By Chandrika Nair, contributor
As a PhD student myself, I know too well that taking ‘time out’ from your research to gain so-called soft skills like communication might feel like an unwanted distraction, or a waste of time. Which was why I turned up to listen to Robert Winston – medical doctor, scientist, and science communicator – address PhD students at Imperial College London last week, where he strongly advised us to brush up on our storytelling skills.
Better science communication means better papers.
During the talk, Winston pointed out that storytelling is a powerful and innate communication tool.“We’ve been telling stories around campfires since the early days of human evolution,” he said, and scientists need to take that tool and apply it to their research. In order to publish in top journals, we must get the narrative right. Leading them through the story, we first convince readers and editors that the rationale behind our work is sound. Then, we strive to remain intelligible as we walk them through how we obtained our data. Finally and crucially, we persuade them that our results are relevant and that our research was worth doing at all. So stories matter, even in science.
Science ‘miscommunication’ is dangerous.
Winston went on to make another compelling argument for why scientists should care about science communication. Using a series of stories (of course) he showed how science does not happen in a vacuum, and that science and society are often inter-dependent. When communication breaks down, the consequences are often serious. For example, in the 1800s, proponents of the eugenics movements in Europe and North America seized on Charles Darwin’s findings and misappropriated the notion of “survival of the fittest” to promote racist ideologies.
In terms of what this story means for present day scientists, it could be that we have a social responsibility to be involved in how our data is used. We should care about how evidence is used by politicians or portrayed by the media. If anything, we should do this because our careers and reputations could depend on it.
Winston also pointed out that scientists can be guilty of science miscommunication themselves. He used the human genome project (HGP) as an example of why scientists shouldn’t make unrealistic promises about the impact of their work – many members of the public do not feel that the sequenced genome has delivered the medical breakthroughs they were led to expect.
Disillusion resulting from scientific hype is dangerous, Winston said. It can lead to public distrust of scientific data as a whole. And since public opinion informs the decisions of politicians, it is not unreasonable to fear that publicly-funded research and careers could suffer as a result.
Then there’s another big reason why acquiring great communication skills is never a waste of time, probably the reason most pressing to those of us about to finish our PhD…
Communication skills boost your employability
Up to now, my progression at university from undergraduate to PhD has relied on measurable results like grades, presentations or publications. Therefore, on job application forms, I’m always tempted to market myself with a relatively objective and verifiable description, like ‘hardworking’.
Sadly, evidence suggests that listing this as a top skill can make you come across as too academically focused, which was one of the major concerns of recruiting employers surveyed by Leeds University.
While a strong work ethic clearly holds some currency in the work marketplace, another study conducted last year by Australian researchers suggests the attribute most widely sought after by employers in PhD graduates is actually effective communication skills.
Happily, there are resources in place for scientists to get a taste for communicating. Media fellowships for scientists, for instance the fellowship run by the British Science Association, are a great place to start, and the Royal Society offers a parliamentary pairing scheme where scientists can experience science policy in action. Science blogging is an easy way to improve written communication skills without straying too far away from your comfort zone , as is writing for your university newspaper. Check out the Naturejobs Career Expo programme too for our forthcoming panel session on science communication, where you can seek advice for those who have already been there.
Chandrika Nair is in the final year of her PhD at Imperial College London, and is one of the winners of the Nature careers columnist competition. Keep an eye out for Chandrika’s work here on the blog and in the Careers pages of Nature magazine.