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Build a CV You Can Be Proud Of – Part I: Communication Skills

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting
An image of colors to depict care for your pH meter.

They say scientists are highly skilled… and rightly so! While many people would think that we’re shy, retiring types who sit at our lab benches obsessing over teeny-weeny molecules, science (and particularly the process of obtaining a PhD) sets us up as highly skilled members of the workforce. I can hear you all groaning as you read this (“MORE work???”). I for one know that getting a PhD is pretty stressful. Between getting all your lab work done (often while working unsociable hours!) and worrying about what the future holds with the current economic climate, most of the time you don’t even want to think about any extra work.

But the fact is, being experienced and confident in a broad range of transferable skills (that is, skills that you can apply to a range of tasks… not just research science) is going to help you get a job at the end of your PhD. Gone are the days where a shiny new doctorate would almost guarantee you a post-doc position: you can’t simply rely on a list of analytical techniques to get you a job. The global workforce is becoming ever more qualified, and with that comes a significant amount of competition. But don’t despair! Your PhD is the perfect time to build up your CV. The more you can add now the more confident you will be when it comes to jobs and interviews – and a confident interviewee is much more likely to come across as a positive and well-suited potential employee!

There are several key skill areas that you can build up pretty easily with a bit of time and effort:

  • Communication skills
  • Teamworking and networking
  • Analytical skills
  • Statistical analysis skills
  • Time-management

Over the course of several articles, I’ll be taking you through these points – telling you why they’re important, and how you can go about working them into your PhD so that you can build up an effective skills section in your CV. This article will take you through presentation and communication skills.

The Need to Present our Work

It’s important for scientists to be able to communicate their research effectively, whether it be as a verbal presentation at a conference or symposium, or written in a report or paper. Employers will always look favourably upon somebody who is confident in speaking about their area of expertise, particularly since the need to communicate our research has become greater in recent years. I don’t need to tell you that science is expensive. In times when the governments of the world are hard-pressed to find the money for anything (let alone several hundred thousands of pounds or dollars to sponsor a research grant), we need to be able to confidently and effectively convey the reasons why we need this money, both to our academic and industrial peers, and to the general public. Which brings me to my next point…

Know Your Audience

It gets said a lot, but it really is important. Pitching your presentation at the wrong level can have disastrous effects. Think about it. A member of the public who’s concerned that their taxes have been increased as the government gives more money to science won’t appreciate being bombarded with our kind of jargon – they’ll feel like you’re trying to put them off on purpose. Likewise an academic may see you over-explaining everything as slightly patronising. Somebody from industry will want to know the key facts and how their company can benefit from them without too much background and elaboration. They may only care that you’ve increased the protein yield of your cell line by 3%… they don’t need to know every teeny detail about how you got there. Make sure you pitch it at the right level.

Presenting to Academics & Industry

Presentations are something that will inevitably crop up during your time as a PhD student, as you’ll be required to present your work routinely to your department and probably go to a conference or two where you may present a PowerPoint slide show. While a lot of PhD students have to be dragged kicking and screaming into presentations, they’re really very useful. The key to getting one right is to practise, practise, practise. You’re likely to have lab members and a supervisor who will listen to your talk, and if they can’t find the time, even non-scientist friends will be able to comment on your speaking style and how you present yourself.

Feel free to use a bit of jargon here. But if you’re working with a particularly unusual cell line or protocol or piece of machinery, be prepared to explain it in more detail and to answer questions on it.

Another common method of presenting at conference level is the poster. Academic posters can look a little daunting at first, so make yours clear, clutter-free and attractive. There’s nothing worse than a poster that’s mostly black and white, and full of writing and complicated stats and graphs. As a general rule, don’t try and cram in every bit of info. Remember: the poster is only HALF of the presentation. You need to be able to discuss it with anybody who’s interested, so leave enough out that people need to ask you some questions. The internet is littered with advice on designing scientific posters (and presentations); I recommend Colin Purrington’s blog for tips on poster design and Flickr for examples of good (and bad!) posters.

Presenting to the General Public

Obviously this sort of experience is all well and good for learning how to talk to scientists, but how do we pitch things to the public? The best way to practise this is to talk to your friends and family about your project. You’ll have to explain everything very carefully (your granny isn’t likely to know what a cell is, let alone an enzyme within a cell), so you may feel awkward – as if you’re talking to a two-year-old. But take it in your stride, and be patient… it’ll pay off in the end.

Another fun way to practise explaining science to the public (which also counts as valuable experience) is to actually talk to two-year olds through outreach events to the community. Simple science projects can easily be taken to school fairs and classrooms. This type of experience not only helps you learn to work with people who are non-experts, it also adds a volunteering and outgoing aspect to your CV. Easy projects we’ve carried out at my institution include things like exploring the pH of household liquids using indicator solution, holding microscopy workshops (you can buy little microscopes that plug into USB ports on laptops which are handy to carry around), and activities such as swabbing items in the classroom and growing the bacteria onto agar plates then having kids identify the colonies.

Also keep an eye out for societies or networking groups which you can become a member of – they look good on CVs too. For example, STEMNET in the UK helps schools find PhD and science students that can contribute to outreach events.

Written Communication Skills

So we’ve covered talking pretty extensively… but writing is an important skill too, especially if you’re thinking you’d quite like a job in science writing and communication! As a research scientist you’ll be expected to present your findings as research papers and perhaps occasionally progress reports, so any writing experience you can get is good.

Obviously a good place to start is getting a paper published from your work. However this isn’t always easy – you may get asked to do a couple more experiments, or get a particularly nit-picky reviewer – so a good idea is to get as much varied experience as possible. Think about writing a blog, or contributing an article to your institution’s newspaper. Keep an eye out for science writing competitions (winning one of those is CV gold) and websites (like Bitesize Bio!) that are always on the lookout for contributing authors. Chances are, your institution will also ask you to write reports throughout the course of your studies, and obviously we should all have one big example of our writing skill at the end of our PhDs…. the dreaded thesis!

And that more or less covers the basics of communication skills and your PhD. What tips do you have for building up your communications skills during grad school?

Next up: Teamworking and networking.

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