Jean Branan and Madeline McCurry-Schmidt are the authors of this blogpost, which turns the spotlight on communication skills for scientists and introduces a wealth of useful resources. This is particularly timely, after our Piirus recent survey results identified the difficulties of communication when making interdisciplinary connections.
In the Career & Postdoctoral Services Office at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), we’ve heard recruiters and hiring managers say they see a lot of brilliant scientists, but what makes job candidates especially appealing are “soft skills”—such as the ability to communicate effectively.
Boosting communications skills means researchers will be more comfortable communicating their findings at conferences or even through the media.
Becoming an effective communicator can also open up job opportunities for scientists interested in stepping away from the bench. Careers such as community outreach, science writing, policy, government and consulting rely heavily on the ability to communicate effectively.
Learn the skills
Some people seem like natural communicators, but communicating is a skill rather than an innate trait, and it can be learned. The TSRI Career & Postdoctoral Services Office has offered a “Networking for Success” workshop that gives tips on how to turn small talk into meaningful conversation and how to share science via an “elevator pitch”; participants then practice giving their elevator pitch to both a non-scientist/lay person and a colleague/fellow scientist.
We’ve also brought experts, such as physicist and engineer turned communications specialist Jean-luc Doumont, to campus to teach presentation, poster, media interview and other communication skills (see presentation tips and interview pointers.)
Your own campus or company might offer similar workshops. If there aren’t any in place, you could see if someone from your public affairs office—or a scientific society you belong to—would meet with your group to share tips.
Find a “safe space” to practice
Our neighbourhood in San Diego is home to thousands of early career scientists who want to practice their skills, so the Society of Fellows at TSRI has begun hosting “Postdoc Open Mic Nights,” where scientists can practice giving “lightning” talks at a local happy hour hot spot. Talks are judged by local bio/pharma companies, which adds a networking component to the gathering.
Other recent events have included an ImprovScience workshop, in which scientists practise telling stories and playing improve “games” to help get comfortable speaking in front of a large group and answering audience questions.
You could try starting a tradition of “Lightning Talks” at your own lab meetings or study groups. There are also some great community outlets, such as Ignite or Toastmasters, which welcome anyone to practice speaking in a supportive environment.
Maybe public speaking isn’t your thing. Instead, you could improve your writing or poster-designing skills to better convey your science. Here’s a great article with design ideas you can try for your next poster.
Science communication takes some practice, but it’s critical when presenting research—or job searching!
About the authors:
Jean Branan is the Career & Postdoc Services Programme Coordinator for The Scripps Research Institute, where she provides professional development training and career planning assistance to TSRI scholars. She also produces video interviews with early career scientists.
Madeline McCurry-Schmidt is a science writer and media liaison at The Scripps Research Institute. She writes press releases, manages social media, edits videos and frequently interviews researchers. Learn more at scripps.edu.
Many thanks to the guest authors!