Communicating Science: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Science, and especially the way science is funded, is changing dramatically. A laboratory that produces only esoteric work with results published in esoteric scientific journals will find that funding, attracting new and high quality students, collaborating with other laboratories, and receiving necessary support from the university is far more challenging than in the past. Government and foundation funding agencies want to know the applied applications of nearly all research, no matter how basic. Science communication is now a required activity. However, there is so much energy and expertise concerning science communication that it is overwhelming for graduate students and new scientists to figure out how to allocate their time and resources. Sometimes so much time is spent updating CVs, creating websites, and managing communication that there is little time left for actual research and data generation.

As always, I am not an expert in science communication, but that does not stop me for offering my two cents about what works for me. I am a director of a professional program in school psychology at a large research university. Certainly, some of the strategies will not work in other fields or in more basic science areas.

Tree-Shaped Communication

The communication of thinking, science, implementation, and data produced by the lab is most effectively thought of as a tree-shaped process. The first stage is the trunk and roots of the tree, which serves as the foundation for all communication. The trunk consists of refereed scholarly articles. The roots are the data and theory development upon which ideas are created. Scientific articles that have been peer reviewed begin to form the trunk from which science communication spreads. Without such foundation, communications can be speculative, fictional, aspirational, or otherwise not tethered to any scientific thought. The branches and leaves of the tree spread communication to professionals in your subfield, to related professionals, to policymakers, to thinkers in other fields, to implementing professionals, to the general public. The traditional academic laboratory consists solely of the trunk — although it is a strong foundation, there is no reach beyond the restricted group of dedicated colleagues. Speakers, popular science communicators, talk show hosts, and other communicators may have a broad popular reach; but those communications consist only of the branches and leaves (like a shrub or vine) — a broad reach with an uncertain anchor in science. We all know people who do this and view them as dilatants who have sold their soul, but are still someone envious of their notoriety and bank accounts. As a graduate student or new scientist, this framework allows for strategic use of time and energy to both create a respectable core of knowledge and communicate findings to the most appropriate audiences.

Possessing a framework is only a tool. Every graduate student or young scholar must have a communication goal in mind. For me, that goal is to be respected by my research peers and also have the opportunity to influence the clinical practice in education and psychology. There is a necessary middle ground to occupy between being a dusty tweedy professor writing papers that collect dust and are only read by other people who write papers; and serving as a spray-tanned veneer-smiled consultant and media personality. There are many types of trees in this framework that you can choose to emulate. Some professional goals are more like a lodge pole pine that is tall and narrow; and others are more like an oak tree that is shorter, but spreads far and wide. The tree analogy can work, but you must know what your goals are.

The Trunk

Within the building of a foundation for communication there are a variety of options. Every field in science has narrow journals that focus on a subset of knowledge. Narrow focus journals allow for strong peer review by experts in the field. This level of professional journal most typically serves as the foundational aspects of any research program. These narrow focus journals serve as the core of the trunk of the tree. The next level is the broad journal. These journals have a wider readership and cross into many related areas of study. Most fields have multiple levels of journals. For example, in my field of school psychology there are narrow journals such as the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment and Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation; more broad journals such as School Psychology Review; and very broad journals such as Psychological Bulletin or American Psychologist. Typically, the foundation of a research program begins at narrow journals and works its way out to broad journals as the theoretical implications of data become more mature. Both types of journals are necessary for building the strongest possible roots and trunk of the communication tree.

The Branches and Leaves

Not all research programs are intended for a broad audience. It is helpful to grow from the established trunk of the tree outward to the broad and general audience. Most people in science prefer to stay close to the scientific community (i.e., thick branches). The further the communication spreads to a general audience, the less structure and less control the scientist has (i.e., the leaves).

Professional newsletters/professional organization websites/magazines — Many fields of study have professional newsletters, websites, or related magazines that are widely read in the field, but are not refereed or a primary outlet for scientific results. These outlets may include interviews with scholars, book and paper reviews, and broad descriptions of scientific activities. Such outlets reach a wide professional audience and the editors of newsletters and magazines are familiar with the language of science and your discipline, specifically. Although these outlets tend to have a larger reach than broad refereed journals, they lack professional status. These are excellent communication resources when you want to publicize your research activities within your broader field.

