The origins of a super hero
(Spoiler alert: details of the plot of Wonder Woman in this section—proceed with caution!)
I went to the cinema last Saturday eager to see Wonder Woman and optimistic that it would easily be one of my favorite superhero films. But after the film, I spent the entire way home on the tram complaining about the story to my husband. I’ll avoid extended discussions on my frustrations with films that feature breast-shaped armor for women and my other costume-related annoyances (I know it’s a tropical Mediterranean island…but they were fighting with swords and spears. Shouldn’t they be wearing pants or longer skirts that would actually protect your legs from getting hurt??).
In reality, my frustration went deeper than the lack of proper clothing. I was disappointed with the lack of inspiration from Diana’s origin story in that I didn’t feel it was relatable nor realistic. “But it’s a superhero/fantasy movie!” you’re now thinking to yourself. “Of course it’s not real.” But just because the setting is imaginary, it doesn’t mean that the characters can’t feel real or can’t have a backstory that remind us of our own.
Throughout the film, Diana was following her path towards achieving her destiny. She was brave, personable, cared about protecting people, and had a love of justice and doing the right thing, which are all qualities that we should strive for. But she was also the daughter of Zeus, trained from childhood by an island of Amazons for the purpose of defeating her half-brother Ares. For those of us who aren’t born the daughters of gods, how can our own origin story compare?
From humble beginnings to…?
Of the large number of talented, hard-working, and dedicated PhD students and early career researchers, only a select few will end up becoming tenure-track professors. The origin story of the PhDs who don’t end up with a tenure-track job will at first glance look the same as those who go on to be professors: a love of science, a natural talent or ability that leads he/she to a career in research, a dedication to our project, and the hard work and grit it takes to finish a dissertation. But the story doesn’t finish neatly there—at some point, for many of us, the path of our presumed destiny takes a turn.
Turning off from this traditional career path leads us to a new type of beginning. We go from accomplished academic researchers, working hard on every experiment and fighting for every data point, to finding ourselves in an unfamiliar new working world. Any new career path means starting over: a new work culture, new buzzwords, new colleagues, and an overwhelming sensation that we are no longer the experts that we thought we were.
Last week I embarked on my first day as an associate medical writer. I spent three years of life as a post-doc and felt that there was a place for me in the world of research. But after three years, I realized that following what I once thought was my destined path, of becoming some world-renowned/world-changing scientist, was no longer the path for me. I welcomed the opportunity to adjust my career trajectory and explore a new path in the area of medical communications. It meant starting over with a new commute, a new office, new rules, and a new hierarchy, all while becoming familiar with a completely new way of working.
I may not have achieved what I thought had been my destiny, but starting over and embarking on a new path was something that I really wanted to do. Now I have the chance to embrace a new ‘destiny’, taking the lessons I learned on my previous journey while forging ahead to something unknown yet exciting.
If you feel like you’re having a difficult time with starting over, or perhaps even knowing where to begin in writing your own origin story, here’s a few suggestions and things to keep in mind:
Writing your own career origin story
Embrace your passions and abilities.
Our skills and passions define who we are more than the paths we choose in life. Part of finding the right path involves reflecting on what you’re passionate about. We all have a love or a fascination with science, but was it always connected to something else? In your research, do you feel the most inspired when teaching, writing, being creative, or helping others? A successful career is any path that leads you to feeling fulfilled and that puts your passions and expertise to good use. Finding this path is the true definition of success in a career.
Superhero take-home message: Heroes who follow their heart are the ones who inspire us to do the same.
Be ready to change your perspective.
Embarking on any new path forces us to see things with a new pair of eyes. Even just moving to a new lab or getting a new boss provides us with new ways of working and interacting with colleagues. People who make the most of their changing career paths are the ones who are able to learn from their new perspectives and keep a broad look across the horizon. Be ready with an open mind to embrace a new way of working or thinking and you’ll gain as much from your new situation as you’ll put into it.
Superhero take-home message: It’s not enough to follow your heart—you need to open your mind to new ideas and perspectives to be able use what you’ve learned.
Find a mentor and an ally.
Even a solitary hero needs trusted friends on his/her side, and very few super heroes ever work in complete isolation. In any origin story you’ll always find someone who falls into a mentor or teacher role. This is someone who helps the hero embrace a new perspective and progress through their story. Find a person along your path who will help you do the same, a person who will encourage you to work towards your passions while ensuring that you learn as much as possible. A strong mentor wants to see you succeed—so let them guide you, and at times push you, in order to help you get there.
All superheroes need allies, so find someone along your career path who’s either been through the process or who is even learning alongside you. This ally can become your friend, your confidant, or just someone you can share your joys and frustrations with as you progress. Having a person who can empathize with your situation is a strong reminder that even when you’re struggling or you feel like you’re not getting something right, you’re not alone.
Superhero take-home message: Even the strongest of super heroes can’t save the world on their own. All of us need people to guide us and to support us along the way.
Failure is part of the learning process.
We’re all driven by success and by feeling like we’re good at something. For those of us who always excelled in school, a failed experiment or a critical comment hits us in harder than we expected. But many super hero origin stories show us that even heroes make mistakes, both early on and even when they are at the top of their game. They stumble when trying to learn something new or find themselves unable to move forward when faced with a difficult challenge. Remember that critiques are not there to punish us but are there to help us learn and to make us better. Embrace your failures and strive to learn from them instead of fretting over them.
Superhero take-home message: A hero gains more from what he/she gets wrong than what he/she gets right. Use every mistake as an opportunity to learn something new.
We all have to start somewhere.
Anyone who’s at the top of their field, be it a CEO, an institute Director, or a world-renowned researcher, wasn’t born into that role. They had to work to get to that position by starting at the bottom and working their way up. It’s easy to feel downtrodden if we compare ourselves to others without recognizing the potential of our own career stories and remembering that all origin stories have to start somewhere. Instead of comparing yourself to others, recognize that the starting point of your career is the part of the path where you have the most potential. Your actions and your attitude at this stage will help define how far you’ll go in the future. Take a deep breath and remember that even your first step, however small, is still a step forward.
Superhero take-home message: Even in the most personal of origin stories, many heroes learn that the story is not just about themselves. Be ready to take a step back and see the picture from a broader perspective so you can better see your own potential for growth and progress.
Finding (and becoming) your own hero
Your career origin story is as unique and as varied as you are: it comprises your passions, your skills, the opportunities you embrace, and what you do with the challenges life puts in front of you. Perhaps I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I thought I would because I’ve already found super hero inspiration from other origin stories. As my own career path changes trajectory from research scientists to technical writer, I find myself attracted to stories where the hero finds himself or herself in an unexpected place but uses his/her skills, passions, and fortitude to progress and excel. And what’s even more inspiring than tales of fictional super heroes are the people I’ve met who have shared their career transition stories, who took advantage of new career paths and opportunities and found a great place to work that brings their skills and passions together every day.
No matter whose stories you consider inspiring, or what your own path looks like, remember that you can also be your own hero. Whether you’re working hard to find a career that’s the best fit for you, or you simply find yourself on an unexpected detour, your origin story can become one that’s worth telling. No armor or capes required!
Science communication online
Perhaps you’ve marched for science, talked to your congressional representatives, or explained the science behind global warming/GMOs/vaccines with your friends and family but are still looking for other outlets to share your scientific knowledge and passion to a broader audience. Through social media platforms online, it is now easier for scientists to embark in science communication and outreach with the general public.
There are numerous ways to share scientific ideas and results with a wider scientific audience than at a conference presentation or a wider lay audience than your family and friends. Starting a blog is a great opportunity to become an active science communicator: long-form blog writing is a way to share information, teach concepts to a new audience, and engage with interested readers who are curious about your topic.
Starting a science blog is not a trivial task, nor is it easy to maintain a website or keep up with a regular posting schedule. Keeping up with a blog takes time, energy, patience, and good planning. That being said, the potential for rewards for both you and your readers can be worth the effort.
This week we hosted the #SciBlogHubChat and discussed the challenges and strategies for active science bloggers. Today’s post is a summary of how you can start and keep an active science blog and some considerations for maintaining your creative energies. We are also only a few weeks away from celebrating the two-year anniversary of Science with Style. It has been a fun yet challenging two years and we hope to share some of the things we learned along the way!
