This blog post was inspired by posts under the tag #SciCommSeptember on twitter. This is a very fun time when scientists and science communicators talk about their work and get to know each other through a series of daily prompts. It’s also a great place to look for information and inspiration if you’re interested in getting involved in science communication. Thanks to the Avid research podcast @avid_podcast for bringing us this fun science communication challenge!


What is science communication?

Science communication is the practice of communicating science. This includes a huge variety of things such as popular science books and television shows, podcasts, science journalism, outreach in schools, policy advising and scientists who are active on social media. The people communicating can be experts, students or non-scientists.

Here we’ll suggest some ways that researchers & students can get involved.


Why should researchers do science communication?

For a researcher or student, there are many benefits of getting involved:

  • Get to know fellow scientists and science enthusiasts.

  • Learn about other areas of science in a fun way.

  • Promote your research field, group or papers.

  • Talk about your passion in an informal setting.

  • Improve your skills in presentation, speech and teaching.

  • Learn new skills like social media management, web design, video or audio editing and visual arts.


What are the obstacles?

Of course, there are also some obstacles. Common ones are

1. It is a lot of work and can be time consuming.

2. It is unpaid.

3. I don’t know who my audience should be or how to reach them.

4. I don’t know how to talk to non-scientists about science, I don’t know how to talk to kids.


Unfortunately, we don’t have one-size-fits-all solutions to these problems, but I do have some tips:


1. Reduce the workload by sharing it. This could mean joining an existing programme to which you can contribute occasionally as a guest or starting your own project with a reliable team of friends.

2. Sadly, paid science communication is rare. Some institutes do recognise outreach as part of teaching or research duties, but we have a long way to go to get proper recognition for this kind of work.

500 Women Scientists believe that everyone deserves fair compensation and recognition for all kinds of work. We encourage universities and research institutes to show that they value outreach and communication by fairly compensating scientists and dedicated outreach staff.

3. Think about people in your life who you’d like to share your love of STEM with. It could be your family who want to understand why you’ve dedicated part of your life to science. Maybe it’s the people who are confused by science news and would enjoy a good resource for understanding something like statistics, scientific process or virology. It could be children in school who are interested in studying science- or even those who think they’re not interested in it! Maybe it’s people who are generally interested in science and culture but might not have heard about your specific field. Once you have an example person in mind, think about how you would explain things to them and where they might see it (where do they live, work or like to hang out?).

4. Most of us don’t get experience in talking about research outside of conferences and seminars. With some practice we will get used to speaking to different audiences. To get a head start, check out what other people are doing! Try looking on blogs and social media to find resources for your target audience. Notice features of the science communication that you like, dislike or are curious about.


Okay, I’m interested. How can I get started?

The good news is that we can use pretty much any platform for science communication! So, you can identify what you enjoy most (such as writing, presenting, visual arts, music or social media) and make use of it. Some of the most commonly used platforms are

  • University or research institute outreach schemes

  • Public talks at universities and museums: many of these host public lecture series for various audiences and are looking for volunteer speakers.

  • Informal public talks on the street or in cafes: there are several groups and festivals who organise this kind of event, including 500 Women Scientists.

  • Social media: science is being communicated in all sorts of creative ways on twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok.

  • A blog or website: this gives you a longer format to work with and total creative control. If you write a blog, try using social media to promote it.

  • Guests on someone else’s project: existing podcasts, YouTube channels, twitter takeover accounts and lecture series are always looking for people to host, interview or showcase

According to an informal twitter poll of #SciCommSeptember participants, the most common way to get started is through an organised university scheme.


The advantage of this is that materials, audience and guidance are all provided. After taking part in such a programme, a scientist or student has the experience to develop and execute their own ideas. If your university or workplace doesn’t run an outreach scheme there are others you can get involved in: see our list below!


Some more tips from our scicommer friends:

  • Be patient, it takes time both to find out voice and to build an audience

  • Don’t be afraid to promote your work on social media or in your workplace

  • Find a community of other science communicators to help and inspire you. Social media is great for this!

  • Don’t wait until you have money or expertise, just start creating and develop your equipment and skills on the job.

  • Talk about things YOU love and are interested in. This will make your content more interesting and keep you going when the work is hard or engagement is low.


Dr. Lucia Rotheray (@LRotheray)

Mathematician


In 2012 I reached the end of my undergraduate degree and I started applying for PhD positions in theoretical physics. That PhD journey did not go as I had expected but now in 2021 I have managed to become a doctor of mathematics!


