A Ph.D. is not one-size-fits-all, and there are huge benefits to pursuing other interests and gaining transferable skills during your degree.
A few weeks ago I was a panelist at a Science Communication event organized by MSU SciComm for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program. The REU participants, visiting STEM undergrads at MSU for the summer, were there to hear about science communication, science-art, outreach, and how to talk about their own research effectively. On top of being an exciting way to spend a rainy morning, this event contributed to our commitment to student success both at the Hub and MSU-wide in 3 key areas: mentoring, communication across disciplinary divides, and opening students’ minds to post-degree possibilities.
Mentoring was happening at multiple levels during this event, most excitingly between grad and undergrad students. MSU SciComm is a group of STEM grad students committed to gaining experience in science communication, creating opportunities for science-art, and exploring career options. Grad students interacting with undergrads who may soon be in their shoes and modeling what it looks like to do graduate studies is tremendously valuable. A Ph.D. is not one-size-fits-all, and there are huge benefits to pursuing other interests and gaining transferable skills during your degree. Having role models who are passionate about communicating science means that upcoming research students will be thinking more broadly about their degrees. Those of us on the panel got to take baby steps as mentors. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to share my experience with both the REU undergrads and MSU SciComm students at this event. I’ve already had two follow-up conversations with students to help them think through some options on the horizon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the MSU SciComm organizers and my fellow panelists were doing the same.
The most practical advice at the panel was about communicating ideas from scientific research to different audiences. Environmental journalist and 2019-2020 Hub faculty fellow Dave Poulson, science communication scholar John Besley, and MSU grad student Gracielou Klinger described how and why scientists should reach, and care about reaching, broader publics. This is not generally taught in STEM education, but is vital for cultivating a culture in which science and technology are understood and can be drawn from for decision-making. Those of us who practice or study science communication know that giving people more information does not change minds; this deficit model of science communication does not include the needed engagement with audiences or any focus on the storytelling skills about what the research says and why that’s important. Beyond that issue, however, effective communication helps scientists be better understood by their supervisors, peers, and funders. At the event, MSU SciComm ran an elevator pitch competition where grad students distilled their ideas to under one minute. Dave Poulson took it even further, telling us that one minute was too much time and that “You only need 2 sentences. Tell people the most interesting thing you do, then tell them why it’s important.” This challenged us to articulate what is most vital and compelling about our work. Indeed, this new proposed research poster format, developed by MSU psychology grad student Mike Morrison, embodies those goals.
During the panel Q&A period, many of the students had questions about their options after their science degree or about how we each ended up working in the science communication / science-art space. Along with the other panelists, I got to share how my own trajectory isn’t a traditional one: while I started as a biochemistry undergrad, my graduate training was in the humanities. At MSU, I ended up working on science communication and science-art projects like Science Gallery Detroit which allowed me to combine different threads of my experience into meaningful work for a worthwhile project in STEAM outreach and education. We tried to emphasize how there’s no single right answer to “what should I do with my degree?” and that each of the students can apply their STEM skills and training in areas that matter for them, whether by remaining in scientific research, communicating science through writing or art, or something else entirely. One way to work through that question is to be involved in projects they care about during their education; in that regard, MSU SciComm is immensely valuable for offering our students an outlet to explore those questions while developing their communication skills. Having a broad definition of what might happen next is a way we equip students for an un-siloed future.