Step 1: Lay out your blogging goals
Our online presence is becoming more of a part of our lives, and our careers, than ever before. Because employers and collaborators will look at your online presence as a portfolio alongside your CV/resume, it’s important to ensure that what you say online reflects who you are and what your goals are. It’s not enough to set up a blog and let it sit there empty until you write a 5000+ word post ranting about a bad day in the lab. You have to figure out what you want to achieve with your blog and what work it will take to achieve your goals on a weekly or monthly basis.
Start by answering the following simple questions:
- Who is your audience?
- How will you share your material with your audience?
- What ways will you promote your website (Twitter, Facebook, posting on other blogs, etc)
- How often will you provide new material for your audience?
- How much time do you have to devote to writing posts (be sure to include time spent brainstorming ideas, reading relevant papers/articles, and conducting interviews)?
Answering these questions will help you determine the style of your website, if you link your blog to a social media platform like twitter, what sort of language you use in your posts, and how long your posts will be.
For Science with Style, I write posts for early career researchers who come from a wide variety of technical backgrounds; for that reason, my posts focus on professional development and science communication. For my new project, the ToxCity Tribune, I am looking to reach people who are interested in toxicology and environmental science news. I write these posts in a way that is more general in terms of discussing scientific concept and I focus less on themes that are more relevant for early career researchers such as career development.
Science with Style posts tend to be around 1500 words long and the ToxCity Tribune posts are slightly shorter (1000 words). Part of this is the time required to read articles and write complex topics more concisely for ToxCity Tribune whereas for Science with Style I have time to talk more about a topic since there is less background research needed.
Step 2: Set up a clean and simple online presence
There are many hosting websites you can use to set up your science blog. A few examples include WordPress, Weebly, Blogger, and Wix. If you are more social media savvy than I am, you can also explore the applicability of websites like Tumblr and Reddit for your writing activities. Stick with a template that allows you to adopt a simple, clean style for your website; you don’t need anything flashy or complicated that will drown out your message.
Finding the best design for your message will take time and will most likely involve you trying out a few different approaches. Be open to changing things around if the template is not working. The good news with websites such as weebly is that if you change your layout, you won’t lose any of your content.
If you are using a free hosting platform, you won’t have full control over your URL; this service only comes when you pay extra for an expanded hosting package. When you are just starting your blog you can try out a couple of different websites before you commit to a paid plan and custom URL (if having one is important for you). I pay around $60 USD per year for both the URL and the upgraded Weebly package. I don’t make any of that money back on ads or revenue, but I consider $5 a month a low enough cost to feel comfortable with paying for the upgrade.
If you have HTML skills then you can create or customize your own website and only pay the URL and hosting fees. This means an investment in time instead of money (unless you pay someone to do the customization). But don’t feel pressure to become a computer programming or design expert—keep it simple, clean, and invest the time and/or money into the parts that are the most rewarding to you.
You might also want to develop a social media presence to go along with your blog. This can either be connected to your personal account or to a separate, blog-specific account. This will depend on your blogging goals, what type of posts you want to write (more personal or more detached from your own work/experience in science), and what audience you want to reach. If you decide to separate the personal from the professional, you can establish separate accounts to help you follow and find relevant materials for your blog and can keep your personal account for fun or your personal perspectives.
I use @SciwithStyle and @ToxCityTribune to follow accounts that are relevant for each blog. For Science with Style, I follow academic professional development organizations, science communicators, and outreach-related accounts. For ToxCity Tribune, I follow toxicology and environmental science research groups, toxicology papers, science news websites, and government institutions.
Having a social media account also requires you to have a social media plan in place: how often will you post on the account, how will you engage with others online, how will you share and promote your materials, whose materials will you share in return, and who you will follow. Social media can also be a distraction from work or from your writing, so be sure to limit your time to 5-10 minute increments. Distractions aside, I’ve found Twitter to be a great source of inspiration, news, and connections to interesting people I never would have met were it not for a curated account or a hashtag.
Step 3: Get to writing!
Long story short: writing is difficult and it takes time! For a single blog post, I usually spend ~30 minutes planning (developing the idea and preparing an outline), 1-2 hours writing the draft, and another hour editing the post, finding a relevant image, and posting the material.
Keep in mind the amount of time that writing a single blog post will take and plan your schedule accordingly. I dedicate a set time each week to drafting each post, generally with outlines and prep work on Monday night and draft writing on Tuesday, to keep me on schedule.
Part of getting into the writing ‘zone’ involves figuring out your own process and establishing a rhythm. I like starting with an outline and some notes the day before I write the post because it helps take the pressure off of the day that I need to write the post in full. I’ve met people who prefer to do all of their writing in a single sitting. Try a few approaches to see what works best for you and then stick to a routine to help maintain your pace.
Step 4: Hone your writing skills
Even the best writers need good editors. Find a reliable friend, colleague, or family member who is willing to read and edit your posts. A good editor will not only read your post and find any grammatical mistakes, they will also take the time to think of more impactful ways to share your message. This is someone who helps you improve any awkward or unclear phrases and a person who provides feedback on a draft that you can immediately use and incorporate into the final version. Comments like “This is great!” or “I don’t like the conclusion” are not that helpful; comments such as “I like the short introduction” or “You can improve the conclusion by adding another citation” are things that can improve your writing. Ideally, you should also be confident in your editor so that you don’t have to spend time editing his/her edits.
Step 5: Get inspired!
Another challenge with maintaining a blog is finding inspiration for new posts. Inspiration will often come from unexpected places, like a dinnertime conversation with a friend or a flash of insight on your commute from work. Take notes of your ideas as they come…I’ve learned the hard way that it’s very easy to forget even the greatest ideas!
To get inspired, stay on top of what other material is out there by following active bloggers and writers as well as recent science news. There is a lot of material online, but remember that your perspective will always be unique, and there is more than one way to look at a story. You might have a unique perspective as an early career researcher or from working on a topic at a level that most people might not recognize (like an anthropologist studying climate change).
When thinking about stories that might be interesting for others, think about what you like to read about, either for your blog, your work, or just your personal interest: What topics do you care about? What inspires or interests you? What worries or concerns do you have related to science and technology? Chances are if it is something that fundamentally interests you, someone else would also love to read about it.
Not feeling inspired? It happens to all of us! We all run into the occasional roadblock when it comes to writing. Check out our previous post on how to free yourself from writer’s block. When you are in a creative mood, make a list of post ideas and potential blog topics and keep these handy for when you get to a day when inspiration fails to strike.
A science blogger’s life
Starting (and, equally important, maintaining) a science blog can be a rewarding activity if you are ready to commit to the work required to make it happen. Even if you don’t feel that you are a ‘good’ writer, blogging can help you improve your written communication skills by helping you find your writing rhythm and keeping you on track with a post schedule. It’s also an opportunity to receive feedback from colleagues and readers and to share your perspectives with a new audience online.
Once you’ve become an established blogger, you can also more broadly share your work using common hashtags, joining twitter conversations, and guest blogging. Whatever your professional interest or skill level may be, science blogging is a great place for aspiring science communicators who are enthusiastic to share the world of science with a new audience.
Are you up to the challenge?
If you’ve seen any advertisements for martial arts schools, you’ve likely noticed how the various forms of martial arts are all touted as ways for a person to gain self-confidence and self-esteem. Given the fact that I already have a black belt and am now approximately one year away from earning a second, you would think that confidence would be no problem, that I’ve already gained perfect self-esteem from earning a black belt. How could I ever lack confidence?
After nearly three years of tae kwon do training in Liverpool, I now have a new club and a new coach. Stepping into an unknown dojo where the warm-ups, stretches, and drills are all new is a humbling experience when you get to a moment where you feel like you can’t keep up with everyone who knows the routine already. It’s left me feeling less confident in my abilities than the month before and more frustrated when I got things wrong. Even with three years of training and a red belt, I still suffer from waivers in my own self-confidence in the sport.
