The importance of prehistoric PhD research on the radio

September 7, 2020
Susan Greaney

Susan Greaney is an archaeologist in the final stages of completing a PhD at Cardiff University, funded by the AHRC through the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Last year she was chosen as one of only ten BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers. As the 2019 scheme comes to an end and applications are opened to find the New Generation Thinkers of 2021, Sue Greaney reflects on her experience, provides advice and insight for future applicants, and shares her thoughts on the intersection between academic research and public engagement.

(Image above: New Generation Thinkers 2019)

My research was funded on a part-time basis by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which enabled me to take a step back from my career with English Heritage to focus on a big research question that I wanted to tackle.

My PhD research focuses on clusters or groups of Neolithic monuments, which are termed ‘monument complexes’, built between 5,700 and 4,500 years ago in Britain and Ireland. Perhaps the most famous of my case studies is the Stonehenge monument complex. I am looking at how these clusters of monuments emerge and develop over time, including new radiocarbon dating of several sites at Dorchester, Dorset. Part of the project is trying to think about how prehistoric societies were organised, and how power relations might have existed between natural places, landscapes, materials, and different groups of people.

Being part of a GW4 Doctoral Training Entity, the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, has given me access to funding for international conferences, opportunities for placements, provided me with networks and the friendship of PhD students in other disciplines, and useful training courses on topics such as public engagement and digital humanities. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have been able to do my PhD without AHRC funding.

Back in 2018, I spotted the call for applications to the 2019 AHRC BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker scheme. I had heard previous successful applicants on the radio and thought that it would be a fun opportunity to learn more about the world of TV and radio production. Having attended an information session hosted by Cardiff University and open to all GW4 members, I decided to apply – the form itself wasn’t too onerous, and only took a day or so – without having any expectation that I would get beyond the workshop stage.

To my surprise, I was invited to the workshop and was successful – how exciting! At the initial training session I met the other nine successful New Generation Thinkers (NGTs) and over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to take part in the Free Thinking festival at Sage Gateshead, and record several radio programmes, both relating to my PhD research and other aspects of my career. The scheme has been a fantastic opportunity not only to present my research to a wide audience and has led to other opportunities too – both within English Heritage (a talk at Hay festival) and on the radio (appearing on the Radio 4 programme You’re Dead to Me).

If anyone is thinking of applying for the scheme, I’d advise you to just go for it! Even if you don’t get through to the final ten, the workshop is a really interesting day with various people from the AHRC and BBC Radio 3 imparting their knowledge. The programme is a great opportunity to share your research in a more creative and imaginative way than usually possible within a PhD or traditional academic publishing. Although my year as an NGT is now over, I’ve gained contacts and skills that will last a long time, and the link with Radio 3 continues.

As someone who has received public money for my PhD, I think it is incredibly important that my research is made as widely accessible as possible. As a PhD researcher, you can achieve that through traditional means, such as academic conferences, published papers and the PhD itself. But there is an interested, intelligent, and engaged ‘public’ out there who would love to find out more about your research too, however niche you might feel your research topic is. Public engagement can often be a ‘tick-box’ exercise, but it really is the core reason why we spend 3–4 years researching something. Whether you are researching Cuban music, the history of coal mining, silent films or Neolithic monuments – other people out there are interested! Learning how to make your research relevant and accessible to others is a key skill, challenging and fun in equal measures. These are skills that can be used in teaching, in media relations, in interviews, in public presentations and in writing – once learnt, they can serve you for life whether you choose to follow an academic career path or not.