This guest post was contributed by Nathan Sanders of ComSciCon, the Communicating Science Conference series for graduate students.
I believe that communication is the single most important skill that scientists need to succeed in their work. While it's not always recognized and valued for its immense importance, it may well be what determines whether you get the job after your next interview or whether your receive the next grant you apply for.
After all, the only value your work will have in the world is the value that you can succeed in communicating. Even the most rigorous, insightful, and novel scientific research will be wasted if you cannot convince others that it is important and relevant to them.
When you think about it, virtually every milestone in a scientist's career is mediated by some kind of communication to another person. In an interview setting, this means persuading an employer that your past work has prepared you to contribute at a high level to their team. When you're writing a grant, this means convincing a committee that your research proposal is the perfect fit to their institutional focus and that you're better equipped than anyone else in the world to do it. In the lab, it might mean persuasively articulating why the results you've measured should change established theory.
So, what can you do to ensure that your skills in science communication will be a positive asset throughout your career?
1. Make sciComm practice a priority
The good news for young scientists is that we all build and develop skill in science communication over time. Like most skills, great science communication comes with practice.
You can bootstrap your science communication skills with training programs, which are increasingly available. But think of this as a jumpstart or a refresher for your skillset rather than a permanent fix.
Treat every interaction in your work as an opportunity to practice communicating. Excellent scientists learn from advisers and other mentors by collaborating as they craft sentences for abstracts and presentation slides, learn from audiences as they do science outreach and engage with the public, and learn from the process of writing papers and proposals.
To get the most out of these interactions, ask yourself how every piece of feedback you receive generalizes. If someone suggests a change to a slide, think about whether the same principle applies to other slides in your deck. If someone asks a question about something they did not understand about your presentation, question whether other aspects of the work you presented may also be unclear.
2. Make the audience your primary focus
When writing a paper or preparing a presentation, it's easy to forget that you have a much bigger job than merely telling your audience about the work you've done. If you want to maximize the impact of your communication, you will also have to explain why the work is important and how it should change how the members of your audience think or act.
To address that 'why' question effectively, you need to make your audience the focus of every sentence you write and step you take. Why does the audience need to know this? How will they react to it - what will it make them think? Does this lead to the conclusions I want them to draw and the perspective I want them to form?
Training in science communication should prepare you to ask and answer these questions for a diverse set of audiences. Every scientist needs to be able to communicate with their colleagues and peers. Scientists also need to be able to communicate to expert audiences in other fields, like when collaborating with colleagues in other fields or writing grant proposals to be reviewed by interdisciplinary panels. And highly successful scientists need to communicate with non-scientists, to establish broader impacts for their work in education and policy and to draw attention and support to work in their field.
It can be hugely beneficial to pose these why questions to yourself, but ultimately there is no substitute for feedback from others. Seek out members of your target audience and ask for their feedback before you complete your work. If you’re giving a public talk, ask a friend who works in a different field to listen to you practice. Ask them what they learned from your presentation and evaluate whether or not you’ve succeeded in communicating the information you intended.
3. Join the sciComm community
Like most aspects of science, communication isn't easy. But the challenge is worthwhile and rewarding. A truly passionate community of scientists has formed around science communication, including the teams at Addgene, ComSciCon, and many more great organizations.
At ComSciCon, our primary mission is to strengthen and support the network of graduate students who are passionate about communicating science. ComSciCon's events have 3 main goals:
- To help graduate students in all STEM fields become excellent science communicators.
- To empower graduate students to become ambassadors for their respective fields.
- To help attendees launch new organizations that will extend opportunities to practice science communication to more graduate students.
Each June, graduate student leaders in science communication from across the US and Canada convene at ComSciCon's annual flagship workshop. Our 2018 workshop took place in Boston - you can revisit the activities of our attendees there online with #comscicon18 and stay tuned to our website and social channels to apply for our future events.
In addition to this annual event, graduate students in different regional and disciplinary communities gather at ComSciCon's local and specialized franchise workshops throughout the year. Find workshops in your area here: https://comscicon.com/. All our events are offered free of charge to accepted students, and we pay for travel expenses to our flagship workshop.
In our view, the best possible outcome of a ComSciCon workshop is the creation of a new science communication initiative that provides yet more scientists with opportunities to practice communicating. Some fantastic K12 education initiatives like BiteScis (https://bitescis.org/) and amazing graduate student writing collaboratives like Oceanbites (https://oceanbites.org/) have already grown out of our workshops.
If you're having trouble finding science communication opportunities in your area, create them. Seek out collaborations with organizations that practice science communication or start your own!
Many thanks to our guest blogger, Nathan Sanders
Nathan Sanders is a co-founder of ComSciCon and Chair of its Leadership Team. Nathan did his PhD in astronomy and works as a data scientist in the entertainment industry.
Additional resources on the Addgene Blog
- Learn about careers in science communication
- The strength of story telling
- Science communication: 9 strategies to get your foot in the door
Resources on Addgene.org
- Check out how Addgene uses videos for science communication