There are many experiences as a PhD student or early career researcher that can cause our confidence to waiver: a rejected grant, a scathing comment on a manuscript review, or a failed experiment. We all face challenging moments that shake our beliefs in our own value or skills. Having strong self-confidence is one of the ways that we can work through challenging moments as we keep our head held high and our mind in a positive place. In this week’s post we’ll discuss the importance of self-confidence and the steps you can take to unveil your own inner champion.
The basics of confidence
Confidence is touted as one of these all-important facets of life, as something that we all need to have. But does anyone really know how to get it? Is it learned or inherited? How does one learn to be confident? Similar to the concept of networking, confidence is a nebulous concept that feels difficult to acquire.
The Oxford dictionary lists the first definition of confidence as: “The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” For this post, we’re more interested in the secondary definition: “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities.”
In other words, confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this” and when you hear that voice, you believe it.
But let’s approach this more scientifically. We shouldn’t believe that voice without empirical evidence—we need proof of our own abilities, not just belief in them. Thankfully in academic research, empirical metrics are everywhere. It’s why we care about endpoints like the number of papers we published, how many citations those papers have, who comes to our talks, how many grants/awards we receive, etc. We put value on our tangible accomplishments, all listed out conveniently on our CV. So if they’re all listed out and we can count them and read them, it should be easy to gain confidence from them, right?
This is only true if we appreciate our achievements, our abilities, and who we are as people and as researchers. We can have a CV filled with papers, book chapters, and awards yet can still feel like we are not good enough. This is evident when talking about imposter syndrome, a situation where regardless of the number of achievements or accolades, you discredit yourself and your work entirely. The trick is that confidence cannot be imparted on you externally—no number of papers or awards will make you more confident. Confidence has to come from within.
How do you gain confidence?
Building confidence cannot done in a single day of soul-searching, but it’s something that you have to work on continually. Confidence is also ephemeral; it can wash over you and make you feel as if you’re invincible, or it can quickly recede and leave you feeling vulnerable, just like I experience in own waivers of confidence associated with tae kwon do.
Martial arts emphasize the importance of the mental components of the sport, such as meditation, courtesy, and respect, at the same time as teaching you physical skills. But the key to finding confidence in a sport, or any activity, and even in your own career, is you. Anytime I go to a tournament or test for a new belt, I get nervous. I see the other people I will fight against or the high-ranking black belts who will judge my performance. It’s not enough to look down at my red belt and see my achievements with my own eyes—I have to feel them, too.
Your own path to self-confidence will be very personal, but if you’re looking to make steps in a positive direction, here are some ways that you can work towards breaking down the barrier between seeing and believing in yourself:
Find your passion.
In your own career, you will find that a love of science or research doesn’t necessarily translate into a passion for every aspect of the job. You also won’t be naturally gifted at every part of your work. To help build confidence in the early stages of your career, find and focus on the part of your work that you love the most and use this as a central focus of your confidence-building activities.
For me this focus was (and still is) writing. I used writing as a way to gain confidence in the rest of my project. It was a way for me to collate thoughts and ideas before taking them to a place where I had less confidence, like a platform presentation or a committee meeting. Writing helped me realize that I did know what I was talking about and gave me an opportunity to do something I liked while also improving on the other parts of my work, like public speaking.
Keep your level of confidence steady through both ups and downs.
Although your confidence will inevitably shift when faced with the positive and negative events of your situation or career path, work to avoid the extreme ends of the spectrum (either a complete lack of confidence or over-inflated self-worth) by finding your center ground.
From this position, you can use positive situations to propel you further, but be sure to stay within reasonable bounds. One published paper won’t lead to a Nobel prize, but it is a worthwhile achievement and worthy of celebration. On the other hand, one rejected paper is not a complete step down from your center ground, but rather a chance to take the positive part of a negative situation and to learn from what went wrong the first time. Failures are one of the best ways we can gain fresh perspectives and to improve our work for the next submission.
Practice positive thinking.
In science we are surrounded by critiques and reviews of our work, and many of us will internalize these messages as well as adding a few negative ones of our own. Being self-assured in your own qualities and abilities involves injecting optimism into your internal dialogue to help offset the critiques that come with a high-achieving career.
Positive thinking doesn’t have to be cheesy or fake, and you don’t need a pair of pompoms to be your own cheerleader. For example, positive thinking can provide a positive spin to negative situations (“The rejection was pretty tough, but the reviewer makes good points that I can incorporate into the next draft”) or can help you envision a positive outcome instead of dwelling on a negative one (“I’m nervous for the talk, but I’ve practiced it enough now that I know I’ll do a great job once I get on the stage!”).
I am not a naturally optimistic person, especially when I get nervous. One approach that I use is to change the situation when I’m surrounded by my own negative thoughts. I text a friend or call my husband to vent my nerves to someone else or to simply change the topic. Even turning on some upbeat music can help shift your mindset when you find yourself in a funk. If I am nervous for a talk, a meeting, or a tournament, I turn on some Sia or Madonna to put my mind in a better place. Shifting your situation can help improve your mood and broaden your perspective, opening up your mind to positive thoughts instead of negative ones.
Remember that failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Failing is an essential part of any career and is also a facet of becoming an expert in any sport, skill, trade, or activity. Unless you are a prodigy, trying something new or beyond your current skill level will involve various degrees of failure. Becoming self-confident means facing a potential failure with cautious optimism: cautious in that you know you need to try your best, but optimistic in that you believe you can succeed, even if you fail the first time around.
Another important thing to remember is that coaches and mentors give critiques specifically because they want to see you improve. In general, people who seek out careers as professor want to see their students and their mentees succeed. Your mentors know that you are the next generation of scientists, and their critiques are there to help you, even if they are offered in a rather blunt or direct manner. You should also recognize that when people criticize your work, they are critiquing your output, not you as a person.
Confidence is not an easy thing to obtain. The keys to building confidence are to stay grounded, explore new skills and tasks while highlighting on your passions and abilities, and work to maintain a positive outlook. When good things happen, maintain a steady disposition and find productive ways to cope with failure, even if it means a short change of perspective or distraction from the situation. Once you begin living life with confidence, it will be difficult for any challenge to dislodge you completely. You’ll find that the challenges don’t last forever and the critiques only serve to fuel your internal flame.
“So, what are your plans for after you finish?”
It’s no secret that being a PhD student is stressful. Thankfully the process of earning a PhD doesn’t last forever, but because of its finite nature, any conversations with friends or colleagues will lead to the inevitable question of “So, what’s next?.” My group of colleagues includes some final year PhD students, all of whom are facing a not-too-distant future of writing and defending their dissertations. On top of this pressure, they are also worried about their job prospects and transition from student to employee.
When I finished my PhD, I was fortunate enough to have a prospective post-doc offer not long after finishing my dissertation. I managed to pass the time between submitting my dissertation and graduation without any additional job search stress. But I didn’t escape the job search stress for very long—last spring, and after many months of uncertainty about extending my post-doc contract, I found myself scrambling for what to do next. I applied for 9 jobs, and even landed an interview for one of them, but nothing fruitful came out of my search. I took a deep breath of relief when my contract was officially extended, but the experience left me with two realizations: 1) I was very lucky to still have a job, and 2) I would be in the exact same position again in 10 months’ time if I didn’t do something differently.
The importance of a professional network
Part of the reason for my struggle during my initial job search was that I only sort of knew what I wanted to do, which at the time included anything related to science communication, publications, public engagement, and so on. I knew that I didn’t want a career as a researcher, but I didn’t know what my exact options were or how to get there. What would an application reviewer be looking for on my resume? What sorts of skills did I need to highlight that were not on my academic CV? What types of positions could I realistically aim for with my skills and experience?
I had a lack of understanding since I had only recently decided what I wanted to do after my research post, and because I was new to the area I also lacked an existing network of colleagues and potential mentors working in the field that I wanted to enter. From my time as a researcher, I had a vast network of academics as well as industry and government researchers, but I didn’t know anyone doing science communication or writing. I had a broad understanding of where I wanted to go, but I was walking there blindfolded.
We discussed in a previous post about the nebulous nature of networking and some approaches you can use to make connections. Before we go further in this post, it would be good to revisit the definition of a network once more. Simply put, your network is the set of connections you have to colleagues, friends, and family members. These are connections you’ve made on a personal level: it’s not just shaking someone’s hand at a conference but means having a working relationship with them. They know who you are, what you can do, and your passions and area of expertise.
