– Tyler J. Ford, Ph.D. –
Now that I’ve got my PhD, and I’ve been working in a science communication position for a few years, I’m often asked how I “ended up” in SciComm. The first thing to point out is that I certainly didn’t just “end up” here. I made conscious efforts to prepare myself for my current position. Unlike many, I knew that I did not want to go into academia prior to starting grad school and made deliberate decisions that helped build my career skills.
Of course, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do after school (grad school or otherwise) in order to prepare for an array of possible futures. In this story, I’ll walk through why I decided to go to graduate school in the first place, show why learning some SciComm skills is a fantastic idea regardless of what career you’re after, and provide some concrete tips on how to build your transferable skills for a fulfilling career.
Understanding by Doing – Why I went to grad school
My journey to my current position at Addgene started long before I got my PhD. Back when I was applying for undergrad, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I loved to draw, write, and learn how things worked. After spending some time in a humanities intensive program at Boston University, I realized that I enjoyed learning how the physical/biological world works a little bit (though not a crazy amount) more than I enjoyed learning about the intricacies of human interaction and expression and therefore focused my studies on the physical and life sciences.
This slight preference for the sciences propelled me forward through years of learning and research in biochemistry and molecular biology but, all the while, I continued to read about, take classes in, and enjoy the humanities (philosophy in particular). As I finished up undergrad, I had the opportunity to present my undergraduate research at conferences and to friends and family. I realized that it was the communication aspect of science that I liked most. At the same time, I recognized that huge problems like global warming, overpopulation, and income equality require complex analyses and solutions.
To be put into practice, these solutions need to be made more palatable to scientists and nonscientists alike. By the end of undergrad I therefore knew I wanted to do my part by becoming a science communicator who understands the scientific process and can accurately communicate its benefits to nonscientists. It continues to be my hope that successful science communication will help us better tackle major world problems.
The two best ways to learn about anything are to do them and to teach them. With that in mind, my first step to understanding how science/research works was to become a researcher myself. I applied to graduate school and was accepted into the Biological and Biomedical Science program at Harvard University where I worked on a project that aimed to make bacteria produce gasoline. I was in graduate school for five years and while there I did many things to improve my science communication skills. Some of these include:
- Presenting my data whenever I got the opportunity – Whether this was at lab meetings, for other members of my grad class, at conferences, or through writing, I took every opportunity to talk about my work. These presentations were testing grounds for anecdotes, cartoons, and comedy.
- Teaching – I was a teaching assistant in a few graduate classes, but also went out of my way to tutor 5th graders for a couple years. The graduate classes were great, but my fifth graders taught me a lot more about how hard it is to convince people to care about topics they aren’t innately interested in. I always tried to incentivize their work. I played four square, I provided candy rewards, and sometimes I just told them why I thought what we were doing was useful. Not all of my tactics worked, but I certainly learned that you must fight for your audience’s attention.
- Writing/Editing – Of course I wrote and edited my scientific works, but I also worked with my boss to write about the lab for a non-scientific publication, wrote for a student group that focused on science communication with the public (Science In The News, SITN), and edited for that same group. I also worked on my own blog where I tried to communicate science through comics. That last one fell by the wayside as graduate school went on (graduate school is a lot of work!), but it was fantastic practice.
- Took on leadership positions – In the lab, I was often the one organizing events. These could have been beer hours, parties for people graduating, or even camping trips. These things may seem trivial, but I worked in a relatively large lab (~30 people or so) and had to learn how to coordinate people while also convincing them to do a little extra work for a fun pay off. In addition, I took on a role as Editor in Chief for the science communication group I mentioned above. This left me in charge of a team of editors and meant I had to manage the group’s blog, interactions with writers, and some of its social media. I also had to coordinate with other student managers to make sure the organization ran smoothly as a whole. If you make the effort to stay attentive and involved in organizations outside the lab, you’ll likely end up with management/leadership opportunities like this one.
