Careers and Communication: My top 5 takeaways from the ComSciCon Conference 2014

Out of the classroom and into the field! Summer is all about learning in unexpected settings and in new ways.

ComSciCon, at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge, Mass.

ComSciCon, a science communication conference at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge, Mass.

Hi! I’m Amy– a grad student in Dr. Josh Drew’s research group here in Columbia’s E3B Department. My research focuses on the diversity of coral reef fish in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. I’m interested in how these fishes have evolved, and how they have migrated over generations to populate the reefs they now call home.

Lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about science communication– how do we as a community share our research with a broader audience to increase enthusiasm (and funding) for science? And moreover, for the 9 out of 10 graduates who won’t find a tenure track job in academia, how do we parlay our salmagundi of skills into employment?

The majority of the year, I’m right here in New York, tackling the beast known as thesis research, quietly repressing thoughts of my next career move. But summer is a special time. It frees up a few weeks to mix up the normal routine, get out of town, and pursue new ideas in far-flung locales.

So, spicing up my summer work regimen, I headed to exotic Cambridge Massachusetts last week for ComSciCon 2014 –a conference all about communicating science! Over four full days, 50 graduate students met for a series of workshops on the effective communication of science to non-scientist audiences.

This conference is centered on a series of interactive panels, where policy makers, journalists, and academic research scientists discuss the state of science communication today. Central questions included: How is science portrayed differently to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, or to the general public, than it is to graduate students or research scientists? How do scientists perceive STEM, and are we effectively communicating our vision to broader audiences?

While we talked about communicating science, we also talked about working in science. And after each panel, I schmoozed; I dug; I generally begged for advice. Here is what I found– my top 5 insights from ComSciCon 2014:

 A graduate degree is not a silver bullet

Duh. These days credentials aren’t enough– your experience, skill set, and network matter tremendously too (more on this in a moment). But for students in the STEM fields, that realization comes as a particularly painful slap in the face. We used to have it good, man– a grad degree once translated to relative job security– but alas, no more. Now, at best, 1 in 10 PhDs will find a tenured professorship, and unfortunately, there isn’t a textbook on the way forward for everyone else.

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Outside of the ivory tower, career paths are numerous and decentralized. That well trodden pathway of PhD à post doc (or three) à assistant professor à tenure forever (!?) is actually quite unusual in it’s linear clarity.

A few universities are responding by creating graduate career counseling offices– previously unheard of in academia (Check out UC Berkeley’s Beyond Academia for one example). Resources for non-academic job placement are certainly growing as academic positions dwindle, but clearly outlined stepping stones to alternative careers are still a long way off.

 Networking is (almost) everything

So, there’s no silver bullet. Bummer.

But, after schmoozing ComSciCon panelists (ostensibly very successful people) around the hors d’oeuvres for four days straight, I did come away with one majorly helpful realization: the common denominator between all these employed people is a kickass network.

Panelists overwhelmingly cited networking and luck as the major factors that helped them get their start. And that makes sense doesn’t it? Graduate students are (for the most part) smart and driven. So what sets you apart in a sea of ambitious smarties, all looking for similar jobs? Leveraging a pre-established connection to someone on the inside, that’s what.

The beauty of a conference is the people you meet and the network you build.

That’s a great advantage of grad school too; the ability to attend conferences and workshops that would be unavailable to non-students allows us to build those critical connections now.

 Marketing Matters

IMG_0049Scientists need to stop hiding behind jargon, and learn to communicate science to non-scientists in interesting ways. That’s the whole message of ComSciCon! By and large the people attending this conference already know that.

But herein lies a dilemma. As journalist/ ComSciCon panelist Phil McKenna said, (and as panelist Dietram Scheufele subsequently tweeted), “If you lose the jargon, you lose precision; if you don’t, you lose the audience.”

Is that a real tradeoff? Do we have to sacrifice information quality to make science accessible? I don’t think so. Science communicators shouldn’t sacrifice intellect for buzz. So, especially when challenging technical content is involved, the way we sell science matters tremendously.

If we step out of our labs and communicate, but we do it on blogs that no one reads, or on esoteric sites only known to other scientists, we’re just preaching to the choir. To reach people who don’t traditionally seek out science news, we need to find a means of communicating that retains challenging technical concepts, but shares those ideas in engaging, accessible ways with many, many people.

Unfortunately, ComSciCon didn’t host a panel on the specifics of effective marketing. We established that broadly accessible science communication is important, but didn’t set out actionable next steps.

It’s a pitfall of conferences in general I’d say, that panels based on the exchange of good ideas don’t necessarily translate into actionable steps back home. Because speakers are addressing large and diverse audiences, they tend to focus on somewhat generalized ideas, rather than laying out a protocol to change the field (or the world).

As a biologist, I like protocols. That said, even the most distinguished conference speaker can’t tell you what to do, or how to live your life. So how do we make positive change then? We write. We communicate. We just start, and en masse, find our voices and share them. Lose the jargon (but don’t assume the reader is an idiot) and communicate your research wherever you can.

It’s a process.

Be prepared to struggle. Be prepared to fail. The development of a career is an organic process and takes a looooong time.

Panelists overwhelmingly cited grit, rather than credentials, as key to their success. The tenacity to keep working and failing had carried many through years of career flux and financial insecurity, while they built up the network and experience to land more stable, permanent positions.

UGH, right? The prospect of protracted struggle and failure isn’t pretty, and certainly won’t increase the appeal of STEM outside of academia.

In terms of reach though, it seems that science communicators themselves are accessing broader audiences than ever before. As more and more trained researchers leave the academy, a new crop of science communication outlets has emerged. From quarterly publications like Nautilus to weekly podcasts like Radiolab, science communicators have more fingers in the pie than ever before.

Hopefully this means that if we continue to work together on smaller projects in the short term, there will be more large-scale opportunities in the long term.

Invest in the hours of your life, not in the idea of what you want to become.

Don’t get me wrong– it’s important to have long-term goals. Treat them as the cardinal directions on which you set the compass of your life. But then, rather than asking, “What do I want to end up doing?” ask, “What do I want to try next?” and “How can I put myself in a position to do that?”

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All photos A. McDermott

If you invest in the moment and pursue the things you can’t help doing, you’re apt to take the inevitable challenges in stride, and to keep pushing through those early knee scrapes.

Not everyone has the privilege to do what he or she loves (financial security be damned), but if you are one of the lucky few with the opportunity to chase a not-so-lucrative passion, capitalize on that luck. Use it to build a more scientifically literate society. Use it to increase interest in science. Use it to build the foundations of a more diverse future in STEM!

–Amy McDermott

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