Networking may not seem that important if you are in the midst of lab work or writing your dissertation. But a solid network with more than one branch can take you places that wouldn’t be possible by simply sending in job applications and hoping for the best. Networking can show you hidden opportunities that won’t always be advertised and your mentors and connections can help you figure out how to enter into a new area by helping you to highlight your relevant skills or lay out a job-specific resume.
But there’s a trick to networking: because your network represents your relationships with other people, it’s not something you can put together on a short notice. You need to establish your network early on in your career so you have time to work with and establish trust between you and your connections. The key is to build trust with others before you need something from the other person—like a job, for example.
Where should I start?
1) Identify your skills, professional interests, and your long-term career goals
After going through contract extension panic, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in science communication. But my short stint of job applications made me realize that this was a very broad ambition, and I felt like I was spreading myself very thin trying to cover every aspect of what this type of career could entail.
One of the ways I narrowed my career target was by reading Born for This and going through the book’s exercises. Perhaps the most powerful exercise in the book was when the author told us to think about what other people ask us to help with the most. This is a way of showing us what we’re good at because it’s something that others ask us to do for them. I realized that over the course of my time as both a PhD student and post-doc, I helped others the most with writing. Sometimes it was reviewing articles or manuscripts, other times it was in taking the lead on a paper that had been sitting unwritten for too many months. This exercise helped me realize something that was both a passion and a skill, which then helped me focus on careers related to writing.
2) Rework your brand
Knowing that I wanted to look for writing jobs, I sought out more opportunities to write. I participated in writing contests and guest posts for blogs and University websites. I then restructured my CV to highlight my written work more strongly. I also took part in writing classes (Coursera has some fantastic online courses if you’re looking for something free) and made sure that my social media profiles were up-to-date and reflected my career goals.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I did spend a good deal of time working on this outside of my normal post-doc hours. But it was also very enjoyable—I enjoyed learning about new topics and I got to meet other like-minded people in the process. This should also be a part of your re-branding process; if you’re not having a good time being the person you’re working hard to become, you should reconsider the path you’re walking on.
3) Look for opportunities that fit your style and your needs
Once you have your career goal and your brand figured out, start looking for what options you have based on your current/future limitations. For me, I knew that my husband had a job offer in Manchester for two years, so I wanted to look for science writing/communication jobs in that area. While looking at jobs on LinkedIn I found several posts for medical writers, and there were a lot of entry-level positions in the Manchester area.
I soon discovered a field, of which I had never heard, that was looking for PhD-trained researchers right in my back yard! I followed up by looking in more detail at the job advertisements, finding some resources about the field online, and sent off my resume for a couple of posts even though I didn’t need a job at the time. I felt that I had struck gold, but knew that it would take more than a good looking CV to get me my first job in a new area.
4) Look for connections that can help you reach those opportunities
Last autumn I was busy trying to get lab work finished so I could make more progress on the final manuscript for my project. One afternoon I found myself chatting with a PI in the physiology department whose lab space I used for some of my experiments. He knew that I was getting towards the end of my post-doc contract and asked if I had plans to stay in research and I told him I was looking to make a transition into the medical communications industry. As it turned out, the PI had a friend who was working at a medical writing firm near Manchester. He offered to pass me along his contact details and even to put in a good word with me at the pub when he met his friend for a drink later that week.
This conversation was a lucky exchange but one that highlights the importance of having trusted connections in all parts of your work. I was only working in this lab part-time and had no interest in continuing that facet of my work, but the PI knew I was hard-working, organized, and creative. He soon passed along his friend’s contact details and I made the all-important initial contact: a request for an informational interview.
I didn’t ask this new contact for a job or to look at my CV, since at the time he was only a colleague of a colleague. In my initial exchange I asked if we could meet informally to discuss more about medical communications in general. My goal was to meet someone in the field and hear from them what the work was like, then later on to expand this relationship and work towards getting help structuring my CV or even hints on potential job posts. This was all starting to happen close to six months before my contract would finished, so I also didn’t need anything explicit during our initial contact.
PS: If you’re looking for tips on what to ask during an information interview, be sure to check out Alaina Levine’s “Networking for Nerds book-it’s a great read!
5) Pursue opportunities as they come
The informational interview that I proposed never actually happened. As it turned out, the company was recruiting for an associate medical writer, and my new contact asked for my CV right away. I was nervous to send off my CV, but the work I had done restructuring my resume and highlighting my writing-oriented skills paid off. I was then given a writing test and made sure to not take the effort lightly even though I didn’t need a job at that time. I learned more about what was expected and dedicated a set amount of time to working on the test. One successful writing test and one in-person interview later (with my new contact at the other side of the table), I found myself celebrating the new year with a job offer to my name—months ahead of schedule!
Writing your own career story
My own career story was the result of yet another stroke of luck. But sometimes luck isn’t just a random coincidence: luck is something you can make for yourself. Sometimes luck is a product of the time and place you’re in. Sometimes luck is an opportunity you didn’t plan for that ends up directing your life’s story. Luck, timing, and the ability to find and seize opportunities leads us to many paths in our careers, and it’s often on these unplanned roads that we find the way through our own career journey.
But in order to take advantage of the hidden opportunities that can lead to game-changing moments, we need to network. This involves having strong personal connections with a wide range of colleagues as well as a solid and trusted reputation that connects to your name. Networking might seem like something nebulous or far-off while you’re knee deep in your own research, but thinking about your own career path as well as what connections you need to get there can take away part of the stress and uncertainty of your job search. You might not instantly have an answer for the question “So, what are you doing after you graduate?” but at least you’ll be able to say with confidence: “I’m exploring my options.”
After a time for self-reflection at the end of 2016 and a re-energizing holiday break, many of us have optimistic ideas for what we want to achieve in the next 365 days. It can feel like nothing will stand in the way of us achieving the goals that we set at the start of a new year. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions have a tendency to quickly fall to the wayside after those first few weeks of post-Christmas energy start to wear off. That elated, fresh-start feeling we have on January 1st feels all-too-quickly dispersed by the time we arrive at those gloomy and gray days of February, when over half of us will have already given up on our resolution. This can leave us wondering if there’s really any point in making a resolution each and every new year given that so many of us fail to follow through.
Here at Science with Style, we believe that any time of the year is an opportunity for a fresh start, for self-reflection, and for setting goals. Any goal that’s made with your professional or personal growth in mind is never a waste of time, especially if the end result is something of importance for you or your future career. It’s easy to sit on your couch (or, if you’re the more adventurous type, out on the town) watching the lights drop on New Year’s Eve and dream of things you want to achieve but can be difficult when you don’t really know how you’ll get there.
To help you stay on track with achieving your resolutions, not just until January but for the rest of 2017, here are our recommendations for what you can do to truly make this year a great one:
- Be precise. Develop a clear vision of what you want to achieve and make a target. Instead of saying “I want to write a paper” or “I want to have a better work-life balance”, set a specific goal. Maybe it’s writing 200 words a day of your thesis/manuscript, a dedicated amount of time each week for writing, or a set time during the week when you chat with friends over coffee instead of writing emails. Being clear and precise prevents you from making a nebulous goal that is hard to keep. A clear goal also gives you a road map on how to start with a resolution.
Along with a short-term goal (like something you achieve on a daily or weekly basis), set intermediate targets for yourself to help keep track of your progress throughout the year. If your goal is to write and you aim for 200 words a day, you’ll have made it to over 3,000 by the end of the month—that’s over half of a paper already done! Set small targets on a day-by-day basis that you’re not going to feel intimidated by. These specific targets can help you see how much time it will take you to finish intermediate goals, like completing the literature review section of a thesis, and you can also work with your mentor or advisor to keep track of your work progress on a more regular basis.
- Be realistic. As much as I hate to admit it, there are really only so many hours in a day and only so much time outside of lab hours that we can devote to our personal goals. It’s good to stay busy but you also want to avoid overloading yourself to the point that you no longer have any time to relax. Stretching yourself too thin will only lead to you feeling more burned out and more likely to give up on a new year’s resolution that’s taking too much of your free time.
