14 July 2010
By Web Admin
By Liz Simmonds, Careers Adviser for Postdocs in Physical Sciences and Technology at Cambridge University Careers Service.
As I hunt through job advertisements with researchers, one thing comes up again and again: communication skills. In today’s working environment, there aren’t many opportunities to work in isolation, so most employers are looking for individuals who can communicate well with a range of people, whether its customers, colleagues from different backgrounds, or senior management. If you can add to that the ability to write clearly and deliver a good presentation, you’re a long way to offering an attractive package to any future employer.
So, how do you go about developing and practising these all-important communication skills? One answer is public engagement activities. There are many reasons why researchers choose to get involved with public engagement. Some feel a responsibility to communicate the results of their work, and to help the public, often the paymaster, understand its importance. Others are passionate about improving the public perception of, for example, science and scientists, and encouraging more young people to study these subjects. But whatever the reason, there is no denying it’s a benefit for your career development.
From CV points to new directions
In many HEIs it’s difficult not to get involved with some kind of public engagement activity, and that’s beauty of it. In recent years, public outreach has become increasingly popular, and many institutions lay on ready-made activities at public festivals, school visits and open days. It’s perfectly possible to turn up with minimal preparation, offer an hour or two of your time, and in exchange gain valuable experience communicating with all sorts of people – from enthusiastic tots who want hands-on fun, to bored teenagers, to the super-keen parents who think they remember a bit of science themselves from years ago. And if you can keep them all successfully entertained, you’ve got a great tale to recall in interview when you’re challenged with ‘tell me about a time you’ve used your communication skills’.
For those who are keen to get more involved, there are plenty of opportunities to develop demonstrations and activities based on your own research. The experience is an ideal way to demonstrate real creativity in communication – another thing that will impress potential employers. And to add to the buzz of activity going on in HEIs, there are plenty of national schemes that you can join, some of which offer perks such as formal media training, and may be well recognised by employers.
But what if the thought of standing up in front of an audience isn’t your thing? If you’re still keen to communicate your research more widely, don’t neglect opportunities to write for the student press or other publications within your institution, such as research magazines or alumni newsletters. Editors are often crying out for material, and it can be a useful way to raise your own profile in an institution. The downside is that you’ll probably receive less support or training for this kind of activity, but if you can do it well, you’ll have a skill much in demand and which fewer people can demonstrate.
If you find you really enjoy outreach and have a talent for communicating your research, it might be something you want to consider a career in. Careers in publishing, journalism, PR, policy-making, even running outreach schemes, are popular and viable alternatives to the traditional academic route. It’s a way to use the knowledge and skills you’ve gained in your research, and perhaps keep in touch with your field in a broader sense. But these are competitive sectors with no one established route in, which is why the key to success is experience and contacts: things which public engagement activity offers you in spades. Sheena Elliott, who did her PhD in physics, is one of these success stories. ‘The outreach and other voluntary communications work I did while studying for my PhD was one of the things that convinced me I’d like a career in science communication. The experience I gained opened the door to a position in media relations at the Royal Society of Chemistry, and I’m now the Communications Manager for Science, Education and Industry there’, she says.
But I want to be an academic
Employers want good communicators, experience is essential for careers in communication, but what, I hear you ask, is the point of all this if I want to stay in academia? Surely my time would be better spent working on getting out more publications? It’s true that for academic career paths, it’s most important that you have a good research track record, but public engagement experience is not without its benefits, as Prof. Val Gibson of Cambridge University asserts: ‘The ability to engage with sponsors, decision makers, school children and the general public is a key aspect of an academic's life. If you are unable to explain your research in an accessible manner, it becomes more difficult to secure funding and enthuse the next generation to join your quest for new discoveries.’ And when it comes to securing a permanent academic position, public engagement activity shows that you have the potential to teach, to design lectures and practical classes (for example, if you’ve been involved with designing your own activity), and that you’re the kind of person who takes their academic responsibilities seriously and gets involved with the life of a department. ‘It is always a positive bonus to hear that a prospective academic has actively contributed to or led outreach activities at a reasonable level within their research groups’, adds Prof. Gibson.
So whichever career path you eventually hope to take, it’s clear that getting involved with some kind of public engagement will look good on your CV, as well as being great fun, and easy to get involved with. What are you waiting for...?
Vitae would like to thank the author for contributing this article. Vitae would like to remind readers that the information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vitae or CRAC: The career development organisation. This article has been published as part of Vitae's Public engagement online activity in July 2010. To view other articles on this theme please visit www.vitae.ac.uk/publicengagement
Vitae would like to thank the author for contributing this article. Vitae would like to remind readers that the information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vitae or CRAC: The career development organisation.
This article has been published as part of Vitae's Public engagement online activity in July 2010. To view other articles on this theme please visit www.vitae.ac.uk/publicengagement
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