The challenges of science blogging for established professors and young PhD students.
Whether you’re a PhD student or an established professor, being able to communicate your research is an important part of your career development. You will, at some point, have to persuade that funding body to give you some money, or that supervisory committee to grant you that PhD. Other times, you might have to work with politicians and the media to help them access your research. All these conversations, whether oral or in writing, require good communication skills.
Many of these will be done in a written format and blogging can be a great way to practice those writing skills.
Suzi Gage is writing up her PhD thesis. Three years ago, this was a gargantuan challenge that she was unsure of how to tackle. To prepare, she started blogging. “I really feel like the blogging has helped so much. When I sit down at a blank page, I know that I can write 1000 words. They might not be good words, but I know that I can turn them into something better.” Now she’s a well-established, award-winning science blogger, writing about epidemiology on Sifting the evidence, hosted by the Guardian.
Professor Jon Butterworth is an established experimental physicist, splitting his time between the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and teaching at UCL. He blogs at Life and physics, also hosted by the Guardian. “We wanted to share the excitement of the thing [LHC].”
Science blogging challenges for young scientists
Your audience could include fellow students, potential employers and your supervisors. Therefore, think carefully about how you portray and express yourself, “particularly if you’re blogging under your own name,” says Suzi. There is a fine line between voicing your opinion and becoming a trouble maker, so it’s worth understanding where that line is. Our advice: don’t cross it.
“My blogs came under a lot of attention from those who disagreed with what I was saying… everything I said I had to back up,” says Suzi. This is the case for anyone who is blogging about science, really, but it’s especially true for young scientists as they don’t have a decade-long research career and reputation to back them up. Do your research, interview scientists in the field and be 100% positive that what you are saying is correct, or can be backed up if it is opinion.
Suzi is fortunate in that she has had supportive bosses who understand and agree with what she is doing. “But I don’t take the micky,” she says. As a young scientist, your priority should be your research, so don’t let your hobby take over. Suzi suggests combining the two: if you have to read a paper for your literature review, why not write up a lay summary for it at the same time? This is a good test to see if you have really understood it: if your audiences understand what you’ve written, you’re off to a flying start.
Are your science communication efforts a hobby, or are they something more? “This is a question that might come up in a job interview,” says Jon, and one that you should be prepared to answer. If you’re interviewing for a postdoc position, make sure that your potential employer understands that this is a hobby, that you’re organised and that your blogging won’t interfere with your work. If it isn’t a hobby, and you’re considering becoming a journalist, think carefully about applying for a postdoc, it might not be the right thing for you.
“Two heads are better than one.” Wise words that apply to science blogging (as well as many other things!) When you run dry on ideas, or you’re not sure if one will work, use a friend or colleague as a sounding board. They’ll be able to help you think through your ideas, or maybe even give you new ones. It’s always useful to get another set of eyes on your work, just to check for grammatical and spelling errors.
“If you don’t think you have time to do a blog entirely by yourself….” approach a network that is already on the go, says Suzi. “That’s a great way to practice writing and see if it’s the kind of thing that you want to do,” she says. Setting up a blog for your lab can also be an option. “You don’t just have to cover the science, you can also talk about the PhD life.” Some good examples are The Mental Elf (mental health research, policy and guidance), Speakers of Science (science communication), Naturejobs (science careers), Climate Snack (environmental science) and others.
Science blogging challenges for an established scientist
The audience of an established researcher will be mixed. It might include your students and others that work for you, colleagues or “directors of labs in the US and Switzerland, leaders in the field and within government departments,” says Jon. They will each be judging your written words with their role in mind. You can never keep everyone happy, but try not to upset the same group of people two posts in a row!
What you say not only affects you, but it could also impact on your colleagues, policy, funding bodies and research decisions. Consider what you write, and how you write it, very carefully. “It does cramp your style a little bit,” says Jon, but don’t let that take all the enjoyment out of it.
Maintain the trust of your colleagues. As a senior scientist, you’ll be privy to meetings and experimental results that are not to be shared with the media. So don’t share them. Simple. If you do, you’ll risk being blacklisted from those meetings. Jon, as a researcher at the LHC, was part of several meetings that discussed confidential results, and he had to make sure that his colleagues trusted him not to spill the beans. “I don’t want to be shut out of the room for those [meetings],” says Jon.
Don’t write a corporate blog, that’s Jon’s advice. Jon feels that a blog is a space where you can express your own personality and views (in a sensible way). If you have to walk a corporate tight-rope, he says it might not be worth it.
“You have a position of influence that you have to be conscious of when you’re writing,” says Jon. Accept your responsibility as a professor and a blogger: be polite, considerate of colleagues and your science, and a nice person!
Have you got any questions for Suzi or Jon? Leave them in the comments below.