Academics communicating on The Outside

Recently, an article was published on the Thesis Whisperer blog, “Academic on the inside?
about how Science PhDs are perceived by non-academic employees.

Science students, fresh out of their PhD were described as emotionally unaware, poor team players, bad communicators and inept project managers.

For this reason, the Graduate School of Science at the University of Melbourne works together with the Melbourne Business School to offer MSc students a course on Scientists, Communication & the Workplace. I’ve been the Lecturer and Coordinator of this course for 3 years now, and so I thought I’d write about what we do in that subject, and how some of the things we do are relevant for all PhDs, in Science and more broadly. (Also, I was encouraged by @AcadSkillsMelb, @ResearchWhisper and @ThesisWhisperer herself… thanks guys!)

Cross-Cultural Communication

One of the most important things when trying to work with others (either in a team, or to communicate with them), is to remember that we are talking to others.

This is very obvious to someone from a social studies or humanities background—for us the concept of Otherness has been part of, or central to, our critical approaches for over 50 years. The ‘Other’ (a concept developed by French theorists including de Beauvoir and Lacan) is anyone who is not the self, is not ‘one of us’, is not ‘with me’. This is part of a child’s development (that traumatic moment when they realise that their mother is not part of them, but an autonomous human being), but it’s also part of how cultures are developed (being a ‘nation’ requires that other people be ‘foreign’, being a ‘citizen’ requires that other people be ‘aliens’ etc). For my students, those Other people are ‘non-scientists’ or ‘non-experts’ or ‘non-academics’ (various negative terms that show how they are ‘not us’).

Science and the Academy are very powerful paradigms of thinking, socialising, communicating and working. The problem with a paradigm is that when you are inside it, you don’t notice—that’s just the ‘way things are’. In Science and in the Academy, being correct is very important: so not only are we just the way we are, we are also certain we are right. So those Others are not only different, but probably wrong too.

Except they aren’t. They are just trying to do different kinds of tasks, under different conditions, for different goals. The first step is learning to acknowledge your own assumptions about how to communicate, how teams work, what people want. Then you just have to start listening to the experience of those Others, and starting to include their preferences and ways of working in your own practices.

Once you’ve stopped and thought about it, it’s pretty obvious; and as Inger said in her blog, doctoral candidates “are good learners, remember?”.

What is the communication for?

One of the major differences between academic communication and professional communication is its purpose. Academic communication includes things like conference presentations, articles, posters, and assessed tasks (like lab reports and theses). The purpose of these is to demonstrate how much knowledge and research you have done yourself. Academic communication is of this kind is basically for dissemination: “I’ve done all this work, and now I’m going to tell you all about it”.

Professional communication is rarely about dissemination, and rarely about demonstrating what you know, what work you have done, or what you have found out. Too often, doctoral candidate CVs read like academic biographies, “look at what I know”. Instead, professional job applications need to say “look what I can do for your company”. In the same way, a research report for a professional audience is less “look what I have researched”, and more “this is what I recommend you do next”. That’s why we suggest you put your conclusion at the beginning, and cut your methods and results down to a couple of sentences and a graph or two.

The reason for that is clear—in academia, I want to know all about your research because I want to use it for my research. (It also helps so I can peer review it, and possibly attempt to replicate it). We want to produce more research. In professional settings, the research is just the preface to getting out there and making business plans or creating products or giving advice.

How is being an expert different from being a student?

The final aspect of this is something that all people who successfully gain a PhD need to learn—how to move from being a student to being an expert. This is useful whether you leave academia and work in industry; if you remain in academia and start to lecture, apply for grants and lead research teams; or if, like me, you work in university settings but in slightly oblique ways (I call myself a “para-academic”—I research and teach at tertiary level, but I don’t have a Faculty position).

Much student communication is done in bizarre classroom environments, where 70 people of about the same experience and education level are made to give presentations, write reports and work in teams with people who know exactly the same information on a specific topic, to the satisfaction of a single expert who is also the source of the majority of the specialist knowledge held by the class. That is, I give the lecture and set the readings, I set the assessment tasks and I mark them. Everyone in the room has had the same information given to them. They do well in the assessment tasks, when they demonstrate that they understood what was in the lectures and the readings that I set.

When you are an independent and expert researcher, the point of communication is not to show you can work in these kinds of environments. A global expert, being published in Nature, giving public lectures to large audiences, and getting grants from major national funding bodies, needs to be able to communicate his research and it’s value to a range of people beyond her tiny sub-field specialisation. Sometimes, because you did half an hour of reading before the meeting, you are now the expert in the room: you still need to be able to communicate what you found out, in a persuasive way, to a group of people who don’t have that knowledge yet. It’s the same set of skills, just at different scales. In neither case is the purpose of that expertise to demonstrate your expertise (though some academics do act that way); instead the purpose of your expertise is to give useful information or advice to someone who needs that knowledge to achieve their own goals.

And that takes us back to the beginning. Who is your audience? What are their goals? What do they want to achieve? How can you help them achieve that?

So that…

Inger suggests that ‘changing this academic formula to produce more ‘business ready’ graduates is dangerous’ because that might dilute the rigour of academic training. That’s why my course is designed to run alongside courses on Algebraic Topology, Digital Geoscience and the Flora of Victoria. It complements student’s ability to write academically, and to defend their work in academic settings.

What’s more, being able to critically analyse the academic and scientific paradigms can be a significant aide to succeeding in those contexts, as demonstrated by blogs like Thesis Whisperer, Research Whisperer and, I hope, Research Degree Voodoo.

Being able to critically analyse these paradigms also means you can look at which of your skills are transferrable (from my PhD: I write well and fast, I can work on my own, I can make well-researched recommendations, I can manage large projects, I can speak in front of large groups of people). It also helps you to see which skills you need to get from somewhere else (from my other experience: I work well with colleagues, I write succinctly, I can manage a budget, I can manage other staff). Obviously, these are skills that anyone who wants to transition from being a PhD Candidate to a person with a job (inside or outside academia) is going to need.

So, a bit of empathy, a small dose of social science, and some common sense is all you need. Whether you are filling out Key Selection Criteria for your post-doc application, or writing a conference paper abstract, or presenting to a Select Committee, or contributing to a debate about how to meet this month’s efficiency target… think about the Other people, what they need to hear, and you will work brilliantly in teams, and be a brilliant communicator.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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