I’m co-teaching a graduate course called Science Career Next Steps this semester. It’s a new course we’re piloting, and I’m thrilled to be leading a specific mindset and work-life-harmony thread of the course. I’m also coming to the course as someone who didn’t start in academia and only recently considered an academic career as a viable option. So, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for insights and resources to help me navigate my own transition into academia.
Prepping for this week’s time-tracking workshop (woot! yes, I am actively enthusiastic about that kind of self-study), I ran across a set of advice and resources I compiled for graduate students a few years ago. I’ve updated them and shared them below, in case they are of any help to folks who are early-career or considering a career transition.
There are a number of possible approaches for making progress toward academic and professional goals that I’ve found useful at various stages in my own (often-rocky) transition into an academic career. I started out with a “yes to everything” workaholic approach. That became starkly unsustainable, and I’ve now spent years figuring out an approach that enables me to do meaningful work without crashing and burning. I’ve especially prioritized advice and perspectives that now help me stay focused on the work that I am passionate about: making the world a better place by facilitating change and capacity building in people and systems/organizations.
The perspectives below are derived from a host of sources. This means different approaches will work for different people, and/or your mileage may vary depending on project stages, life events, external circumstances, etc. By no means are these nuggets of insight the only advice, or even the best advice.* And, some of these approaches may be difficult or even counterproductive for some folks. However, they are some starting points into discourse and resources around these ideas. (Please share yours in the comments or on Twitter!)
If you’re looking for a starting point for understanding evidence-based, inclusive science communication, the literature about science communication can be overwhelming. This body of literature, sometimes known as the science of science communication, is actually a collection of disciplines that ranges from behavioral psychology to economics, and from writing studies to data visualization, and more.
The course bibliography I distribute in my undergraduate and graduate courses on science communication can be a helpful orientation to these bodies of literature and how you can apply them to a range of concepts and challenges inherent in science communication. The course bibliography is organized by topic area, following the three major modules in my course on Applied Principles of Science Communication:
Foundations of Science Communication
Science of SciComm 101
Connecting Science & Society
Understanding Interest Groups, Influencers, and Impacted Groups
I’ve been itching to share this news, and now I can: I’m writing a book I’ve been wanting to write for nearly a decade!!
I’m co-writing it with Stephen Heard. It’s been hard to keep this quiet for so long, but we’ve just signed a contract with the University of Chicago Press (UCP), so now it’s official. Hooray! 🥳
What’s the book about, you ask? Well, it’s not (technically) about science communication, and it’s not about art-science integration. (Maybe, 🤞🤞 I’ll write books on those topics someday!) Instead, this book is something I’ve been working on in the background, just not writing much about here on CommNatural.
The CommNatural audience (that’s you!) is pretty omnivorous in its interests, and many of you may not even be academics or involved with science. That’s okay. The key thing to know is that I work with, coach, teach, and consult with a lot of folks who find helping students (or other developing writers) write better is difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating. And Steve and I know these folks want help – they ask us for it. That’s where our book comes in.
Ever since I started training in writing pedagogy, I’ve recognized an opportunity to help folks deal with something our book tackles head-on. Our working title is Helping Students Write in the Sciences: Strategies for Efficient and Effective Mentoring of Developing Writers. Writing is a huge part of the job of a scientist, and it’s hard – but teaching and mentoring writing is too, and it’s harder.
This book is for folks who answer yes to at least one of the following questions:
Do you work with grad students, undergrad researchers, postdocs, or other early-career colleagues that you’d like to help write better?
Do you use (and, likely, grade) writing assignments in lecture or lab courses?
Do you teach a unit or a course in scientific writing or communication?
Why do those questions drive the book’s audience? Well, we’ve made a central observation that inspired and informed our book proposal to UCP. Scientific writing is a huge part of what we do as scientists, but almost no scientists have any formal training in it.And then, even fewer have any training in helping others learn scientific writing. Of course, if someone wants to learn to write better and more easily in science, a lack of formal training needn’t be fatal. There are books (cough cough, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – another of Steve’s books!), blogs, courses, you name it.
But if you trained in science, and you want to learn to teach or mentor writers better or more easily, you’ll have a much tougher time finding resources.