As you’re setting your specific goals, think of the other needs you have during the week apart from lab work. It could be a weekly racquetball game with a colleague or a recurring Saturday brunch with your friends. Don’t double-book yourself against your time that you normally use for recreation or socialization and instead find time in the remaining part of your week. Even if it’s only 10-15 minutes, a set amount of time devoted to a task can quickly add up without interfering with the rest of your like. If you do something for your career for just 10 minutes every day, it adds up to over 60 hours of time that you’ve devoted to a personal goal over the entire year. That’s over a full week’s worth of work!
- Be accountable. Some people are very good at staying self-motivated while others find it difficult to meet goals without an external deadline or other source of accountability. If you have trouble keeping goals on your own, find a friend, colleague, or mentor who’s also making resolutions at work together to hold each other accountable on your milestones. Meet with your accountability buddy on a regular basis and talk about your progress. If you’re not making progress or are struggling with something, you can talk to your buddy about it and avoid waiting until it’s too late to figure out how to change your strategy.
- Be flexible. An item on your to do list that you put there on a Monday can frequently end up still sitting on your list on that Friday afternoon. Sometimes our weeks and days are busier than we anticipate, last-minute things pop up that take more time than we planned, or something comes up that distracts us from other tasks at hand. Not achieving everything you set out to do doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fall behind or eventually fail at your goal, so don’t beat yourself up about it.
Rank your goals ahead of time so you know which ones are more important and deserve nmore of your focus. Then you can let the less important ones fall aside during busier times, such as getting ready for a conference or a big experiment. This can help keep you from over-extending yourself while still enabling you to achieve the most important items in your to do list and also lets you be flexible when busier times arise, as they inevitably do.
- Be optimistic. Maybe it’s the post-holiday crash of going back to work/school after a nice break or the nasty winter weather—whatever the reason, you tend to see a lot of negativity and general grumbling this time of year. Even if you’re a positive person, being surrounded by negativity can work its way into your head, and it make it tempting to leave your goals behind.
As difficult as it is, especially during this post-holiday malaise, try to keep yourself in positive spirits during these weeks of the winter season. Start your year off with simple goals before you jump into the more heavy duty to do’s, like cleaning up your desk or lab bench or catching up with a friend or colleague you haven’t seen in a while. Use these small achievements to give you some initial momentum for the rest of the year as you tackle your larger goals. Take time to find enjoyment outside of work and you resolutions by doing things that keep gloominess at bay: see a film with friends, try a new recipe, or visit an art exhibit. There are lots of ways to stay optimistic and inspired even during the colder and drearier months of the year.
The New Year can always be an opportunity for making a fresh start, and I hope this list will help you in your goals for an excellent 2017. In terms of my own resolutions, my primary goal is to write outside of my comfort zone. I’ve gotten into the habit of the weekly Science with Style posts but am now looking to challenge myself beyond the weekly long-form blog. This means I’ll be trying out my hand at some short freelance pieces, news-oriented writing, and even some fiction. I’ll be scaling down the SwS posts to twice a month to help me keep up with my resolution—but have no fear: there’s lots to see in our archives and I’ll still be posting articles and discussions on twitter on a regular basis.
I hope you all are having a wonderful, inspiring, and also relaxing start to your 2017. We’ll see you again in two weeks’ time—hopefully you’re more than ready for another year of doing science with style!
With the closing of the year come the inevitable “year in review” articles and social media reminders of the year you’re just about to finish. I’ve been thinking about how to summarize a year’s worth of posts on of Science with Style and searching for a coherent theme that connects everything from 2016 together. After writing over 40 blog posts this year, oddly enough the unifying topic that comes to mind is core strength.
Those of you who have been regular members of a gym will know about the importance of core strength. It’s not one of the more obvious parts of your body to work out at first thought, as a lot of equipment and space will be set aside for cardio or weightlifting in a typical gym. But core strength is crucial for any physical activity: it gives you balance and stability when you start to do more difficult routines and a core that’s not strong enough won’t be able to keep you steady, no matter how strong your biceps or calf muscles are.
As a scientist, having core strength is all about building yourself up in order to prepare you for whatever you encounter moving forward. Here are a few tips that we’ve collated over the year to help you build better core strength in your professional life and how you can prepare yourself for whatever 2017 throws at you.
- Know yourself. We all have natural strengths and weaknesses, habits and tendencies, and different ambitions and goals. Regardless of what stage you’re at, it’s crucial to know yourself, your skills, and your goals as a scientist before getting too far along in your career. Many of us likely embarked into a PhD or post-doc thinking that academic research was really what we wanted to do, only later to find that other facets of a career in science were more satisfying and could lead to a full-time post other than research. Use career-oriented typology tools and soul-searching guides to help you find the best type of career for the skills and interests you have.
- Build yourself up. Once you know what drives you and what abilities you already have, you can hone your professional skillset to put you at a competitive advantage. Make sure that you have all the supplies you need to get the job you want by planning ahead. Find places in your work where you can challenge yourself while still maintaining a high level of confidence, and recognize that trying new things and failing the first (or fifth) time around is just part of the process.
- Get inspired. It isn’t all about work: we need to balance hard work with rest and relaxation in order to clear our minds and make greater strides ahead. Know how to find and enjoy your own work-life balance no matter the season. Don’t forget the importance of taking care of yourself. Be confident in yourself and don’t rely on external metrics alone to validate your self-worth and strive to find the balance between doing hard work and knowing when to take a step back.
- Have a support team. We all get by with a little help from our friends. In our research entourage series we talked about the important roles your support team has in your professional development. Having a strong working relationship with someone who acts as a coach, a dreamer & a doer, a sensei, and a group of allies will make all the difference in your success and your motivation to keep going. Your entourage is there to support your progress, but remember that like with any sport or personal training session, the hard work and strength has to come from you.
- Develop your own style. As you progress through you career, the experiences you have and the roles you play will become more unique. Take these opportunities to define your own sense of style. Emulate a style icon and embrace your own definition of comfort and style when you’re showing off your work at a research conference.
- Sharpen your skillset. We discussed a number of skills this year, including how to get through meetings, deadlines, and studying. We also discussed approaches for writing manuscripts and will soon be putting this and our presentation guidelines together into a short course-more details coming in 2017!
- Above all, remember that you can do it! There will be times that challenge you and times when you feel absolutely stuck, which is why core strength is so important. Core strength keeps your center resilient even if your biceps and calves are sore or worn out. It means that you can face challenges (and even failures) while knowing that any set-backs you face don’t mean that you’re bad at what you’re doing or that you can’t get somewhere beyond where you are now.
I like to draw inspiration from characters in fictional stories and history when I’m feeling down. Whatever it is that inspires and motivates you, focus on having positive and uplifting reminders in your life about your own importance and self-worth.
It’s tempting to categorize a year as “good” or “bad” year. A year doesn’t have to be defined by the challenges we faced or negative events, but instead can be defined in how we face and learn from the challenges we’ve encountered and how we learned to find the balance between work, life, and everything in between. Developing internal strength and confidence can make all the difference in helping you keep your balance and maintain your posture while you work on finding and obtaining the job you really want and in getting through any less pleasant times that life throws at us.
I wish you all a relaxing and refreshing conclusion to your 2016 and will see you again next year with more stylish tips and tricks to come in 2017!
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s happy to see that 2016 is finally coming to a close. In a year of brutal rhetoric and political firestorms, it’s a good time of year to be able to hang up our hats, head home to see family and friends, and avoid talking about politics, science, and everything in between. At the same time, 2017 year is a time for New Year’s resolutions and a chance to make things better than they were the year before. In this last post in our science writing and journalism series, we’d like to encourage our readers to add yet another goal to their resolution check-list: to act as a science communicator and citizen science journalist!
2016 experienced how powerful the role social media holds in shaping and sharing people’s opinions. In particular, there are frequent discussions on the role of social media in the democratic events of 2016, namely Brexit and the US presidential election, but also now the Philippines presidential election. These events demonstrated the power of social media to disseminate ‘news’, whether or not that news was true.
