Science Communication in Academia – what’s expected outside of writing papers?

By Sinduya Krishnarajah

Postdoctoral Scientist, Becher lab

Illustration by Anne-Gaëlle Goubet for SYIS

Almost 5 years ago to the day, I landed in Zurich for a week of interviews with fellow Life Scientists hunting for PhD positions. I checked onto the return flight with a wide grin that I couldn’t wipe off my face for several days; an outward display of the mix of excitement and anticipation I was feeling as I’d secured a position at the University of Zurich. Fast-forward to the present: I now have an extra degree, a pocketful of co-authorships and a newfound addiction to coffee, all of which are stacked up against a ticking timebomb: my remaining days in the lab. Suddenly, the comfort blanket that I was clutching onto since I was 18, which took on the form of the omnipresent student label on my swipe-card, was being ripped away from me. In what’s usually a short time period following the defence of a doctoral thesis, we’re expected to simultaneously decide what we want to do next (Stay in academia? Move to industry? Stay in science at all? Or screw it all and go on a much-needed recovery cruise around the world?!) and find a suitable career opportunity that fits the mould.

After interacting with many of my peers currently in the same shoes, it is evident that doctorate trainees can easily get trapped into thinking solely about their scientific output whilst completing their degrees, and conveniently shelve away any thoughts about the upcoming life post-PhD. One must wonder: can we break this cycle, and ease the burden of the professional decisions that are inevitably waiting at the end of our doctorate training?  Can we build and arm ourselves with the tools needed to aid the decision process – especially when one is unsure about a future in academia?

One such tool that I would like to discuss here is effective communication. Young trainees are told over and over again how vital this particular skill is in the scientific world. Academic training is built on a combination of oral and written communication skills; after all, lab meetings, poster presentations and conference talks are juxtaposed with progress reports, research articles and grant writing. This is very unique in comparison to most other vocational trainings, where such formalities are few and far between. It’s fair to say that as a result, communication should be one of our strongest assets as scientists. Yet, young trainees agree that the academic communication skills that we pick up during a PhD often feel near-inadequate in the real world.

Most scientists focus on tuning their ‘formal’ communication skills and as a result, we end up with a lack of self-confidence around the softer, more informal communication skills needed to secure a solid network and impress hiring managers. As a student you learn to write the best manuscripts or prepare the most polished talks, all generated after several never-ending rounds of drafts and practice cycles. When one leaves the lab though, you don’t get to draft every conversation; yet the pressure to get it perfectly right remains imprinted in our psyches. To add to all this, scientists are taught to be careful with our communications. “Keep your findings close to your chest – do you want to be scooped?!”. But in order to build a network, and to successfully impress potential employers, one must actively share their work, their achievements, their success, in order to stand out and be considered.

Thus, throughout our time at university, it is imperative to start building on those soft communication skills from the get-go. Many of us aren’t comfortable yet to make a loud bang out there, but there are some subtler ways to create a powerful network over the PhD years and make a stand amongst senior peers. Where active communication, with a coffee in hand at in-person congresses, can be anxiety-inducing, there are ways to build up to that.

Polish your LinkedIn page – you probably don’t realise how many hiring managers come across your profile, even if you don’t mean to be visible. Adding some basic information to your profile, including a photograph and an updated CV, can already make a profile stand out amongst hundreds. Of course, academic socialising is now synonymous with being active on the Twitter-verse. Create yourself a profile and follow the key opinion leaders in your research area as well as high-impact journals. In a follow-up second blog post, we’ll focus on all the tips and tricks to make one’s social media presence truly impactful, and recommend all the right pages to follow.

Interactive societies such as the SYIS are extremely useful. This is an easy, affordable way to be, at the very least, a passive member of a large network of like-minded individuals. Through us, you can meet new people, share ideas, and participate in a wide range of activities that suit your individual style – whether it’s more formal scientific events, or informal social ones. It’s a no-brainer, really – you can only win from joining us, or any other large network with a similar scope. Such societies keep all their members updated without the need for active participation from them, via social media platforms or newsletters. You’re then free to pick and choose the events that suit you best to get started. Without sounding too Swiss-centric, similar opportunities are available throughout the globe, especially in these post-COVID times where digital interactions have become the norm.

However, do not let any potential financial barriers get in the way of your networking opportunities! Such struggles are widespread in academia, as no one needs to be reminded about scientific trainees being underpaid, overworked and stretched to make ends meets. Most societies are mindful of this and therefore set their fees in accordance. However, in case any of these fees are out of your scope, simply reaching out to these networks and describing your situation can pave the way to find a simple solution that fits everyone. I have done so myself in the past, especially when I was a Masters’ student with zero income and compulsory student fees to pay, or at the beginning of my PhD with little financial flexibility as a result of moving to a new country.

Whichever strategy you go for, always remember that only those of us that manage to actively communicate and showcase our accomplishments are recognised by our colleagues, especially in a growing world with more and more graduates flooding the job market on a near-daily basis. Being mindful of this fact will help boost your personal network to further any early career opportunities post-graduation. Good luck with incorporating these tips to build on your communication skills!

LinkedIn: sinduya-krishnarajah

Twitter: @Sindu_krishn

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