Sneaky Sneaky Science Skills
All the way through my PhD, I knew I wanted to work in science communication. Yes, I went through various stages of confidence in making that assertion out loud: but if someone asked the dreaded question – “So what are you going to do when you finish?” – sci comm was my general response.
I didn’t know what a career in science communication would look like though. I would occasionally type it into SEEK, and be disappointed in the results. Nope - I didn’t want to be a ‘Software Engineer’ or an ‘Exercise Physiologist’. I wanted to be a ‘Science Communicator’! I wanted children to gaze up at me in awe of my lab coat and awesome science knowledge. I wanted to inflame family dinners across the country with the passion of scientific debate. I was going to make the world a better place - with SCIENCE!
When you’re still in a university setting, there’s generally a lot of agreement about the importance of science communication. If you’re an academic and you enjoy public speaking, you’re happy to talk to journalists, and you’re on social media talking about your work: you’re a darling. You’ll be reminded of that by your admin and support teams, by journalists, by the kids who come and do your lab tours, and – because you’re so great at communicating the importance of science communication – anyone else who might listen. And, while you really are a darling, and you really are doing important work: once you finish your academic appointment, you can’t keep on marching around shouting about how great science is and expect to get paid for it.
Ya gotta get sneaky.
One of the most obvious ways you can be a ‘science communicator’ (feel free to disagree with me on this) is to be a science writer. However, in the interests of me trying to get a bit further away from my comfort zone, I’m gonna throw something else out there.
Here are some skills and interests you are likely to have if, 1. You have a science PhD, and 2. You have a vague interest in sci comm:
- You can find information on obscure subjects.
- You can analyse that information and then summarise and present it succinctly.
- You can dig through mountains of complex information and not only identify the most important bits, but piece those important bits into place within a bigger picture.
- You want to make a positive impact
- You can translate complex ideas and concepts so they make sense. You also understand that how you translate and present these ideas will change depending on who you want them to make sense to.
- You know how to learn.
Where else might all these concepts and skills come into play? Now, bear with me here, because you might have some preconceptions about this particular field (I know I did).
Ever think about working in policy?
“There is that feeling that medical research is an altruistic space. I knew I wanted to leave academia, but I wanted to continue being useful and to contribute after I left,” describes Laura, who went straight on to work as a policy consultant after finishing her science PhD.
While Laura was clear that there was a lot of ‘un-training’ in those first few months of her role, she is still using all those skills she acquired throughout her PhD, those hard earned analytical, research, presentation, and communication skills.
“The hardest thing is having clients who wanted to hear your opinions. This is particularly important when there is a lack of robust data, which is not infrequent,” she said.
I also spoke to Emmi, who also works in ‘policy,’ though her position looks entirely different to Laura’s. It’s a not surprising their roles are so different – it’s huge area of work (and employment opportunities). Emmi works for a government agency, advising the government on strategy and frameworks regarding the use of a specific set of data and infrastructure. She’s also worked for the Department of Industry, on science policy – but her PhD was actually in politics.
“There are career paths which allow people who want to keep working on the theme of their PhD, and also those which allow people to keep working on similar processes,” she explains. For example, someone with a medical science background might go on to work in commercial pharmacology, and therefore stay within a similar theme of their research subject. “Any job which requires you to think critically, make decisions, be innovative, follow processes, construct arguments, and negotiate requires you to use those processes you picked up throughout your PhD.”
Emmi and Laura shared the same desire to work on something ‘bigger than themselves’ – to contribute to a wider community. That feeling of contribution can be a reason people seek work in research, but as Emmi says, it’s not something that’s limited to the academic space. “In working in government policy, you’re contributing to the way government understands things, and how they can implement what they want. You’re shaping the narrative of government, and how they understand how Australia works. You're still contributing to a body of knowledge - it's just not being read by academics, it's being read by the people that are making the decisions and laws.” And here’s the kicker: “That audience arguably even more important.”
While I don’t think Emmi and Laura ever saw themselves working in science communication, or maybe even consider themselves ‘science communicators’ now, I think that many PhDs aspiring to work in the mystical realm of sci comm would probably slot right into a policy role.
Let’s face though, #scicomm has much better PR than policy. It’s no wonder the market’s so flooded (thanks a lot Dr Karl).