All of the above activities helped me develop my science communication skills, but they also fostered skills that will be useful for any career. Many of the skills you learn in science communication – speaking concisely and simply, distilling complex information into its key components, and knowing your audience (to name a few) – are good for communication whether you’re talking about science or not. In addition, simply working with many different people (and not just putting your head down and doing experiments) will teach you how to collaborate, negotiate/delegate work, and to learn about/correct your own flaws. If you’re given the opportunity to lead a group, you’ll gain mentorship/management skills that may enable you to quickly rise through the ranks at a future employer.
I should take this time to also point out that, in the few months between undergrad and graduate school, I took on a marketing internship at Addgene. Although there was a lot of busy work involved in this job, I worked hard at it and was given the opportunity to do some of the first science communication work done at Addgene. I also made professional friendships (developed my network) while at Addgene. When I applied for my current position at Addgene after graduate school, these friendships were critical in my decision to apply, interviewing successfully, and even suggesting a salary. Although the activities I describe below made me a great candidate for the position, having a network of people to talk to (and who likely vouched for me during the interview process) definitely made it much easier.
Science Communication at Addgene
After spending a few months getting up to speed on how Addgene works and getting into the groove of completing my daily tasks, I was able to mold the position to incorporate projects that are both good for the company and align with my interests. My previous experience as a science communicator, my desire to try new things, and my ability (largely developed while working on a PhD) to research and manage new projects, gave my managers the confidence to allow me to help shape the position this way.
At Addgene I now do a ton of science communication including:
- Editing and (sometimes) writing blog posts about new materials being distributed by the company as well as posts about new developments in molecular biology, tips for work in the lab, and science careers.
- Podcasting – On the Addgene podcast we interview researchers in the molecular-biological sciences. It’s lots of fun and we’re always coming up with new ideas for how the podcasts/audio in general can improve listeners understanding of Addgene and the Addgene community.
- Videos – We have videos that demonstrate protocols for the lab, videos that describe how to use Addgene’s services, and videos that generally promote Addgene
- Talks/Presentations – Addgene is a leader in Open Science and we make great efforts to talk about what we do and give others ideas about how they can become involved. I additionally give talks about blogging and about science careers.
I love all of these things, but, you shouldn’t be fooled, there will always be some boredom involved with any project and all of these activities involve some boredom (whether it be listening to the same podcast many times or going over the 5th draft of a blog post). Like many successful people, I am not opposed to some boredom if it helps me accomplish important tasks and my variety of tasks keeps my job from getting too boring at any time.
Even with all of these great things going on at work, I make sure to take time to foster both new and old skills. For instance I’ve taken web design classes and drawing classes, I read constantly, I draw often, and I maintain my own website with my own writing and other work. Similar to the extracurriculars I participated in during graduate school, these activities help me get away from work when I need to and provide me with new skills that may be useful in the future.
Tips on Building Your Science Communication and Transferrable Skills
I like to think of myself as a pretty successful science communicator (and can provide the stats to prove it), but, like I said above, I made concrete efforts to develop my skills while in graduate school. You can do similar things to develop your own skills and below I list the top 3 things I think you should do if you want to prepare yourself for a future career in Science Communication or elsewhere.
Those are my top 3 tips distilled. One other thing that I can’t stress enough is this: even if you don’t know precisely what career you’d like in the future, you can do many things to boost your career skills anyway. Indeed, many of the things I discussed above (networking in particular) will help you learn more about the possibilities that are open to you and help you decide what the next step in your career will be. As I said, even with how much I love my job, I’m doing many things outside of Addgene that will help me grow as a person and as a professional. Who knows, maybe these things will evolve into the next steps of my own career someday.
Tyler J. Ford is an Outreach Scientist at Addgene, the nonprofit plasmid repository. Tyler received his BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Boston University and his PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Harvard. In his role as an Outreach Scientist, Tyler produces and edits blog and media content that helps scientists learn what research materials are available from the repository and how they can use those materials. Tyler also travels all over North America telling researchers about Addgene and convincing them to deposit their materials in the repository. If you have any questions please feel free to shoot Tyler a message on Twitter @tyfordfever.