If there’s one thing early career researchers hear all the time, it’s “focus on your research.” But sometimes this focus comes at the detriment of other skills. We hear things like: Don’t worry about teaching, focus on your research. How is that professional internship going to contribute to your research? Could you be spending that time (blogging, etc.) on research instead?
Today my advice for PhD students and early career researchers is this: Take a day off from your research.
Instead, read a book only tangentially related to your field of study, write a fun blog post about a research paper that interests you, or tweet about something you “nerded out” over this week. Write a science fiction story or watch a movie that touches on your field of study and write about it. Take a day to check out some art related to your field of study, or even to contact an artist and start a collaborative #sciart project. At least once a month, take a day off to create something that is related to your science but isn’t intended for other scientists in your field.
Conference research papers and publications may be the key to unlocking a career as an academic researcher at an R1 institution – for now. But that doesn’t mean that practicing one’s science communication skills aren’t every bit as important as cranking out research papers. Communicating about your research outside of traditional venues such as research conferences and peer-reviewed journals is inherently beneficial to society. Science communication can promote scientific literacy, access to scientific research and evidence-based decision-making. But communicating about your research is also beneficial to you a researcher and/or job-seeker. Studies have shown that tweeting/blogging about your research can promote citations of your research papers.
“It is not sufficient to rely on science journalism or the efforts of a rarified group of literary researchers to be responsible for the public understanding of science. We believe that formal training in science communication can promote the routine practice of scientists actively communicating about their work with a diversity of audiences, including the general public.” – Brownell, Price & Steinman, 2013
But the biggest issue with advising early career researchers to eschew practicing other skills to spend more time on their research is that most graduate students and postdocs won’t become tenure-track research professors. In my own experience, in searching for a job after getting a PhD in (science) communication, the non-research accomplishments and skills I developed over the course of my PhD program were vital. My research accomplishments helped me develop valuable expertise that employers seek me out for. But it’s the communication of that expertise in public domains that without a doubt helped me get a job I love.
During my PhD program, I often ignored advice to focus on the research of science communication over the practice of it. I continued blogging and tweeting during my dissertation, even as folks advised me against these “time consuming” activities that might prevent me from finishing my dissertation on time. I’ve written about this before, but I truly feel that spending time on science communication during my dissertation not only kept me sane, but made me more productive.
In fact, science communication and social media were the essence of making my dissertation happen. My social media communication efforts helped me obtain funding for my dissertation, helped me recruit participants in my research project, and helped me promote my findings afterwards. My public communication and engagement efforts surrounding my dissertation research landed me two keynotes talks on the role of science blogs in the science media landscape today (the subject of my dissertation), numerous other speaking opportunities and ultimately the job I have today.
So how can taking a day off from research to practice your communication skills or participate in a public engagement activity help you as a researcher? Take some time to find out. You might be surprised.
Have questions about this? Ask me!