Michela Candotti

Science Communication Officer (Italy)

Former researcher in computational biology at IRB Barcelona (Spain)

Michela CandottiAcademic research experience

I did my PhD at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona). I worked there for five years, spending my days simulating and analysing how proteins move, atom by atom. My thesis studied the impact of solvents on protein structure and flexibility. I really enjoyed finding patterns in my data and trying to find the most effective way to visualise them.

Overall, my PhD was a positive experience, despite experiencing typical PhD-student frustrations. I started to feel trapped in my small bit of research, which focussed on a tiny variable in a much more complex world – it felt so far from reality. I wanted to do something that could matter in the near future – not in 50 years.

So I started to shift slowly towards other activities. I was very lucky to be in an institute that encourages students to participate in broader activities. I started to be involved in the Student Council, help to organise the Students’ Symposium, disseminate our research in open days, create activities for high school students… really, I tried whatever I found interesting.

All these experiences made me aware that science communication was more than an extra activity for scientists; it is a profession with a strong impact. Science is an expensive business that uses public money and I didn't like to see the academic world closed in an ivory tower without looking for feedback from the general public. Instead, I believe that science communication is essential to modernise science. It has a dual function: it opens up science to the public and its opinion and it spreads scientific thinking, which contributes to building critical thinking, based on facts rather than superficial impressions.

Transition from academic research

 Like many other PhDs who want to leave academia, I started with no clear ideas. I attended several careers days at my institute and I also started to interview people who’d left academia for jobs that I found interesting, and collect them on a blog (thealter-natives.com – no longer online). It really helped me to talk with them; I found their stories extremely inspiring and I often found one or two sentences that resonated with me. Their examples gave me a lot of motivation to explore my own path. It also helped to take away the stigma that leaving science equals failure.

During the final year of my PhD I looked periodically for job ads in science communication and I even sent off some applications. I think it was a really good exercise to start early because writing a job application is not easy, but you can improve with practice. Plus, while you write, you become aware of your weak points, which helps you to define areas of improvement – something to add to your “to do” list.  I also checked many CVs of people doing similar jobs (LinkedIn is quite useful for this) to get an idea of why they stood out as the best candidate. So the web is full of resources, but for me the most valuable motivation came from talking directly to people who’d made a similar jump. They’d also felt that it was hard to change (even though for many of us this transition is not even regarded as a change towards something different but rather a step forward). The fact that so many people succeeded reassured me that one day I would also find my own way. But thanks to their stories and their advice I realised that you really have to put yourself out there and do your best to prove your value.

I’ve often wondered whether to do a master’s in science communication, but I was eager to get experience in the field rather than add another layer of education to my CV. So at first I tried to learn on my own: through online platforms like Coursera or Skillshare, by attending several one-day courses, and by reading online blogs on topics related to communication and design.

After a while I realised that the tips I was learning were quite repetitive and it was less obvious how to apply them in specific cases. Therefore I decided to challenge myself to “learn by doing”. Many of the practical projects I tried never got off the ground. Probably the most useful was the website alter-natives.com, where I collected my interviews of people who’d left academia. I did my best to make it a beautifully designed website, with cool pictures etc… People tend to ignore the importance of design and structure of content. We are now used to seeing really beautiful websites, with highly curated graphics and cool interactivity, so great content, in my opinion, is not enough. Similarly, I believe that that science isn’t lacking good content, but it needs to improve the way it is presented to the general public. For that reason I decided to improve my design skills.

The website remained a small-scale project; I didn't know anything about marketing at that time so it was hard to escalate it. However, it was a nice addition to my CV, because people could see what I could do. This experience landed me my first sci-comm task after my PhD: I curated a blog for a former colleague's company (alelos.com) who’d noticed my previous project.

The new project Alelos was even more challenging because I wanted to make it as visual as possible – but it was a great learning experience and again it became a great addition to my CV. I think the fact that I could show off a website where I managed multiple aspects (editing, writing, design, and other technical aspects) became the best way to introduce myself.