Blogs — The value of blogs varies from field to field. In some areas blogs are often the first repository for new data and new thinking. In other fields of study blogs are used to provide overviews of research. There is no guarantee of size or reach of the readership of a blog. The nature of the readership is difficult to control as well. However, the advantage is that you have complete control of the editorial content and tone of what you wish to communicate. Often referring wide and general audiences to a blog in order to communicate details of research can be valuable.

Social media – Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others provide a general outlet for information. Savvy marketing is necessary to ensure that the audience to whom you wish to communicate is receiving the information. Most often social media serves as an excellent method of interacting with colleagues and the general public. Scholarly connections frequently began as social media communication. These frequently lead to collaborative work and other partnerships.

Public and professional talks — Scientists are often asked to engage in public or professional talks. In my field, school boards/districts and professional organizations need speakers for professional development opportunities for psychologists or teachers. Engaging professionals with the information developed in the research lab and applying it to clinical activities is a difficult skill. However, developing public speaking skills to assist in having your research information communicate to audiences of potential policy makers and implementing professionals is worth the time and energy.

Press — Newspapers are always looking for interesting stories. As such, they frequently interview scholars to receive an expert perspective on their news story or feature a scientist who has made discoveries. Being interviewed for a newspaper reporter story is a difficult skill. Nearly every scientist who is interviewed for a newspaper claims that they have been misquoted or so heavily edited that their primary message did not appear in the final article. An effective reporter or interviewer will ask an open-ended question upon which a scientist will go into a long and rambling explanation, then the interviewer will select components of the long and rambling explanation that fits into the reporter’s narrative. That selected information is what appears in a newspaper article. Although it goes against the nature of most scientists, answer newspaper interviews with short declarative sentences. An interview is not a social conversation. Taking several seconds to articulate a short and simple answer is perfectly acceptable. If your responses are short and on point, then you are unlikely to be misquoted.

Media — Radio and television interviews reach fairly large audiences, but are extremely difficult to do well. The hardest part about television and radio interviews is that everything is in first draft, there is no opportunity to revise an answer once you speak it out loud. This is also a foreign environment where you need to worry about audio and visual equipment, dress and make up, the tone of your voice, camera angles, strict time limits, and other issues that are irrelevant to most scientists. Engaging with television and radio interviews can be nerve-wracking, is a specific skill, and depends in large part on the quality of the people in the media. The major advantage is that you will immediately reach a large number of people in the general population.

All-Purpose Communication

There are other forms of communication of scientific progress that can cover both trunk and branches and leave of the tree framework.

Grant proposals — Although grant proposals are essential to funding core research, many grant proposals are read and evaluated by people who are not area experts in your field of study (I know, weird). In any grant proposal there must be a weaving of deep foundational aspects of the research with broad implications for application and social import. Writing successful grant proposals often requires mastery of both directions of the tree framework.

Website — All labs require a website that communicates the foundation and the reach/scope of the topics studied. The website is used to recruit new students, indicate the importance of the research for the general public, and provide detailed methodology of current projects. Like a blog, the website is the home for interested parties to receive additional information and more communication than they received from the snippet of information in a television interview or newspaper article. All communication requires a reference to the website. The website is as much the home to your laboratory as the physical space of your lab.

Nerd social media — Nerd social media involves repositories and scientist-focused websites such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and related sites. On these sites scientists can search any scholar to view their catalogue of publications and the reach of those publications. Many of these sites have opportunities to interact, share papers and data. Nerd social media is an excellent forum from which to meet and reach collaborators, future research supervisors, and scientific leaders in the field.

Conclusions

Conducting and reporting scientific findings in narrow focused refereed scholarly journals is no longer adequate for any scientist in any field. A communication strategy is required to maximize the reach of a research program and therefore possibilities for funding, recognition, collaboration, and application of science to the larger community. Each graduate student or scientist is now required to develop specific communication skills; whether they are writing for a general audience, public speaking, creating videos, or other methods of communication. Selecting a strategy that fits with scientific and professional goals based on the tree framework of scientific communication is an effective way to create a reputation based on sound scientific principles, yet reach a broad and important audience.

SRShaw

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