What to tell a wavering scientist?
As a science writer, I often interview young researchers who have just finished or nearly finished their Ph.D. degrees. They’re enthusiastic and intelligent speakers, eager to explain what they’ve been doing with themselves for the past 4-10 years. And when I’ve run out of questions for them, sometimes they have one for me: “So…I was wondering how you got your job?”
I usually give them the short version, about how I got my own Ph.D. and then promptly stopped being a scientist. And then we’re on the phone for another half-hour, as they explain to me that they’re having second thoughts about getting a job in their field, and wondering if there’s room out there for one more science communicator.
I think about two things when I hear this: what should I tell them, and why does this question keep coming up?
Let’s take the second question first. There are some signs that science Ph.D. candidates aren’t exactly happy with the career choices they’re facing. This month, a study in PLoS ONE concluded that academic jobs become less attractive to scientists as they move through their Ph.D. training. Some scientists in the final stages of their degree are concerned that the research jobs they want won’t be there when they’ve finished their degree. Some, as the study gingerly points out, might have seen quite enough of the academic world to wonder if it’s really for them. Science has never been a nine-to-five job, but it’s hard to know whether that’s an exciting or exhausting thing until you’ve experienced it
And then there’s always Ph.D. fatigue, which I recognize. In the last days of my dissertation, I was upping the ante on my carpal tunnel by playing video games and ruining what was left of my sleep by going to the movies all the time. I was desperate to stop thinking about my research, and I bet these scientists feel the same way.
But I’m worried that there’s more to their stories. Here’s something else intriguing from the PLoS study. When they asked the Ph.D. candidates about other non-research careers they found “extremely attractive,” science communicator/writer topped the list.
Why does science writing sound so good? I think it’s because most scientists want to share their research. And new scientists haven’t given up on the idea that they’re allowed to talk to everyone—not just their peers—about what they’re doing.
So back to the first question. What do I tell a scientist who wants to be a science communicator?
- Tell yourself the truth. It sounds corny, but you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself. Do you like to do science? If your honest answer is no, it’s time for something new. It might be science communication, it might not be. But you need to get the “am I a scientist?” question resolved before anything else.
- There’s no need to choose. If you want to be a scientist and also a science communicator, I urge you to take that Ph.D. and then tell us all about it! Communication is no longer an optional part of a scientist’s job, and you can be part of the vanguard of researchers to fully embrace this idea. Instead of shying away from your desire to communicate, make it a living part of your career.
- Either way, you’re going to have to practice. If you want to write, you have to write, by starting your own science blog or tweeting your field’s breaking news. If you want to work in museum interpretation, you have to make a visit to the volunteer office of your local science center. Your academic life was probably rife with “tryout” opportunities like these, and it’s the same on this side of things. There’s no simpler way to find out if you can be a science communicator than to be a science communicator.
- ...And practice. I was trained to talk like a scientist, to other scientists. That doesn’t work in public science communication, as you might have guessed. But don’t despair. One thing that helps is to push back into the dark ages, and remember why you wanted to become a scientist in the first place. What were the questions, the mysteries, the excitement that you wanted from your career? Remember how you talked about it then, and you’ll find a path toward how to talk about it now.
(Denise here, again. If you've got a group of scientists who want to communicate better with public audiences, I'd love to talk to you about the training options I offer for communicating scientists. And now the more important stuff: Becky Ham is a freelance science writer who writes about every discipline of science, a rare talent. She contributes posts about research on public speaking in many scientific disciplines for my blog The Eloquent Woman.)