At the same time, blogs, tweets, and personal websites are powerful tools that can enable all of us to become our own type of journalist. Scientists can benefit from understanding journalism and can use the tools and tricks of this trade to create their own impactful yet accurate articles about science and news. Journalism skills include knowing where you find information as well as how you report it. As a scientist you’ll already have a lot of experience in finding out things, be it from experiments or literature searches, but how can we better report the facts into a truth-telling story?
1. Your first sentence
A good news article starts with a strong introductory sentence. In the online Coursera MOOC (link) we were given an exercise on writing the introductory sentence, which in journalism is known as the lead. The lead gives all of the important details of the story in a clear and non-judgmental manner (with no interpretations on the content that are being presented). Your goal in this first sentence should be to answer as many of the key questions of journalism (who, what, why, where, when, and how) in a 25-30 word easy-to-read sentence. Here’s a few examples from the CNN and BBC front pages today (5 Dec):
“Ben Carson will be nominated as the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Trump transition team announced Monday.” 23 words
“Outgoing Italian PM Matteo Renzi has met the country's president following a heavy defeat in a constitutional referendum on Sunday.” 20 words
The very first sentence keeps things simple and uses the next paragraph to fill in the background information tied to the lead. It may feel strange to write a sentence this way, but picture yourself reading an article about something you’ve clicked on during your lunch break. How quickly do you decide if something is interesting to read or not? When you’re in a rush and there’s more and more articles for you read, in general you make that decision rather quickly.
2. The inverted pyramid
An inverted pyramid is the analogy used to describe the organization of the information in a news article. You start with the most news-worthy facts and fill in details and other, less-relevant or less-exciting facts later on. If your goal is to convey new information, following this structure provides your audience with the most important information up-front. As with the first sentence, you might decide while reading an article that it’s not of interest or it’s too boring quite early on, so using a structure where the most important and interesting information comes first can help keep someone’s attention for longer. As you write, introduce new facts in the order that your reader would want to know them. A good question to start with is “What does this latest research finding/piece of information mean for them?”
When writing your story, be sure to answer the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How of the story you’re trying to tell. Before you start writing your article, write down the answers to the 5 W’s and the 1 H. This will help you structure both your first introductory sentence as well as the outline of the write-up. Does a particular aspect of the story resonate more strongly, such as a connection to their health or their daily decision-making? Be thematic when necessary and remember that your audience will have different interests and connections based on who they are.
Answering why will always be the most difficult. So, if you have an answer, be sure to put it front and center. This is also a great strategy for writing a grant application, where your audience (the reviewers) will want to know precisely who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it (and why it matters), where it will have an impact, when it will be finished, and how it will all come together into a cohesive and successful project. So even if news articles or science writing isn’t your thing, the inverted pyramid strategy can still come in handy!
3. KISS (keep it simple, scientists)
Journalistic writing aims to be simple, clear, specific, and engaging—and this is much harder to write than it is to read. Especially when your experience so far has primarily focused on writing like a scientist, where the audience is primarily other researchers with science degrees, translating complex ideas into something that’s readable at a 4th grade level is a challenge. Some basic rules include:
- use everyday words instead of complex ones (‘improve’ instead of ‘ameliorate’)
- use verbs and the active voice (like ‘analyze’ and ‘selected’) instead of abstract statements (‘has been’ or ‘was chosen’)
Thankfully there are a lot of online tools for checking the readability of your work, including the Hemingway App as well as an integrated review system within Wordpress. It will take you more than a few iterations to simplify your writing, but you can rely on these tools or other peer reviews from friends who don’t have a scientific background to give you feedback on the readability of your work. Improving your writing comes with practice and in learning first-hand how you can re-structure and re-word your sentences to make your ideas more active.
4. Be prepared
As we’ve said many times before, background reading and having a thorough understanding about something is crucial before you can write about it. So read, read, and then read some more before you even think about what you’ll say.
If your article will include an interview or requesting a statement from another person, be prepared before you meet with them by reading their work and making a plan of what must be answered during your time with them. Be sure to get some basic information from them (their role in the study/in the field, what their background is) and to get as many answers to the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How as you can. Write out topic headings rather than full questions, and put them at ease by adopting similar body language and style in order to minimize any communication barriers. My favorite interview advice from Coursera was to ask stupid questions and to not be afraid to sound like you don’t know something. The measure of success in an interview isn’t how you feel but what material you get out of it. In other words: it’s not about you, it’s about the story.
When interviewing others, especially scientists whose work might not be published yet, be clear at the beginning of your meeting at what level of attribution you’ll be using. If the discussion is on the record then you’ll need to attribute any statements and facts to the person and paper (if available). If things are on background, you won’t be able to say from whom you got the statement/information from, and anything off the record cannot be published or attributed. You’ll likely not encounter a situation where statements made will be off the record, but if a fellow scientist shares something with you that they don’t want to be made public, it’s up to you to respect their privacy. This is also a good concept to know about for anyone still working as an early career researcher—at some point you might be interviewed by a journalist, and talking about something not yet published can end you up in a difficult situation if the findings come out in a newspaper before a journal article.
Even if you don’t aspire to be a prize-winning, world-renowned journalist, you can still use this skillset to enhance the impact of your science writing. Whether it’s a manuscript for your peers or a written post about your research for an institute outreach activity, becoming a citizen science journalist can help bridge the gap between the news we read and the science we do on a daily basis. In this day and age of blogging, social media, and hourly news updates, it’s possible for any of us to make an impact with our words—impact that we can use to make 2017 a better year than the one before.
As a scientist and a soon-to-be citizen journalist, each story you craft has to be more than a series of facts but also an engaging and accurate depiction of the truth. Your source of information should always include referenced facts and figures, but also including first-person accounts from scientists you meet at conferences, seminars, or at a local pub can add depth to your writing. Perspectives and insights gained from interviews are great for empowering you to tell your story and can help drive important research questions. And just like the journalist whose task it is to filter out someone’s opinion from a bona fide fact, so too must scientists learn how to talk to people in order to learn the facts and perspectives that are relevant for telling a science story.
I had the opportunity to interview four researchers from our institute this summer and was able to see the power of interviewing with and listening to researchers from fields other than my own. Talking to someone in an interview format is a terrifying prospect, but by approaching the conversation with an open and curious mind, I found that I learned more from the experience than the simple facts and figures I took home with me. In a post-truth world, the connections we make with people as we search for truth and understanding will continue to become as important as the data and the figures that we make to tell our story.
But let’s start out simple: What is an interview? Simply put, an interview is an opportunity to ask specific questions and receive answers, with the primary purpose being to get quotes, facts, insights, and to build a relationship with your interviewee. An interview is more formal than a casual conversation over coffee, just like how a job interview is more formalized than talking to someone at a conference about a job at their company. An interviewee is put on the spot to answer specific questions, and an interviewer is tasked with asking good questions, listening to responses, and collecting everything for analysis at a later date. It’s an intense process on both sides, and one that involves more than a simple series of questions and answers.
In the world of journalism, there are two types of interview styles. In a collaborative interview, your subject is willing to or very keen on telling a story. Your aim and theirs are the same: you both want to convey facts to the public and share their story for a specific purpose, such as making an audience more aware of a topic or sharing a new research finding. This is the most common type of interview you’ll be doing as a science communicator/citizen science journalist. Alternatively, an adversarial interview is when the interviewee is held to account on a topic while the subject is challenged to provide answers on something he or she might not want to answer. Perhaps if you stray into a controversial topic about someone’s research you might engage in this type of interviewing style, but for the most part working with other scientists there’s no need to put them in the hot seat.
There are also different types of questions you can ask at an interview. Open questions such as How does PCR work? or Why is your research important? are questions that put the power in the hands of the subject. These types of questions allow you to find out what the subject knows in a more open manner, especially related to things you don’t have any prior knowledge about. The disadvantage here is that it can allow your subject to ramble on about something beyond relevancy—leaving you to either intervene or to let them carry on while taking time from other questions.
Closed questions such as Did the new experiment work? or Were the findings statistically significant? can be answered very simply with a yes/no/short explanation, but the subject can also expand upon the answer if they feel like adding more. Closed questions give the interviewer the control and can enable you to focus on a topic and bring a discussion to a point, but it also limits what you hear—with these types of questions, you can’t find additional answers beyond what you’re asking or what you know about already.
