“Mohawk? As in the hairstyle!?” – the joys of explaining my PhD to others

Jack Benton, Health and Wellbeing, University of Manchester, 2017 Cohort

As is probably the case for many PhD researchers, I often have to explain to friends, family and strangers what my PhD involves. Now this never goes as smoothly as it should do!

My research is looking at the impact of urban green spaces on physical activity and other behaviours important for our wellbeing, such as social interactions. Essentially, I’m trying to produce stronger evidence of the wellbeing impacts of urban green spaces, which will better inform policy makers and practitioners who are responsible for planning and designing green spaces in our cities and towns.

When I am coerced to talk about my research to family, friends or strangers in a pub, the majority of follow-up comments are positive, such as “Oh yes, we need more green space”, which is great to hear. But it’s the small minority of genuinely intrigued people that tend to ask more probing questions like “OK, but how do you show that green spaces are good for us?”, which is where it gets interesting….

As part of my PhD I have developed a new method for measuring a range of wellbeing behaviours in urban green spaces using observations. Whilst this (kind of) does involve “just standing around in parks all day”, I’d like to think there’s slightly more to it than that.

The idea is that by observing people in urban green spaces, we can quantify the number of people using these spaces, their characteristics (age, gender, ethnicity), and any wellbeing behaviours they may engage in (physical activity, social interactions, taking notice of the environment). As you can imagine, trying to explain this in a crowded pub to a stranger after a few IPAs is quite the task.

Reactions become even more bemused when I finally unveil the quirky name for our method of observation: MOHAWk – which stands for Method for Observation pHysical Activity and Wellbeing. Responses such as “Mohawk? As in the hairstyle!?” or “David Beckham had one of them, didn’t he?” are typical.

In all seriousness though, one important thing I’ve learnt from trying to explain the MOHAWk to ‘non-experts’ is that it is a very visual method and therefore quite hard to describe verbally or on paper. Luckily, I have recently acquired some funding from ESRC NWSSDTP to develop a professional video to help me disseminate the MOHAWk to key stakeholders outside of academia; including policy makers, practitioners and public health professionals. Creating this video will be vital in disseminating the MOHAWk beyond the world of academia.

Explaining what my PhD is about is often a painful process. But explaining my PhD to family, friends and strangers (i.e. so called ‘non-experts’) actually helps me better articulate what my research is all about and can help identify gaps in my thinking. My advice to other PhD researchers would be to keep on telling the world about your research, regardless of how weird and wonderful the reactions may be.

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