At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Heather Doran is a final year PhD student in molecular pharmacology at the University of Aberdeen. She is also the founder and editor of Au Science Mag (http://ausm.org.uk), Skeptics in the Pub organiser, science busker and blogger (http://sciencehastheanswer.blogspot.com). She is supposed to be writing her thesis at the minute. When she gets distracted then she is mostly found on twitter @hapsci
To say that the job market for new PhD graduates is tough is a bit of an understatement. As a new researcher, if you can’t explain why you are useful and what the point of your research is, unfortunately you might find yourself at the bottom of the jobs and grants pile.
If you think about it, a career in science is based on communication; presenting at conferences, writing grants and writing papers. However, the PhD process as it stands doesn’t push students to spend time developing their science communication skills. Yes, there are opportunities to present at internal seminars, and at the odd conference, but for some these can be something that only happens once or twice in the whole PhD process. And often, the relevant feedback about how to improve presenting style is not offered. Students are left to fend for themselves, and figure it out on their own.
My PhD demands that I spend a certain amount of time developing ‘skills’ and I have to state on my monitoring forms what I have done to develop them in the past 6 months. That’s the official line, but I am not sure that anyone has been denied a PhD because they didn’t fill in this box. There’s a big temptation to concentrate only on generating data.
In this extremely competitive field, failing to develop your skills may leave you at a disadvantage. There are many ways that PhD students can learn, practise and develop communication skills. Some might even open doors for a post-doc and employment.
Many universities offer ‘generic skills based’ courses covering things like presenting skills, and how to work with incredibly large documents like theses. These are, as the name suggests, quite generic but can be incredibly useful as a background in basic skills. I am lucky – the University of Aberdeen offers a range of great courses including, ‘working with the media and science communication’ specific skills training. I attended some of these training sessions very early on during my PhD and they were a great foot in the door to all the science communication events and projects that come out of the University of Aberdeen. The combination of courses helped me learn how best I can talk about my work to the media, to the public and even to other scientists.
An important thing to mention here is that learning to communicate your science well to others outside of your field can really help improve how you communicate your science with your peers and supervisors. Also, not everyone you apply to for grant money is necessarily an expert in your field, so this ability to change your communication style according to audience may be an even greater advantage.
Although the training was useful, I have learnt far more from actually taking part in science communication events. I would urge anyone not only to attend ‘training’, but to put it into practice. One particularly useful learning experience was a ‘meet the researcher’ set up. It was absolutely terrifying; I had 15 minutes to talk about my PhD project to anyone who wanted to walk through the door. That really tested my ability to communicate scientific concepts to adults from a range of backgrounds, on the spot.
I also see that many of the research councils in the UK offer specific communication training, and even placements, to PhD students they fund. These look great, but unfortunately they aren’t open to everyone.
If your university doesn’t offer specific training, and you aren’t with the right funding body, fear not, there are still other options. One event I took part in during my PhD was the Biotechnology Yes competition. Slightly odd name – fantastic concept. Running once a year, it is open to any PhD or post-doc student. There are no restrictions on funding bodies, you just have to work in the biosciences. There is also Engineering YES, Digital Economy YES, Sustainability YES and Environment Yes, which are open to other disciplines. They are free and run regionally; that makes them easy to attend and minimises the time you are away from your PhD.
The whole point of the ‘YES’ competitions is to make early stage researchers think about the commercialisation of science and research. This isn’t training where you get to sit around and eat sandwiches. You invent a business idea, get two days of super-intensive training on everything from presenting to financing and then pitch your idea to the “dragons”, who are pretty fiery.
Don’t think this is just for people who are keen to start their own spin-out company. All scientists need to pitch their ideas for grants, manage budgets and then communicate the outcomes of their projects at the end. Every single one of the skills that are taught within the two days can be directly related to a science career.
By far the best thing about the two days is the people you meet who act as the ‘mentors’. They offer advice, criticise and praise your ‘business idea’ and like to have a good chat. Many of them are local ex-PhD students that have gone on to do everything from patent law, to marketing, to being the director of their own company; you suddenly realise the wide range of opportunities available to PhD graduates.
There’s only one requirement for attending Biotechnology Yes, you need a team of at least 4/5 people. Which was our biggest challenge. Plenty of people wanted to take part, but when they approached supervisors they were met with a stern “No, why on earth would you want to do that?”
And that brings me on to my final point: when do you find the time to do this training during your PhD? And what do you do if your supervisor pooh-poohs any suggestions of you leaving your university building?
In the end, you have to take charge and manage your own career, PhD project and time. It’s too easy to let supervisors say no and let PhD work take over. You can’t do ALL the training – it’s up to you to think about where your strengths and weaknesses are and what training would help you the most. You still need to complete your PhD too, so try to plan and to take training when you will be least busy (possibly in your first year). Don’t try and convince your supervisor to let you do something when you are in the middle of a large study. As a last resort, as a PhD student in the UK you do receive a very large holiday allowance, so although not ideal, you could always use some of that time as training time.
Lastly, if you find you want to develop certain science communication skills, the Internet can be a great resource for training materials and allow you to share and practise your skills via written, video and/or audio blogging. Set something up yourself, or get involved with student societies (like Au Science Mag).
Remember, it’s you that is going to be applying for post-docs and jobs at the end of your PhD, not your supervisor.