical and useful things! In terms of my research, the final version felt much more clear about what I do rather than relying on terms that are self-explanatory to me but not to others. For instance, my love for ‘EAL’ is beyond me, I use this abbreviation all the time and frankly, I have started to expect people to understand what I mean by it and to be able to distinguish it from English as a second language (ESL). Of course, this is a whole other post on itself, so I’m not going there right now. Substituting EAL with children learning English was a choice to make the field of my research more accessible and to avoid the EAL / ESL differentiation. It also helped me to step back from my comfort EAL zone and find a different way to describe it while still conveying the message. I also put a point about my methodological approach as I am really proud with being creative and trying to tweak existing research strategies to fit the specific purposes of my research. And lastly, I dropped my research assistant work, it is not the position that matters but what it is that I do and what I care about, which is well portrayed by the last two points – educational change and school improvement.

Thinking back, I really found the exercise useful. It made me reflect on what I want to say and how to say it, which is neither easy nor straightforward with a 3 minute countdown. However, practice is the key, I’ll let this settle and try again in a few weeks time.

To bounce off the challenge, what would your 5 words/phrases be?

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One comment

  1. I can totally relate! I attended this session nearly a year ago and I’m still finding myself constantly adapting my ‘key words’, which is an interesting process. The more my understanding grows about my research the clearer my ‘key words’ becoming – but in a backwards sense! There are key words that I’m finding myself go “Nah, that’s not really me now!” and other words that are becoming “Hey, that’s more like it”. Great post, and would be interesting to read about your thoughts on this a few months down the road!

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