No questions are an interesting approach I learned about in the citizen journalism Coursera course. It’s quite literally a question that’s actually a statement (I really don’t see the importance of that), and sometimes it’s not anything more than a Really?, Honestly?, or even just a period of silence from you. It can open up the subject for a reply, as people tend to want to fill the silence. It’s a way to get people to say things without a specific question preceding it. If you’re doing a collaborative interview you likely won’t need these types of approaches, but if you do run into someone that’s not providing a lot of feedback, this is one way to go about getting answers.
Interviewing as a journalist also means adhering to a code of ethics regarding consent and deception. Rules will vary internationally but in general they require you to identify yourself and your employer before an interview, to use fair and honest ways of obtaining materials for a story, and to never exploit a person’s vulnerability. Scientists working on science writing and communication activities should also strive to adhere to similar types of guidelines: be upfront about who you are and the purpose of your work, the intended output/audience, and be cautious when trying to sell a “breaking story” on research that hasn’t been published yet.
The formal definition of deception is to make people believe what we ourselves do not. This involves nefarious ways of developing empathy with a subject that are done under a false pretense or changing the story once new facts come in without your subject being on board. The rules on deception and entrapment are complicated for journalism, but as with the rule above: be clear about what you’re doing and be honest about what your goals are.
Prior consent means obtaining permission from a subject to interview them, including any media materials (like photos or videos) that you’ll collect for your story. Your University or institute might already have rules in place for using a picture or a video of someone on a blog or a news story that you’ll post on a Twitter account, so be sure to check with your publications office or a press officer before publishing any media online for your organization. This is especially true if you’re working with minors—get in contact with the appropriate press contacts before including any quotes or photographs of younger students, and do your homework before the event so you can collect any required permission from parents as needed.
Setting up an interview might seem too formal or unnecessary, but whether you’re a writer, a scientist, or just want to learn something from someone, an interview can be a great opportunity to gain information beyond the scope of a normal conversation. People do answer questions differently when in an interview setting, just as those of you who have applied for a job know that being put on the spot is different than talking about your life’s goals over a cup of coffee. Envision the interview with purpose, as a way to get information, insights, and also to build a relationship with another person. As we previously discussed in our networking post, building a professional relationship is crucial for progressing in your career. Interviews, and the information you’ll gain from them, can help you get there and can help you tell a story using more than just facts and figures.
I attended the #scidata16 meeting last week as an amateur reporter and as part of an award for being selected as a finalist for the SciData writing contest. After the conference I returned to my own office and my own project, searching for the code and datasets I needed to re-make some figures from some data analysis months prior, with the discussions of the previous day all of a sudden feeling even more relevant. I thought it would be worthwhile for our Science with Style readers to provide some highlights from the conference and some tips and tricks for data management and sharing. You’ll be able to read my upcoming report on one of the keynote presentations in a future post on the Nature Jobs blog.
Early career researchers, especially PhD students, tend to focus on their own work and their own project. But as you progress through a career in research, the projects you’ll be involved in will become much larger efforts, with not as much of the project that’s yours and yours alone. Anyone who’s dug through a freezer full of boxes to find some crucial samples that a student who graduated 3 years ago left in a box labelled “E. coli samples” will know the struggles facing those of us in lab management.
But for researchers who are working on large datasets or large collaborative projects, the concepts and importance of data management might not be as evident. As science students we learn how to keep lab notebooks organized and in graduate school we learn how to organize our samples and important reagents, but when your entire project is stored digitally, how should it be organized? When do we learn as Phd students or early career researchers how to manage digital information?
While the conference was focused on quite a few topics related to data science, management, and open data, I’ll focus on just a few of the highlights from the keynotes. You can read more in-depth about the meeting in upcoming posts by myself and other #scidata16 contest winners in the coming weeks.
Reproducibility: When comparing data science with wet lab science, there are more overlaps than you think in how both are conducted and managed. One overlapping concept is that both types of data need to be reproducible. The first keynote speaker, Dr Florian Markowetz of the University of Cambridge, gave an example of a paper which was later retracted after two bioinformaticians noticed that the incredible findings they discovered were only due to Excel copy-paste errors. And those incredible figures you made once but now can’t find the original code? You need to have the data and the plan in order to make them again, or else it’s not a trustworthy result. My favorite quote from this talk was “A project is more than a beautiful result.”
Dr. Markowetz also gave the audience 5 things that data reproducibility can do for you. It can 1) help you avoid disaster, like having a retracted paper, 2) help you write a paper since it’s easier to look up numbers and be confident in your figures, 3) help you during peer-review since you can share your data and let the reviewer take a look for themselves, 4) help you achieve continuity in your work so you can come back to a problem later and you don’t have to start all over again, and 5) it will help you build a better reputation, which will allow you to submit your work to better journals and can establish yourself as a solid scientist.
Dr. Markowetz gave a great talk and emphasized that reproducibility is not a waste of time but is a part of science—think if your lab mate or a future student in your lab could repeat the ground-breaking results you generate in your thesis. The big take-home message here is to make reproducibility a part of your work flow early on in your career.
Data sharing: We started off the second keynote by Dr. Jenny Molloy (also from the University of Cambridge) with an answer to the seemingly apparently question of ‘What is Data?’, which she defined as collected observations and tabular calculations. Explaining what data you have is the first step for data sharing. It’s also important to understand that you can retain ownership and restrict how other uses and reuse data you share, similar to copyright on images and written works.
In another series of 5 items, we also learned the 5 steps for data sharing: 1) get motivated and start early, 2) stay on top of your data, 3) share the way you want to, 4) make the most of your sharing experience, and 5) set an example to your colleagues. If you ask why sharing is important, Dr. Molloy emphasized how open data can lead to better career recognition, connections to new collaborators and employers, and even gave some examples of how open science is creating new jobs for researchers with experience in data management. Other presentations on open data also highlighted tools available to researchers—if you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the Open Knowledge Framework website for examples and data management training.
Data management: Dr. Kevin Ashley from the University of Edinburgh discussed tools and infrastructure already in place for data management. He first emphasized that data management is not something that happens at the end of a project but something that begins when you conceptualize an idea and think about what data might look like in the end. The importance of good data collection and management was also highlighted in discussions on astronomy data and their use in research today. Measurements from 8th century astronomers are still being used by researchers today, although for purposes not connected to what the observers originally intended. Dr. Ashley also mentioned the volume of data collection efforts from the Hubble telescope, where numerous publications and observations were made not on data collected by the researcher who wrote the paper. This keynote highlighted the importance of clear and open data management policies that allow researchers to tap into their own ideas without even having collected the data themselves.
Dr. Ashley also mentioned that we’ll be running out of storage space in the long term, based on how quickly storage capacities and the number of datasets are both increasing. Because of that, it’s important for ECRs to consider what needs to be kept and for how long. And for curious ECRs wondering about the details of data management, recommendations for project budgets (5%) as well as the role of institutional infrastructure for data storage were also discussed.
The future of data science: Dr. Andrew Hufton, the editor of Scientific Data, talked about the role of data journals as well as the importance of meeting journal requirements for open data sharing. Data journals are one way to get credit for reproducibility of your results and to have your data cited even when you’re not involved with the new paper itself. Data should also be seen before it can be believed, and it needs to be able to be shared or it’s not science. Dr. Hufton also emphasized how data sharing drives the impact of your work, especially for researchers working in emerging or timely fields (such as zika virus research).
Dr. Hufton also presented an acronym for good data sharing, the type of sharing that allows other authors to replicate and build off of the author’s claims. This includes making data FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable (i.e. in the right format), and reusable (i.e. having really good descriptors for each header). Dr. Hufton also emphasized that while supplementary materials are great, they are not curate and machine-readable and should not be the only place you put your results.
What’s next? One of the last points discussed really hit home for me: when it comes to being a scientist, we need to take time to remember the reason that we do research: we are tackling the problems facing our world and need to remember that people’s lives can be directly impacted by our work. Any work we do that’s not open, repeatable, or manage properly can negatively impact others, not just our own career, and work poorly done work can be harmful to people who rely on our work for bettering their lives. A recent article about incentives in science highlighted this concept, which again brings up the need for incentivizing well-done, repeated studies instead of just more publications.