During the last nine years I’ve done a MSc, attended classes at five universities in two countries, enrolled as a PhD student three times and had the chance to work with four different supervisors. Getting to study in these varied environments with lots of different people taught me how important human relationships - in particular the student-supervisor relationship - are for getting through our studies.


A PhD is a huge part of our lives for 3-5 years and sets the course for our careers. Having a supervisor who is understanding and supportive helps with productivity, creativity, independence, networking and mental health - during the PhD and sometimes long afterwards. So, given the chance, we should make sure a potential supervisor is going to be a great fit, right?


One great way to start is to interview our interviewers when we apply for PhD positions. In many areas asking questions about pay, duties and the work environment at interviews is normal and even expected.

However, in a (small, non-scientific) survey of people who had started PhDs, I found that

  • <25% of participants asked about pay or conference funding

  • <15% of participants asked about workload, work hours or duties

  • <25% of participants clearly stated their supervision needs and <25% got a clear statement about their supervisor’s expectations

  • around 33% of participants asked the current PhD students and postdocs about life in their potential group

during their PhD interview. Around 66% said that they had focussed on showcasing their knowledge to impress their potential boss. Of course this is also very important, but the experience shouldn‘t be so one-way!

I think interviewing potential bosses is difficult for us as MSc and PhD students for several reasons:

  1. We are often still young and inexperienced at the start of our PhD

  2. We are used to being students, who often have little control and are under pressure to impress professors rather than building a two-way relationship.

  3. We’re not always told that it is an option!

Here are some examples of the kind of questions we can very reasonably ask in interviews to get an idea of what the PhD experience will be like:

  • How often and for how long do you meet with students?

  • Do you have regular student progress updates or evaluations?

  • How many hours a week do your students generally work?

  • What is the group dynamic like? Do you go for lunch together?

  • What are your expectations for publications? How do you support students writing their first paper(s)?

  • Is there any soft skills training available?

  • How concrete is the project plan? Is there room for me to apply my own ideas?

  • What is the monthly pay? How long is the funding secured for?

  • Is there funding to go to conferences and summer schools?

  • Does the group/department participate in any diversity or equality action?

Exactly which questions need to be asked and what makes a good answer is of course very personal. Before an interview or meeting, try to make a list of your experiences, needs and priorities, and evaluate your goals for achieving a good work-life balance.


What is the goal of these questions? Well, almost every PhD student will face obstacles, but there are some common problems which I think can be caused or influenced by the student-supervisor relationship.


Lack of contact

I’ve talked to a lot of PhD students who spend little or virtually no time with an active supervisor. Some of us thrive when left alone but for many it is a huge cause of stress, uncertainty and wasted time. Whether or not they are your “official” supervisor, it is important to have regular contact with someone who can guide and advise you.


Inability to recognise and nurture your strengths

There are many qualities that make a good PhD student: persistence, creativity, attention to detail, big picture thinking, a passion for teaching, coding skills, focus, presentation skills…and each one of us possesses a unique mix of them.


Whether it’s’ because they don’t have time to get to know their students or because they only value particular qualities (such as exam grades or publications), some supervisors sadly overlook their student’s skills and value. This lack of recognition or being forced to work in a way that doesn’t suit us can lead to demotivation, frustration and low self-esteem.


Conversely, a supervisor who sees your individual strengths and weaknesses can value what you have to offer and give specific support where you need it.


Different views on equality and discrimination

Colleagues who don’t believe in the problems of inequality and harassment in the academic world can be very frustrating to talk to, and in the worst case might stop us taking action when serious problems arise or even commit harassment.


On the flipside, colleagues and supervisors who support the cause can be great allies both in everyday life and when it comes to organising events or training.


Even problems which aren’t directly related to supervision (such as teaching duties or contract issues) can be much easier to deal with if you can talk to them your and count on them to be on your side.

So if you can: work out your priorities, ask lots of questions and go into the PhD knowing you can get the guidance you need to succeed!


Acknowledgements & notes

I’d like to thank the many people who taught, supervised and encouraged me during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. They were all dedicated, interesting and open people who taught me a lot!


Even if you feel like you don’t have a choice of supervisor or if you’re continuing with someone you already know (as ~33% of our respondents did), I still think that analysing your needs and having a professional but open discussion about them with your supervisor can really help to make the most of the PhD experience.


I’m not trying to class professors as GOOD or BAD supervisors, just encourage students to make choices that suit them best. Not the best supervisor for me does not imply a bad supervisor or a bad person.


For some insight into the idea of interviewing your interviewer in the business world, check out these interview tips from Glassdoor, Indeed and The Balance Careers.

Dr. Lucia Rotheray

Mathematician