Science communication in grad school: should you or shouldn’t you?

Taking part in education and outreach events: time well spent or a distraction on the way to a thesis?

Science communication in graduate school: time well spent or a distraction on the way to a thesis?

Spoiler alert: I am going to try to persuade you that all graduate students should engage in science communication.  In fact, our Freshwater Ecology & Conservation lab – made up of 3 master’s and 2 PhD students, 1 post-doc, 1 research scientist, and 1 early career professor – wrote a hot-off-the-press journal article in Conservation Biology about how graduate students can (and should) do science communication. But we know that grad students don’t have time to read any more papers, so a “Cliff Notes” version seemed in order.

If you are reading this blog, you may know something about science communication, by which I mean (very generally) talking about research to audiences other than scientists. Maybe you even have an opinion about it, something like “I wish I knew how to do that better”, or “If only I wasn’t so busy”. Or maybe you already dislike this post, because “I’m still learning how to DO science – I’ll figure out communicating it later!”

For students and their advisors, all of these are completely rational (and widespread) opinions. Graduate school is an incredibly intense period when students – often funded by public dollars – are not only supposed to immerse themselves in learning to conduct research but also produce useful scientific products along the way.

Understandably, science communication could be seen as just one more distraction between a student and their thesis.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

The Science News Cycle from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Here’s the rub. At some point graduate students grow up and are expected to be scientists who can talk about research to the public, journalists, and policymakers, and these skills aren’t acquired while running assays, downscaling models, or even presenting at conferences and publishing in journals.

Part of the reason our lab was collectively inspired and motivated to write this article is that when we dipped our toes into the pool of science communication, sometimes we came out soaked. And if it was happening to us, it was happening to other students. So we set out to combine our collective experience (often struggles) in learning to communicate our own research broadly with trends in graduate education and science communication literature.  Since this is the Cliff Notes version, I’ll summarize three of our major points:

  • Science communication is worth making time for during grad school, but not out of a sense of duty to society. In fact, we illustrate that a large portion of the benefits fall to scientists: students benefit professionally and personally, advisors benefit from increased attention to lab research, and science as a whole benefits by promoting conversations about research with diverse stakeholders.

    Training in science communication through Harvard University: one of several training opportunities for graduate students

    ComSciCon: Science communication training through Harvard University – one of several opportunities for graduate students reviewed in Kuehne et al. (2014)

  • You can do-it-yourself. Ideally, universities and departments will support students in learning science communication through classes, workshops, and scholarships (i.e., incentives). But regardless of institutional support, students can capture a majority of the benefits of science communication by using widely available and often free tools, taking advantage of existing training opportunities, and partnering with educational organizations.
  • Make a plan. Science communication can add some serious dimensions to your resume, but this will be easier and far less time consuming if you and your advisor set some basic goals at the outset of graduate school. In the article, we literally provide a map for students to incorporate science communication into their graduate timelines and (if needed) get their advisor on board. Feel free to copy and paste this into thesis proposals!
Planning science communication activities into a graduate timeline can take a lot of uncertainty out of the process for students and advisors

From Kuehne et al. 2014 (Figure 1): Planning science communication activities and investment into graduate timelines can take a lot of uncertainty out of the process for students and advisors

Our overarching goal was to empower more students to overcome barriers and incorporate broad science communication into any graduate timeline. Toward that end, we tried to develop a practical and flexible strategy for students to learn to communicate their research more easily (hence the title: “Practical Science Communication Strategies for Graduate Students”). Not only will your family finally understand what you do and why, but we hope that this will help encourage the broader cultural shift that is under way toward better communication of scientific research to the stakeholders, policymakers, and public who fund and use the information.

Click here to access the article at Conservation Biology, and of course, comments, feedback and opinions welcome!

6 thoughts on “Science communication in grad school: should you or shouldn’t you?

  1. Delighted to see this post! I work with scientists (at all career stages) and nonprofits to communicate about science and sustainability, and the lack of communication training for student-scientists is a major hurdle my collaborators and I encounter repeatedly. In addition to the suggestions you’ve provided, I’d like to encourage folks to check out a multi-media science communication workshop I’m co-organizing for ESA 2014 (Beyond the written word – advancing ecology communication through multimedia: I also maintain an “EcoComm” blog ( that offers science communication tips, with an emphasis on visual communication. Feel free to check it out, chime in, and offer ideas for future posts.

    • Thanks for your comments – the communication workshop at ESA sounds great and exactly the kind of training opportunity needed! One thing that has changed for me as our lab put together this article is that rather than thinking of science communication as a problem (with a “solution”), that we are in the midst of a cultural shift where science communication is becoming a more natural part of research. Conferences are such a great place to start and maintain those kinds of conversations among scientists.

      • I totally agree, Lauren. The shift toward viewing communication (within and beyond academia) as a natural part of doing science is a cultural transition. There will be countless ways in which people contribute to the transition, and it probably won’t happen overnight. However, the more often those of us who do science communication talk about it with those who might, the more “normal” the whole concept/action will become. I do think “normalcy” is a key component, and the sooner we reach a critical mass of folks who think “well, of course” and “why not?” the sooner the folks around us will, too.

  2. Science communication is vital, I’m glad you’ve taken a firm stance on this subject. In my grad program science communication was a core element of everything we did. There was a policy that for any scientific article or bit of research we did we also had to write a public article. We also spent quite a bit of time learning proposer public speaking techniques. The writing and public speaking have served me very well post grad school, probably at least as well as the more “academic” portions have.

    • Thanks for the feedback – that’s what members of our lab have found as well. The policy of doing a public article alongside scientific publications is a great idea, especially since it adds such a small amount of time relative to the huge amount invested in a journal article.

  3. Hi Lauren — I am teaching a course in the fall and would love to have my students read your article, but it looks like it isn’t posted set (still in the early view stage). Any chance you could share a version? Thanks!

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