That’s not because there aren’t effective and efficient ways to mentor/teach developing writers. In fact, there are whole academic disciplines concerned with exactly this challenge (rhetoric, composition, and writing studies; and the scholarship of teaching and learning). These fields have an enormous base of knowledge, written by experts and packed with evidence-based good practices. But, in our experience, scientists generally don’t read that literature. When they try, they find themselves up against two problems.
They find much of this research inaccessible, thick with disciplinary jargon.
They find little of it specific to teaching/mentoring writing in the sciences.
Even if much of what works is universal, there’s a lot to be gained by considering it in a familiar context. We are confident we can help, with Helping Students Write. We can offer concrete, actionable, evidence-based* advice, couched in language and contexts that scientists will understand. If you follow this advice, you’ll spend less time working with student writing while seeing better results. We know, that’s a big claim. But each of us has been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time**.
We’ve come to this book project and our overlapping interests from very different directions, though. Steve is just like (we suspect) most of the folks we hope will read our book. He came to teaching/mentoring scientific writers from necessity, without any training or expertise. He admits that he struggles with the jargon of the writing-pedagogy literature; and for many years he’s been frustrated by how difficult and time-consuming it is to help the writers he wants to help. On the other hand, I’m is trained in writing studies, writing pedagogy, literature and creative writing, and the science of science communication. For years I’ve been looking for (and developing) solutions to the clear disconnect between writing frustration in the sciences and the expertise that exists on the other side of most campuses. We’ve written a couple of chapters already and we’re convinced that, as a team, we can offer what you need to bridge the gaps.
Now the bad news: you can’t read Helping Students Write just yet. We’ve committed to delivering the manuscript in March 2024, and the book should be available by the end of that year. But while you’re waiting (for two whole years!), we’ll have some appetizers for you. Watch this space (and Steve’s blog too) for related thoughts, excerpts, and other teasers.
And tell us, please: if you were reading Helping Students Write, what would you most like to find it in? We’ll see what we can do.
*If you’ve been reading CommNatural for a while, you’ll know that I am fond of footnotes. Turns out Steve is, too! In Helping Students Write, we’ll take advantage of that. The main text will present our advice, in accessible language pinned directly to contexts in science. Then, we’ll use endnotes to back that advice up with evidence from the literature on writing pedagogy. If you’re willing to take our word for what’s in that literature, great – you can ignore the endnotes. But if you’d like to know more, our endnotes will be there for you as an entry point to a literature that, while extensive and sometimes dense, has a lot to offer.
**As long-time readers here know, I’ve lived former lives as a science journalist, science communication consultant for research groups, and academic editor. More recently, I co-developed curriculum and a program-specific textbook for the University of Wyoming freshman composition program, co-developed and run an annual academic writing mindset program around scholarly writing practices, and launched a Writing Science column and Communicating Science section in The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Bottom line: I teach and study effective approaches to writing and communication. And, I coach faculty, postdocs, and non-academic researchers to better support undergraduate and graduate students’ scientific writing and science communication.
Last year, I launched Meteor, a podcast, with friend, collaborator, and fellow dreamer-schemer Virginia Schutte. We just wrapped Season 2 a few weeks ago, and I am so pleased to have so much to share with you!
We started Meteor because we crave advanced-user conversations with other mid-career scicomm professionals (like us!). We intended to use Meteor to learn and grow together, and check each other when we need it. Our plan was to dig into things as wide-ranging as branding, projects that matter, privilege, and inclusive science communication, with actionable, tangible steps to level up.
I have been working in scicomm for over 20 years, and it’s like you areinside my head. ~Meteor listener
In the first ten episodes, we covered all sorts of topics. Here are a few of my favorites:
I teach numerous Sketching for Scientists workshops each semester, for faculty, students, and science/science-allied professionals beyond academia. Each time, we do a lively, evidence-based crash course in habits of mind and foundational drawing techniques. I keep the focus tightly on integrating drawing with doing and sharing science, and for faculty, there is an additional coaching element where I help them think through curricular planning that can make grading feasible and productive and convincingly convey the value and utility of drawing for learning science.
Each time I run these workshops, I share a list of the techniques we’ve discussed, as a memory aid.
Here’s that list, in case it’s also helpful for you!