In the meantime, right after my PhD, I decided to move back to Italy. I’d lived in Barcelona for many years, and despite loving life in a big city, I still felt a foreigner there. In addition, while taking part in those cool public communication activities in Barcelona I thought that one day I would like to contribute in a similar way to the place where I grew up, where these science events are even rarer. I was not wholly convinced that this was the right move, but after the PhD I scheduled some time to decompress and keep learning while looking for a job. I decided to spend some time in Italy with the idea that I could still look for a job abroad. At the same time I could be closer to my family while working on alelos.com, attend courses on design, and collaborate frequently with an association that spreads science among kids (Kaleidoscienza).

To my surprise, I found my niche back in Italy, despite feeling a little bit lost after many years absence, especially when seeking the right channels to find interesting jobs. In my part of Italy there aren’t many organisations dealing with science communication, but through the word of mouth I came to know the company in which I’m currently working. I thought that there was such a good match between my profile and their business that I sent my CV even though there was no position advertised at the time. alelos.com turned out to be a great calling card and it helped me start there with a temporary training position that later became a permanent one.  

Current job – and how it compares           

 I work as Science Communication Officer for an agency (INsrl) involved in several EU-funded projects. For many of these we also curate project communication, which is my task. My work is very heterogeneous since we work across several platforms: social media, website, newsletters, posters, brochures, videos, etc. I manage both the creation of the content, in collaboration with the scientists involved in the projects, and its implementation, which requires more technical skills and the knowledge of specific software (Adobe Suite, Wordpress, etc.).

A major difference from research in academia is that most of the time I can see the impact of my current job in a reasonable amount of time, while often in science you wait years before getting realistic feedback on what you did. The downside is that my PhD is not sufficiently valued as a past experience. I’m often seen as a person who changed career and had to restart from the beginning, whereas I believe that my experience in research is the major source of my forma mentis or way of thinking.  Anyway, I’m convinced that in the near future hybrid profiles will be not only more common but even more required and well paid.

Competencies old and new

My background enables me to understand scientific jargon and it guides me in extracting relevant information from highly technical content, even without grasping all the detail. Knowledge of the academic world also helps me to relate to scientists and, as a former researcher, I can communicate the scientific rigour that is both important and appealing to the reader (we all dislike sensationalism). My computational background and experience in data visualisation have often come in handy too. But the most important skill I acquired as a researcher is the confidence to work with the unknown. When you start a new project you have no idea where it will lead you and you are always questioning if you are guiding it in the right direction. When you jump into a new job you can handle it in a similar way, as if you are conducting a new research project.   

For my new job, I had to become much more sensitive to everything related to communication, paying attention to details that before I did not even notice i.e. colours, alignments, hierarchy between elements…luckily I find this world intriguing and I'm eager to keep on learning about it.  For example, I’m still upgrading my basic coding skills with web-design to create more appealing and ad hoc websites without depending on developers, and getting to know the world of social media and digital marketing. As in research, you never stop learning if you are constantly looking for new ways to improve your work.

Reflecting on my career path

I don’t regret my years in academia. Equally, I’m glad I realised quite early in my career that I could shift away from it. During the last year of my PhD I started to dedicate most of my free time to understanding my next career move. It was a hectic period during which I also had to face the failure of several projects. It can be pretty frustrating, but it is important to persist during this phase and keep on learning from past mistakes.

I want to continue working in science communication and, since I’m very passionate about citizen science and the synergic action between science and art, I hope that one day I will get involved in those too! I sense a changing relationship between science and the public and I’m eager to help that relationship grow.

My advice

Many people know that they want to leave academia but they don’t know what else they can do. If this is your situation, try to get involved in as many extra activities as you can and keep on looking for interesting profiles – sooner or later something will catch your attention.

Try to plan your moves quite far ahead. It takes time to build new skills or simply to understand what other jobs you can do and to build a network. Talking with people who made a similar move can give you a lot of ideas – that’s why projects like Vitae are of vital importance!

And once you have defined a field, try to get involved in related activities or talk to people currently doing that job – most of them will be happy to help you.

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