While it will take some time for the research culture to change, you can already find Open Science peers through the OSF network as well as reaching out to your institution for support in terms of data management and open data platforms available. With just a few of the potential benefits to your career laid out in this post, there are certainly a number of reasons for having open, repetitive, and well-managed datasets—and if I didn’t manage to convince you in this post, you can catch up on the #scidata16 tweets or see the presentations posted later on the Nature Jobs website.
I greatly enjoyed #scidata16 not only for the experiences as a reporter-in-training but also as a bioinformatician and as a person who is interested in finding ways to improve the research experiences of PhD students and ECRs. The conference had a great set of speakers as well as tips and tricks for researchers at all stages in their careers and across a range of fields. Whether it’s a big or small dataset, making it readable, available, and interpretable by others in the long run is a more powerful tool than I would have thought before attending this conference. Who knows—it could even get you a publication in a Nature journal!
Last week we had a fantastic introduction into this week’s topic from our guest poster Namrata Sengupta. If you missed Risk Communication 101, be sure to check out her post which focuses on why we talk about risk in toxicology, the process of risk assessment, and why we need to have accurate communications when talking about these risks.
It may at first seem that the theme for these last two weeks is only relevant for those doing toxicology research. While it is crucial in our field of research, risk and the importance of clearly communicating risk goes beyond toxicology. From issues in public health such secondhand smoke or issues on a much bigger level like global warming, talking about risk is prevalent in many areas of science. More broadly, risk appears whenever there is uncertainty in a decision that has consequences. For instance, in any research endeavor there is always some uncertainty in our predictions of the truth of the universe (i.e. the p-value). Knowing how to talk about uncertainties, risks, and the consequences of inactivity or a lack of understanding are crucial for any field.
A few weeks ago I attended the “7 Best Practices for Risk Communication” webinar organized by NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management. The webinar was targeted to people who work with natural disasters or landscape restoration. Even though my work doesn’t venture much into the risk communication area, I thought the webinar was a good introduction and was relevant for anyone whose work enters into the territory of ‘risk’ related to human health or the environment. Even if your work or your outreach doesn’t have a focus on behavioral changes, these principles are a great way to help you get started with your own research-oriented communication activities.
Before I go into a quick summary of the 7 best practices, it’s important to realize that the definition of risk communication is slightly different than what we discussed last week. In this webinar, risk communication was defined as “Exchanging thoughts, perceptions, and concerns about hazards to identify and motivate appropriate action” while last week we spoke more generally about “The interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders.” This first definition is less specific in that it doesn’t mention who is engaging in the communication, and instead defines this activity as a two-way conversation about a topic in which one of the parties is trying to motivate a change in the other.
Webinar take-home message: Behavior change is a slow process.
We won’t go into detail about every single part of the webinar, but for each section we’ll try to focus in on some of the most important points highlighted as the “Webinar take-home messages.”
If your goal is to have someone’s lifestyle or opinion change, be aware that this will take some time. Your audience will come with a diverse set of preparedness or awareness, with some not thinking the issue impacts them at all and others already 99% on board with what you’re saying. Whoever your audience is, it will also be unlikely that their opinion will change after one meeting or one interaction. Another reality is that you might not be able to change their opinions at all, so be ready to deal with pushback from people who just won’t budge at all.
Step 1) Have a plan: Know what you want and how you’ll achieve it.
Webinar take-home message: Think of who else is talking to your audience.
If you’re already an active science communicator then many of the considerations mentioned in this step are considerations you’ll already be aware of. Be sure to have a goal for what you want to say/achieve, know your audience, develop your message, be consistent, etc. In particular, the webinar made the point that we are not the only ones talking to our audience. Think about your own day: there’s long emails, #hashtags, and news that is updated on an hourly and faster basis as new information comes in. These information streams are flooding with opinions from experts, friends, and everyone in between on what’s healthy, what’s hazardous, and what’s should be the concern in your day-to-day life.
Being aware of where else our audience will get information from can help you develop a consistent message in connection with what might be coming from other sources. For example: if your audience likes to hear news directly from friends on Twitter or Facebook, think about what those posts might look like and if you can to adopt a similarly friendly or narrative approach to make that initial connection.
Step 2) Speak to their interests, not yours: Connect with your audience’s values on an emotional level.
Webinar take-home message: Make the story about the audience and listen to them
The presenters talked about a case study on Wetlands protection, where conservationists saw an apparent shift in their outreach efforts when they changed the discussion from “Save our wetlands because they’re nice” to “Save our wetlands so your homes won’t flood.” It might seem unscientific to think about communicating science by playing on the emotions of your audience, but communication without any empathy is always destined to fail. You can develop trust with someone by showing that you’re interested in their problems, not just your own. Another message I like from this step is to be a good listener: you can quickly learn what is important to someone by hearing things from their perspective.
3) Explain the risk (or the research): Help your audience gain an understanding.
Webinar take-home message: Go from the top down
As scientists we thrive on the details of the data before coming to a decision, but as people we thrive by seeing the big picture and how things fit together. When talking about a particular risk or your own research, start off with the impacts and then work your way to the nitty gritty. It can also help you make a connection by talking about science in a way that’s more obvious than error bars and biological replicates: residential flooding, asthma rates, and salmonella infections are all things that people can see and connect to.
4) Offer options (or actions) for reducing risk: Provide some hope instead of just doom and gloom.
Webinar take-home message: Talk about both the small and big picture solutions
If your message involves telling your audience how the world is going to end and there’s nothing they can do about it, you’ll lose them. People can only intake a certain level of feeling helpless and fearful about a situation and at some point will just stop caring about a situation entirely. Some topics are difficult to talk about in a positive light (“There’s ONLY a 20% chance you’ll get cancer!”) but giving a suggestion for how people can help mitigate some aspect of risks provides a positive spin to the situation, as much as it’s possible. A few examples include encouraging volunteer activities such as planting trees or providing better ways for people to properly disposing of unused prescription drugs. Having an empowerment to-do list will also help others feel more involved with the problem and that they can actually work towards a solution on their own.
5) Work with trusted sources: Teamwork to achieve a common goal.
Webinar take-home message: Working with partners can broaden the audience for both of you.
The workshop instructors presented a case study of a collaborative project between the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and a local bike shop who all worked together to put on a local bike tour. The event introduced community members to groups they didn’t yet interact with through an activity organized by groups they already had established trust with.
Doing these types of cross-sector collaborations broadens your perspectives by allowing you to hear about other groups and how they communicate with their audience—perspectives you can use on how you communicate with your target group. This type of work can also lead to some new conversations among people you never thought you’d interact with—think of inviting a pensioners-only book club to your lab to talk about your research. You can then see the differences between their questions from questions coming from a group of primary school students or from your peers.
6) Test your message: Tell your story to someone who’s not in your research group.
Webinar take-home message: ….and be ready to make changes when you tell it to someone else the first time.
Nothing is perfect in a first draft, so if you’re preparing new material then allow for some additional time to react appropriately when you get feedback. It’s hard when you put so much energy into explaining something or making figures and designing graphics, but if it’s not working on a subset of your audience, it won’t work with the majority of them. Remember that your goal is to have a message click, not just to get it done the first time and move on with your life—so be ready to invest the time and energy to make it matter.
7) Use multiple communication venues: Understand where your audience is listening.
Webinar take-home message: Meet your audience where they are
Twitter and Facebook are great ways to connect—if your audience is on the website regularly and follows your posts. If you’re looking to reach an older or less tech-savvy target group (which is not necessarily the same in this day and age!), they might not find your message using a hashtag. Conversely, if your target group has a monthly meeting on Wednesday at 8pm at a local bar, show up and have a pint. Having a great message doesn’t do you any good if the message only gets to your social network. Know where your target audience is and where they go looking for information, and be there waiting for them.
And with that two-week crash course, you are now ready for Risk Communication 301: Applied Risk Communication tactics. Get out into the world, craft your message, and get it to your audience in the place they’re looking for information. And if you’re wondering what the risks are in sharing your research with a new audience, you’ll be happy to know that engaging in risk communication has no potential hazards associated with its use or implementation. But it might be a good idea to bring your flood pants, just in case.