That probably sounds a bit silly - I'm someone who tweets, and blogs, and writes for The Conversation, and talks to media, and even did a video! But it's true. And with all the talk recently about why and whether "serious academics" should do these things, and how to be a good science blogger, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on how I got here & what I've learned.
So, how did I become a communicator? Well, it started with a job. When I finished my Master's degree I was looking for full-time work, and a job came up where I worked that included communication, both with groups like government agencies but also with the media. I really, really didn't want it - I was terrified of being bad, making mistakes, looking like a fool. A fear I imagine a lot of PhD students would share. But at the time, a mentor took me aside and told me that I had the skills to do it, and that not applying would be a huge mistake.
I got the job. And yes, it was scary to start with. And I still get scared and reluctant every time a new type of communication comes up - I was super nervous before filming the video linked above, and before the live radio interview I did this morning, and I've definitely turned down media before because I was too scared. But it gets easier. Just like with giving scientific presentations, each time you do a media interview you get a little more practice and a little more confidence.
Blogging and tweeting are just the same - I joined twitter to get material for my university facebook page. But after lurking and retweeting, I found that sometimes I do have interesting things to say, and that twitter can help you have cool discussions and build relationships with scientists around the world. And while I only started this website/blog because I was told to, it turns out that it's nice sometimes to think aloud. Even if you don't get comments, you'll be surprised how many conversations a blog can start. And, of course, my first blog post lead to my first article in The Conversation, which also turned out to be easier and more fun than I expected (that's why I've written three more!)
So what advice do I have for people like me, who are scared or reluctant about communication?
- Practice. Every time you do an interview, it gets a little bit easier.
- Start small. Writing a blog or sending a tweet is a good place to start. Or for media, local newspapers and journalism students are great things to say yes to, because they're always friendly and the consequences are small. Work your way up to the scary things by building confidence along the way.
- Find a mentor. Talk to people who communicate more than you do - ask how they do it, practice working out how you'll answer questions, send them your first couple of blog posts to look over. People are always happy to help, and hearing people tell you that you're great can be really helpful.
- You know more than you think. As a PhD student or early career researcher, you know quite a lot! You'll be surprised at how easy most of the questions are to answer, or how much you can contribute to conversations. You've probably already been doing the same sort of communication for your friends and family anyway, this is just widening the circle a bit. And if you don't know something, it's okay to admit it.
- The media are not your enemy. Most of the time, the media are on your side, they want to help you do a good job. So work with them. If the media isn't live, and it usually isn't, you can ask to have a second go at a question, or tell them what questions they should really be asking. It's the same with writing blogs/articles for a wider audience, and giving presentations to non-scientists - if they read/listen, it's because they're interested in what you have to say, they're not searching every line for a mistake.
So is it worth doing science communication? Well, only you can answer that.
I don't know if it's helped my academic career, and it does take up time. But building communication skills can only help in the future when trying to justify why your research should get funded, and even for talking to other scientists. For me, while I still find it scary sometimes, I like that doing media has helped me become the "expert" on East Coast Lows, and that my friends will tell me their friends and family think I'm awesome. That's pretty neat! Plus, I'm researching East Coast Lows because I think they matter, so if anything I'm doing is helping other people understand and value them more, I think that's a great outcome.
As it turns out, though it still scares me, I've come to really value science communication. And I'm very grateful that my mentor encouraged me to take that job!