#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!

[View the story “#gradscicomm: the current landscape of communication trainings available to graduate students in the STEM disciplines” on Storify]

Related links:

Bringing science back, one story at a time

UW Science Now at Town Hall. Science storytelling for the general audience.

There is a gap growing between the scientific community and the general public. The public can’t keep-up with what is happening in science daily, and often don’t even care. Overworked scientists rarely find extra time to communicate their science to audiences outside academia, and just publishing the science in journals doesn’t seem to bridge the gap fast enough.

Thankfully there is a growing army of science communicators determined to bring science back to the public, engaging in a useful dialog about science. The most powerful weapons of this small army are the scientists themselves. Contrary to public perception, scientists are a passionate, interesting bunch of people. They love what they do. That passion helps them overcome the difficulties, setbacks, and struggles that come with exploring the limits of human knowledge. Their ingenuity navigating the unknown is the raw material for captivating storytelling, but they rarely learn in school how to tell their story to the public. Engage is an organization of graduate students of the University of Washington that helps to reveal those stories.  Engage organizes a seminar to train student scientists on presenting their research to a general audience, stripping jargon and scientific formality. I had the privilege of attending the Engage seminar series for graduate students this quarter and I am really happy I did. The seminar provides a wonderful review of the craft of storytelling, teaching how to speak with your voice and body; presentation content and design; and the “what” and the “how” of effective communication. For me, the take home message is that the respect you owe to the audience means that you must relentlessly simplify the content without dumbing it down. Hopefully, if you use the right tools to tell a compelling, engaging story, the public understands your science better and relates to the person doing the science too. I believe that is a great way to bridge the gap.

The best part of Engage: there is a science treat for the Seattle public too. This seminar is a preparation for the Engage science speaker series, this year happening at Town Hall from March to June. Attending this class I had the chance to learn about the amazing research of twenty graduate students at UW (you can learn more about them here). After more than two decades in academia, I can say that what I have heard from the students is all-fresh, super-engaging science storytelling. To give you a small sample, I learned how coral reduces the destructive power of Tsunamis in a video game analogy, why we may be loving killer whales to dead, and I saw evolution happening in front of my eyes. There is much more coming to Town Hall, starting on March 5th, please check this calendar and make sure to go to the UW Science Now presentations. You will be glad you did.

PS: Special thanks to Jessica Rohde and Ty Robinson, co-instructors of the seminar for allowing me to attend this amazing class, and to the graduate students for tolerating my presence.