The ability to communicate effectively is a crucial skill in science, one whose importance of course extends to most professions. Graduate groups as a whole, and mentors in later years, place an enormous amount of energy in cultivating this skill as a part of predoctoral training. The intent is to have students be able to communicate their work and ideas with precision, clarity, and purpose. Training is achieved through venues as varied as grant or grant-like proposals, scientific manuscripts, one-on-one sessions with mentors and others, journal clubs, post-rotation talks, candidacy examinations, lab meetings, and local and/or national meetings. Communication is not just about conveying one’s ideas to others: throughout all of these activities one learns to listen effectively, both to improve skills and, as importantly, to exchange ideas that promote great science.
The mechanisms of communication that are a focus in predoctoral training are divided below into written and oral.
We express ourselves in writing every day. But few of these activities are as exacting as writing scientific manuscripts and grant proposals. They are consummate exercises in communication. Several graduate groups have courses in scientific writing that address this need directly. Students also gain a great sense of what works, and what doesn’t, through the enormous number of papers they read and the advice of mentors in their own efforts. And while one might think that this form of communication is more or less specific to science, it’s not. Absent a certain amount of jargon and tailoring, it speaks to getting ideas and facts across in a clear and compelling fashion.
Scientific manuscripts. Every student will write during the course of predoctoral training several manuscripts covering her or his work and sometimes, by way of a review, the discipline itself. Writing is undertaken with the guidance of a mentor, with attention given through often multiple drafts to all elements of style and content. All will agree that it’s a transformative process: it is the culmination of a process that begins with a unique and biologically relevant question, addresses that question through a series of well conceived, executed, and interpreted experiments, and communicates a synthesis of the data to fellow scientists and the public as both a meaningful advance and a premise for the next set of questions. Could it get much more important?
Grant proposals. All students are encouraged to write proposals for individual National Research Service Awards (i.e. F30s and F31s) provided by the National Institutes of Health, or awards from other government or nongovernment agencies. The reasons for doing so should make sense: training, prestige, and funding. The requirement in the candidacy exam for a proposal regarding one’s intended thesis work provides a similar, if more restricted, experience. Additionally, students will have access to mentors’ proposals and will often help in writing or reviewing them. A grant proposal is a vehicle for the ideas, perspectives, and direction unique to an investigator. Putting together a grant proposal is an intellectual exercise without parallel, and one that is immensely satisfying for this and for what the funding affords.
And by way of advice: if you have access to a writing course through your or another graduate group, take advantage of it! Here for example are the resources used in the Cell and Molecular Biology graduate group’s Scientific Writing course, which together with lectures additionally works on writing skills through structured excersises in small-group settings:
- The Science of Scientific Writing by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan, American Scientist 78: 550-8, 1990, also available at http://www.americanscientist.org/ (use search term (‘Gopen and Swan’).
- Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace and/or Style: The Lessons in Clarity and Grace by J. M. Williams.
- How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by R.A. Day and B. Gastel.
It’s rare to have a student at the outset of training who can communicate the complexities of a scientific endeavor with poise and confidence. Some individuals have talents that predispose them to talking within small or large groups, to be sure, but effective oral communication is in fact a skill that comes with training, repetition, and patience.
One-on-one meetings with an advisor. An especially vital form of communication is that between a student and his or her mentor, occurring usually on a weekly basis and beginning in the first year of training with rotation projects. The purpose of these meetings is usually to go over acquired data, interpretations, immediate needs, and plans. The student is able to achieve through these meetings a broader perspective on problem-solving, of course, but any worthwhile exchange requires the student to have worked in advance through the data and its implications to the fullest extent possible and to then present his or her thoughts at the meeting concisely, in prioritized form, and without ambiguity. The one-on-one with an advisor is mirrored to varying extents in conversations with collaborators and, at scientific meetings, with individuals interested in your poster or in communicating with you further.
Lab meetings. Students learn quickly through the medium of small group settings – especially lab meetings – the extraordinary value of working with diverse and talented individuals. A lab meeting is perhaps more formal than a one-on-one exchange with an advisor, but it covers the same territory, i.e. data, interpretations, needs, and plans. The need for clarity is paramount. Framing the presentation is also essential – it’s not the venue for simply dumping data and having everyone make of it what they will. Rather, the presentation requires an introduction as an overview to bring everyone up to speed, a logical sequence of data, and a conclusion that makes clear what’s been gained and what’s required going forward. Discussion of any slide relating to data should include the type of experiment it represents, the rationale for why the experiment was undertaken, a description of the data, an interpretation of the data including its statistical strength, and a conclusion. Objectivity is key – trying to put a spin on data will fool no one and will be counterproductive in more ways than one could ever want.
Large group (intramural). An extension of the lab meeting is a presentation to larger groups of affiliated laboratories or one’s graduate group or department. The skills are much like those employed in a lab meeting, but at a higher level. One must be able to gauge the background and needs of the audience, develop a compelling narrative, create an engaging set of slides and/or other audiovisuals, comport oneself well in the sense of strength and modulation of voice, eye-contact, and mannerisms, and keep a sense of proportioned and overall timing.
Regional and national meetings. Participation in regional and national meetings is encouraged for all students, especially when they have a reached a point in their research when publication is imminent. Participation often takes the form of a poster presentation, but it can take the form of a short talk as well, for example based on how organizers perceive the quality and fit of the abstract with other elements of the meeting. As an aside, it is not a bad idea to become a member of the scientific society most relevant to your work or future aspirations and to become involved to the extent possible in administrative/advisory tasks. Your society’s familiarity with you may help in positioning your work for a talk, but it has incredible benefits in terms of networking. Talks at the level of regional and national meetings will be short, generally 15–20 min, and many of the people in attendance will be interested in what you and your lab are doing from their position of expertise. It is important that your talk is clear and to the point – it is not a matter of showing how much you’ve done but what’s most important. One or two points well made, and thus memorable, are far better than a quick succession of too many slides. The slides you use must be crystal clear, and each one must count. You will not be able to speak beyond your time constraint. What this means is that you need to practice your talk and its timing many times beforehand, especially in front of colleagues, all the while honing the words and slides. Talks are usually opened to questions at the end, so it’s important to anticipate what these questions might be. In your response to a question, it is particularly helpful to reiterate the question before proceeding to address it. All the skills mentioned in the previous section have a bearing here, but the constraints and, yes, the opportunity make especially important your professionalism. As an aside, be prepared to engage in discussions with individuals who are potential collaborators/competitors afterward. Your advisor can (and should) help with this.
Interactions with the public. Who of us as scientists have not discussed the work we do with members of our family, friends, the person sitting next to us on an airplane, or others at social occasions? These kinds of discussions are important. But the impact of scientists through interactions with society extends well beyond them. A good discussion of this impact is provided in the RCR module ‘Scientists as Responsible Members of Society.’ This module also provides references and case-studies that that address this in depth. Interactions with the public, of course, extend to outreach. The Neuroscience Graduate Group’s GLIA initiative (https://nggglia.wordpress.com/opportunities/outreach/) provides a number of extraordinary examples of how effective this can be.
Two great resources referring to oral communication skills, provided by Mike Nusbaum, are “Talk Preparations and Presentation” and “Interactive Learning.” They are included here.