PhDs don’t last forever. Know your options. Start now – Part II

A final year PhD student got in touch with me recently to get some advice about career options outside academia. She wants a career in science communications. Having been through similar circumstances myself, I’m able to relate to her experience. And I know there are thousands of other PhD students in the same situation. Even though I’m currently working in science policy, I was able to share my own experience that should help her get started. Here’s my advice to her (Part II). See Part I, to find out more about my scientific journey.

Just a few months before the end of my postdoctoral contract, I realised that my CV was very one-dimensional. My CV was research-heavy, but I didn’t offer much else – or at least I thought so. I did a few things below to build my science communication skills. Even though, it didn’t land me a career in science writing – it built my CV, helped my communication skills and made me more employable.

Get writing

The first thing I did, when I realised that I needed to improve my CV, was to get in touch with the research office at my university. This turned out to be a great move. They gave me valuable advice that has shaped my career. The career advisor the university signed me up for a science communication workshop, where I learned about effective communication and the importance of accurate science communication. Here’s a blog that I wrote after attending the seminar.

It was only after I attended the course, I started writing a blog – And I’m ever so thankful that I did. It’s a great way to communicate with your audience. You can write about anything, whether it’s your research, something you are reading, or find interesting. Writing a blog will not only improve your writing ability, but it also forces you to learn more.

And you will have something else to add to make your CV look more impressive than before. Science communication and writing is fiercely competitive, so writing a blog is a great way to get your name out there. Trust me, people read it. Even my mediocre blog attracts thousands of readers every month – according to Google Analytics. Shocking, I know!

Moreover, you will realise that as you write more, your understanding of the subject improves. You need a good knowledge of a topic to explain it in a simple language for a non-technical audience to understand. So I suggest that you get writing too.

Digital and real world: get social

It’s great if you write terrific blogs, but it would be a shame if nobody saw it. We must share and distribute knowledge as much as possible. And social media tools are great to disseminate your message to a wide range of audience. If you haven’t joined Twitter yet, I suggest that you do. I really can’t recommend it enough. Twitter is an open digital community where experts and non-experts discuss the latest topics in everything, including science and technology.

You can follow me on Twitter @TalkPlant. These days I get most of my news from Twitter, and after about an hour, the same story goes breaking on news channels. Facebook pages, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. are also great platforms for you to share your work far afield. Many researchers, universities, journals, and societies regularly use social media to publicise their work. So, it’s also a great way of keeping up-to-date with the latest developments in your specialist area. Is there a conference that you aren’t able to attend? No problem! The chances are that the findings presented at the meeting are being discussed live on Twitter. Make sure you get involved too. This is an excellent way of getting involved in discussions, exchanging ideas and expanding your network to potential employers.

Another great way to expand your network is by socialising with your fellow PhD students and other researchers in your department. Research can be a lonely experience, so it’s important to make friends and have some fun. Remember that your colleagues will be going through the same experience. It’s good to have support from friends, and they can advise on different career options that they know about, or you can bounce ideas off each other. I was quite sociable during my research years and have made lifelong friends from my time in academia. My friends from academia have helped me check my CVs and to prepare for job interviews.

After I left research, my job applications were getting rejected left, right and centre. By pure luck, my CV went to a friend from PhD, who was the recruitment agent in the agency where I sent my application. She spotted that I would be suitable to work in research management and policy, and got me a job interview for my first position outside research. This position opened my eyes to several career pathways. Before this job, I wasn’t even aware that these career paths existed. So rather than spending all the time in lab/office, it’s good to hang out with your friends sometimes.

Reach out

Public engagement is a great way to boost your confidence and improve presentation skills. There are many opportunities for researchers to get involved in science events. Your research office will also be able to give you information on upcoming events hosted at your institute.

A good starting point is to become a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Ambassador. For UK researchers, follow the instructions in the link to sign up to be a STEM Ambassador. STEM Ambassadors are volunteers that engage with young people to encourage and inspire them to take up STEM subjects in the future. I have been doing this for several years. Being a STEM Ambassador is very rewarding, and explaining complicated ideas to young people will also improve your communication skills.

Participating in science festivals and events is also a great way to improve your science communication skills. Whilst I was a researcher, I ran stalls at the university’s science festival demonstrating exciting science that we do in the lab to the public or school pupils. I also took part in “FameLab”, which is a science communication competition, where you explain an idea to a lay audience in just three minutes. The challenge is for someone of non-technical background to understand the concept. I presented about my research, and I can tell you that holding the attention of an audience for three whole minutes and getting your message across clearly is much tougher than it sounds.

There are several other events and competitions. For example, I’m a scientist, get me out of here – this is an X Factor-style competition between scientists, where students are judges. It involves interactive chat sessions where students bombard questions at you, and you answer reactively. Pint of science – this is an event that you can get involved in organising or presenting. This is a science festival that brings researchers to your local pub to present their findings. Also, check out the British Science Festival and several other events near you.

Write more

It’s a good idea to get in touch with your press office to see if they are willing to accommodate you for a short period. The career advisor at my university’s research office put me in touch with the university’s press office. The press officer provided me with guidelines on how to write a press release and the things that media look for to snap up news bulletin.

The press office agreed for me to prepare a press release item for the university to pitch to major news outlets. Over a pub conversation, I identified a paper that one of my friends was publishing. I quickly wrote a news bulletin and oversaw the process to pitch the piece to newspapers and online news. My news release was a great success as several national, and international newspapers including the Mail Online reported it (don’t blame me for the embellished headline).

News releases from the press office aren’t usually attributed to their authors. This could be a slight downside for young writers looking to make a name for themselves. But if you have your own website/blog, you can always upload the piece to your own site. The news release that I wrote for Leeds University became the first post on my website to get over ten thousand hits.

You can also reach out to a large number of audience in other ways. Journals have feature pieces, newspapers are always looking for good storytellers, or you can contribute to blogs with a large number of subscribers. I very much recommend that active researchers write for The Conversation. Make most of the opportunity to write for The Conversation while you are still in research because while professional journalists edit their contents, only active academics write their articles. I’m pleased to say that I had the opportunity to write for them on a couple of occasions (see here and here). These articles that I wrote for The Conversation featured in The Independent, IFL Science, Newsweek, etc., and together they have been read tens of thousands of times so far.

My science communication activities, including public engagement, blogging, and writing have made me more employable. Communication and writing are transferable skills that you can use in any career. Although I didn’t end up being a science writer, I’m glad that I was and still do science communication. I’m not a great writer; my contents are not of professional quality. But that doesn’t matter. Science communication showed me a world outside academia, and I used it as a medium to move on. Now I engage with my audience not to build my career for but for pleasure. Even if you decide to stay in research, it’s still beneficial to communicate with a non-academic audience and learn about the world outside research.

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