communication is key!


I often get asked by new researchers, generally when starting to complete their training needs analysis, which skills do I think they need to spend time to develop. This question doesn’t have a straight forward answer as everyone is different, coming to research with a range of experiences, different preferences for the kinds of activities they would enjoy focussing on and often different career pathway intensions. So obviously there isn’t a standard answer to this question (hence the purpose of completing a training needs analysis) however, if I’m really pushed to pick just one, then the choice for me is communication of your research.

Research communication has changed a lot since I was a PhD student and the goal posts have moved for what you need to be skilled at. As an academic, only having the need to describe your research simply to other academics in your or related fields and to undergraduate students is a thing of the past. To ensure research success, particularly securing research funding, you need to engage funding bodies not only with the complex descriptions of your research but also describe that research to lay members of the review panel. Equally its vitally important to be able to communicate your research across disciplines (as funding is evermore interdisciplinary in nature), to industrial collaborators, potentially patient groups (via Patient and Public involvement) and to be able to justify the impact of your research to the public.

The importance of developing communication skills for early career researchers is clear from the vast number of schemes and initiatives which have been created locally, nationally and internationally over the last few years. The reach of good communication skills seems endless both within academia and for gaining a career outside however some of the key activities for researchers that require these skills are listed below with the most common consideration for all to be who is the audience for your communication;

  • Writing journal articles (and books): which requires you to follow the accepted conventions of style and structure in your field and have an understanding of relevant journals in your field to be able to successfully pitch your article to the most suitable place.
  • Attendance at academic conferences: Conferences bring a wealth of communication styles into practise including abstract writing, oral presentations, creating posters in order to visually engage academics with your research and the ability to discuss your research during networking sessions.
  • Grant applications: not only require complex descriptions of proposed research written in accepted conventions as in journal articles but often also require a lay summary of your research and to describe the impact that your research will have.
  • 3 Minute Thesis/The elevator pitch: This is becoming more and more popular as a crucial skill to develop in order to be able to explain your research and why its important, to a lay audience in a very short amount of time. There are so many opportunities to practise and compete in this activity between the international 3 Minute Thesis competition to the extreme of many departments who now run ‘gone in 60 second’ style competitions at annual symposiums.
  • Public engagement with your research: One way to demonstrate some impact of your research is to communicate your findings to the public, via activities such as presenting at the ‘British Science week, ‘Festival of the Mind’ and locally our ‘Ignite academy’. Alternatively communicating your research via the media (radio, TV and newspapers) and via speaking to patient groups can be very powerful ways to ensure your research reaches the widest audience possible.
  • Social media and web presence: Becoming the most engaging way to ensure your research reaches a large number of people, the use of social media to highlight for instance that you have a new paper published, or have an abstract accepted at an upcoming conference using social media to your advantage is a must. Equally do you have your own research webpage?
  • Teaching: Yet another audience to communicate your research to which I don’t need to go into here.
  • Applying for a job: Whether within our outside academia there will come a time when you have to describe your research either to other researchers or in a completely different way in terms of how your research has allowed you to develop skills which are relevant to the position your are applying for.

I could go on…but it’s getting late!

So communicating your research, it may be only a couple of skills on the Researcher Development Framework (Communication media and Communication methods), but as you can see, there is so much scope for development.

One thought I do often have is that with all the support we have for early career researchers, what about our more senior academics? How have this group of researchers managed to keep their skill development up to date in a landscape of ever more increasing demands on their time? Are they keeping up with these changes in expectations? I’ve experienced a similar response from a number of senior lecturers/professors when they are asked if they would be willing to give a 3 minute thesis style presentation on their research. In my experience, the majority are happy for their PhD students to do it but would run a mile at the idea of doing it themselves.

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