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.
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.
- 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!
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!