#GradSciComm: Developing a National roadmap for communication training in STEM graduate programs

Requirements of Science Communication proficiency
Requirements of Science Communication proficiency

There are times when reform is necessary. The very successful STEM graduate education programs in USA are now graduating a lot more PhDs, but the number of Faculty positions is not increasing accordingly. This has generated a new reality for young scientists: Six of every seven PhDs will not get an academic Faculty position and will need to find a job elsewhere.

After seven years as a graduate student plus three years as a postdoc, I found myself facing that new reality. At the time, I was sad watching my career as an independent researcher stopping after years of hard work, but I was very excited to watch new horizons opening. Deciding to become a professional science communicator came with the realization that –except from some past volunteer work– I was poorly prepared to be an effective communicator for a general audience.

If you have read my blog in the past, you know that I have done efforts to improve my communication skills; taking online classes, attending the Engage Science seminar series at University of Washington, and learning from the ScienceOnline community. Still, I wonder if it would have been better just to have more science communication training when I was in graduate school. There is clearly a need for scientist that can tell their research in public, why don’t we do more communication training in graduate school?

Turns out that there are graduate programs that offer communication training for STEM students, and grassroots efforts from graduate students too. I knew of a couple of them, doing amazing work to train young scientists. But then I hear about GradSciComm, and realized the effort to reform graduate education is widespread.

What is GradSciComm?

GradSciComm is an effort leaded by COMPASS to “assess the current landscape of communication trainings available to graduate students in the STEM disciplines”, but it goes beyond that. The idea is to build a roadmap for graduate education reform. From COMPASS blog:

“Reforming graduate education is grand challenge, but it’s a movement with serious momentum behind it. Federal agencies, professional societies, and graduate-led efforts are hard at work, including the National Institutes of HealthCouncil of Graduate SchoolsAmerican Chemical Society, and the National Science Foundation Graduate Education Modernization Challenge, to name a few. The need for better professional skills training comes up in nearly every conversation. And improved communication skills is just one among many needs.” Erica Goldman and Liz Neeley.

Part of the GradSciComm effort was to learn what communication training was already done, to start a conversation based on the current landscape. Last week, on December 5th and 6th at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C., “four COMPASS staff –Nancy BaronBrooke SmithErica Goldman, and Liz Neeley – ” facilitated a discussion “among a select group of scholars, trainers, funders, institutional leaders, and graduate students as they consider the results of our work to date and wrestle with where we go from here.”

The conversations were not recorded to encourage frank discussion, but the slides from presentations are available here: (Day1 Day2 ) and Twitter discussion was very fruitful (public quotes did not name speaker). I made a Storify of the discussion so people can have access to it. Here is the links for Day1 and Day2 on Twitter.

I know the public discussion on Twitter is incomplete by necessity, and I am looking forward for more coming from COMPASS soon, but I recommend you check the archive of Tweets to give you an idea of how many possibilities and challenges face the graduate education reform in the area of communication. Here I leave you with only four of the tweets that came from #Gradscicomm, I hope this inspires you to join the discussion:

What do you think? Do you agree with those ideas? Would you like to talk about your personal experience? Join the discussion in the comments or in Twiter using #GradSciComm. Thanks!

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[View the story “#gradscicomm: the current landscape of communication trainings available to graduate students in the STEM disciplines” on Storify]
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Science communication training: raising the bar inside and outside academia

The scientist that forgot how to tell a story.
The scientist that forgot how to tell a story.

This week two newspapers featured school seminars that help graduate students communicate their science to general audiences. The Seattle Times featured Engage Science from University of Washington and the Long Island Newsday featured the Center for Communicating Science of Stony Brook University*. Those programs recognize a need for “communication literacy” on scientific education and represent an awesome professional (and personal) development tool for the students that take the seminars. I firmly believe scientists that like to talk about their research should be able to find a similar seminar or class elsewhere. There is a need for it, and there is a growing group of students acquiring communication training to pursue “non-traditional” science careers (now the majority of job opportunities) where the ability to communicate concisely and in plain English is very valuable.

“The goal of the [Engage Science] course, founded by graduate students, is to teach young scientists how to share their passions for cosmology, chemistry or evolutionary biology without putting people to sleep. The program is one of several springing up across the country, fueled by a new generation of researchers who see public outreach as integral to their jobs.” — Seattle Times

Those scientists will fulfill a key role by showing a more human scientist to the public, somebody non-scientist can understand and relate to. The need is there for those scientists who can communicate science effectively; experts need to bring the scientific consensus in Global Warming to a broader audience and they need to expose the hidden dangers of widespread use of antibiotics. Scientific literacy is not a luxury when those subjects can have such a big impact on people’s lives.

The other role for this bunch of scientists trained on presentation design, jargon removal and storytelling will be inside their research institutions. They will raise the bar for scientific presentations for scientific audiences.

“Though we typically perceive scientists in white lab coats conducting experiments, a critical part of their work involves giving lectures and making presentations.” Long Island Newsday

I spent so many years attending boring scientific  talks that I forgot how to tell a story, and I forgot that the presentation is a lot more than the graphs or the slides. We need scientists trained in communication inside and outside academia. Luckily I got help from Engage Science at UW, and I think I am starting to get better at telling stories. I hope you agree. You can read my take on the lessons learned during the Engage seminar at “Bringing science back, one story at a time” and  the invited post “Scientists are human too”

(*) The article is behind a pay-wall but excerpts of the text are available at the Center for Communicating Science Facebook page.

Related post:

Engage Science Students Blog Post: http://www.engage-science.com/

On the need of opportunities and rewards for science communication http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2013/03/steering-into-skid-what-can-we-fix-with.html

The soap opera model of science communication, scientists as real people: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2013/03/blockbusters-and-telenovelas-models-for.html