The PhDcasts – Behind the Scenes, Part I

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Ruth and John filming with Graham Riach during season two.

Last year, I was involved in making the Cambridge PhDcasts, with co-producer and tech wizard Ruth Rushworth and presenter John Gallagher. We had enormous fun with our first two seasons, and we have had quite a few questions about how we did it. In this series of three posts, each of us will offer some reflections on making the PhDcasts, our own particular role, and what worked (or didn’t). In this first one, I will say a little about how we got started and what I did in the rather vaguely defined role of ‘producer’.

The idea originated in conversations between John and me about how doctoral students work hard to become experts on fascinating and important topics, but don’t necessarily get many chances to broadcast their research to a wide audience; your thesis is, by the nature of the beast, written for experts. We agreed to do something about this, and decided the best format to try it out would be as podcasts, ideally hosted by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), so we contacted Ruth, then their Communications Officer. Ruth instantly gave us her very enthusiastic support and the benefit of her technical know-how; we quickly became a team of three and we shared many of the assorted jobs. One important early consideration with projects like this, I suppose, is figuring out who you can work with to realise your plans, and we are extremely grateful to CRASSH for helping with and hosting the PhDcasts, as it couldn’t have happened otherwise.

The next step was to find speakers – we settled on six episodes per season, but took different approaches in each. For the first season, we invited students whom one of us had seen talk before; for the second, we issued an open call for speakers, asking them to send us a summary of their project and a short audio or video recording of themselves. There are pros and cons to both approaches. ‘Commissioning’ speakers means you are already somewhat familiar with both them and their material, which can be especially helpful when you are trying out a new concept. An open call, on the other hand, introduced a wider range of disciplines, and it was a real privilege to meet great researchers and hear about their work – and no one was a ‘stranger’ after the first couple of minutes.

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John with season one ‘PhDcasters’ Michelle Wallis and Susan Raich.

After that, what did I actually do as a producer? I took care of admin, although so did John and Ruth, and I joined in the conversations we had with speakers to prepare before filming, but John will say more on that in his post. In the ‘studio’ (a room in CRASSH with deft set-up by Ruth), my job was to watch from off-screen and offer suggestions to guide the conversation, or raise points that were unclear. In our very first session, I interrupted the filming with suggestions, but it quickly became clear that this broke up the flow between John and our interviewee (in this case Simon Abernethy), which was something we wanted to encourage as much as possible. The simple solution was a whiteboard (you can see the set-up in the picture on my ‘about’ page), on which I wrote my comments for John to take note but without actually stopping the discussion. You don’t always need high-tech gadgets… At the end of filming, we sometimes went back over sections or added more, if the speaker or one of us felt it was needed. One luxury of our chosen format was that we could be flexible on time; if there was more to say, we could fit it in. Both during the filming, and when we launched the episodes, I contributed to publicising them – it was while filming season one that I joined twitter, and we also sent the videos to various societies and lists who might be interested. Oh, and I appeared in the short season introductions, and recorded the theme tune.

We were delighted by the response we got, both in viewing numbers (at time of writing, vying for first place on the youtube leaderboard are Mark King and Andy Wimbush with over 1,200 each) and in the comments received, from academics and non-academics, from acquaintances and people we didn’t know before. Other departments in Cambridge picked up on it (1, 2), and we even appeared in the local newspaper. It was particularly gratifying to see some Cambridge colleges use the PhDcasts for admissions, tweeting along the lines of ‘want to know what it’s like to do a doctorate?’ We owe a special thank you to Helen Weinstein, who gave us some very useful pointers after season one, and of course thanks to everyone who shared the episodes online or elsewhere. The one comment we received more than any other after season one, though, was ‘they are too long’; most of the episodes are 30-40 minutes. We chose to ignore this feedback when filming season two, because we wanted to do justice to our speakers’ projects, and I am confident we made the right decision.

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Archaeologist Danika Parikh shows John her trowel, while making season two.

I have one more comment to offer on the whole thing: it requires a lot of enthusiasm, from the speakers (and us!) to give time to it – apart from those who have already appeared in this post, we interviewed Katy Barrett and Alice Blackhurst in season one, and Barbara Cooke, Eleanor Giraud, and Katie Hammond in season two –  and from everyone who responded to it. Ruth deserves special mention because, doing the editing, she put in even more time.  I do not think that can be manufactured or generated if it is not already there, and we were certainly lucky to have so much enthusiasm supporting us. On the other hand, I hope that wherever you have students who care about their research, and about sharing it, enthusiasm shouldn’t be hard to find.

In Part II, John will talk about preparing with the speakers, and his role as presenter.

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