Thursday, 21 November 2013

So, what do you do? Working on a science 'elevator pitch'

Despite the fact that I regularly write about science on this blog, I find communicating science quite a challenge and I often go away from a situation wishing that I had done a better job of answering that most crucial of questions:

"So, what do you do?"

The question can come from a variety of sources, ranging right from the hot-shot visiting Professor to an interested (or just polite) friend or acquaintance in the pub. In fact it could be almost any situation, anywhere, anytime, and you have to be ready. If you are anything like me, you will have already come across people who switch off immediately from you the moment you start explaining that you are a scientist, and what you do. On the other hand, I've had some really great conversations with people where I've felt they really got into what I was saying and I've come away with my perceptions changed a little bit too.

It's my general opinion that not an awful lot of useful conversations happen in lifts, but this science communication challenge is just like the 'elevator pitch' that I have heard mentioned quite a few times, usually as a means to improve one's communication skills. This is a 30-second to 2-minute pitch to get across the important aspects of yourself or your work (or any thing or concept for that matter). One of the skills I suppose is to get to the point by cutting through the jargon and specialized language (which on one hand empowers scientists to express themselves to one another) to reveal the true motivation beneath. I heard a rumour that there is a Pro-Vice-Chancellor out there somewhere who likes to ask a similar thing as an interview question to prospective job candidates: "How would you explain what you do to my mother over tea and biscuits?"

Typical lift conversation.
I'd argue that in most circumstances if you've been asked "what do you do?" your initial answer needs to be done well inside thirty seconds. By some reckonings that is half a side of paper in response to a four word question. In my mind the key is to have layers and then come back with more details if the person is interested.

So I've come up with this Twitter elevator pitch which fits into ten tweets. I'll tweet it from @scienceontoast around the time I post this up. The aim here is that, like with the interested acquaintance in the pub, a good way to build your pitch is to start simple and then give more information as it becomes relevant, i.e. not answer the "what to you do?" question with a fifty minute lecture. I hope that this pitch would make sense if you only read the first tweet, the first three, or all ten. And of course, we all know that science is a long story really, but even the longest stories have to start somewhere.

Mike Weir's 10 tweet science pitch:

1. I'm a scientist at the University of Sheffield. I work on plastics. I study what happens when we mix other materials into plastics. 

2. We make composites by putting additives into plastics. The composites' properties are (we hope) improved over those of the pure material.

3. Our aim is to make plastic composites that are stronger, conduct electricity, feel different to the touch, amongst many other things. 

4. Some industrial companies are interested in our composites since they may be able to make new and interesting products out of them. 

5. There is much science dedicated to understanding the behaviour of plastics and polymers (a more general term that includes plastics). 

6. My job uses radiation (x-rays and neutrons) to look inside materials and see their structure; to see how the molecules fits together.

7. For a polymer composite, we might ask: are the additives all clumped together or are they dispersed evenly throughout the material? 

8. What shape and size are the additives ('fillers')? What shape and size are the polymer molecules? Are they affected by the additives?

9. To make polymer composites industrially we need to understand how they behave, how they melt and freeze, and how they flow.

10. We hope that by understanding the structures we create, we can tailor them better to suit particular purposes. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Post-doctoral patience

My first post doc contract was in a scientific facility out in Australia (ANSTO), and I took that job on for just over two years before moving back to the UK for my adventure in publishing. I was acutely aware while working at ANSTO that life in a facility was not the same thing as life in a university. Difficult to put into a nutshell, but a facility focuses on its technical capabilities and has to maintain a user programme. On the other hand a university arguably focuses more on its individual research projects, bids to extend its personnel and technical prowess in areas that benefit its research, and of course (well, far more likely than a facility) has a teaching programme, which usually means the presence of a vibrant community of undergraduates. So basic definitions done, blah blah, I had yet to work as a post doc in a university, and sample the opportunities and experiences that might offer, and so when the opportunity came knocking I was keen to try it out. Back to Sheffield I came.

As some of you may know all too well, the life of the university post doc is fraught with a longstanding problem - it seems to be increasingly difficult for post docs to follow on from their temporary research contracts, tied to a particular project, and find that ever-elusive permanent academic position. Many, and perhaps including me when my current project comes to an end, will find themselves adrift, project completed, but without a new project to go to or another, more senior, or more permanent position, to look forward too. The more cynical amongst us might interpret this to mean, "thanks Private PostDoc, you've done a good job on that project and completed it as set out. You're sacked."

In the 'good old days' the post doc was seen as a stepping stone to an academic position but it would seem that is increasingly not the case. I say this, but people have been telling me this story ever since my short research career began in 2006, (seven years ago at the time of writing), and so it's difficult to really say with my current lack of knowledge exactly when those good old days used to be.

The main impetus behind this post however is to encourage patience, foresight and positivity. When I was coming out of my publishing adventure and back into academia, one thing that struck me in the job market (albeit in a fairly economically depressed part of the Midlands and at a time of limited confidence) was that for someone with my qualifications, a post doctoral research project really was a rather good job. Trust me, I've looked, and you can't apply for very many jobs that are as interesting, rewarding and with so much potential 'off the shelf'. That's not to say these opportunities aren't out there, but I suspect you might need to work your way up to them, or even possess some other professional qualifications etc. So what I'm saying is, a post doc is a bloody good job. There, I said it.

A sage piece of advice I was once given when I was umming and ah-ing about whether to pursue academia or not was given to me by a young lecturer. He said, "go into academia by all means, but whatever you do, go in with your eyes open". I really took this advice on board, and although it remains early days for me I will do my best to follow it. For example, to be a lecturer is to work hard. Very hard. To become responsible for your own research funding, to supervise students, to work together with others in widely varying fields, to perform admin tasks. What I'm trying to say is, the permanent academic position is not the promised land. It's just an opportunity – usually a very well-deserved opportunity - to continue to strive in exactly the same way you have done as a post doc. So it's a position to be sought after, even striven after, but not necessarily to be envied or coveted. 

Another aspect of the 'eyes open' advice is to take your time. So what if you have to work as a post doc for a long time? Well, it could be difficult in terms of your personal situation, houses, mortgages, partners, relocation etc. You might find yourself unable to keep living in the same place due to lack of opportunities for you there, having a disruptive effect on your life. Well OK, we all know this now. We need to be aware of the rules of the game in which we are playing. We might not like it, but until we can change it, we must attempt to live with it too, succeed in it, and then change it from within.

We are all responsible for our own personal development, in partnership with our employers, and so we should make sure we understand what it is that we need to do in order to grow and progress. Likewise it is the job of our employers to keep us properly informed of opportunities, schemes, funding, fellowships and jobs to apply for once our funding term is coming to an end. We are then also responsible for finding stuff out. We need to challenge our employers (nicely!! we are their employees) and make sure they clarify our situations.

Positivity and patience are key. The main way 'up and out' of the post doc life is to succeed in research, become independent, and publish lots of papers. Like it or not we are going to be measured by the quality and quantity of the research that we produce. (Spend less time writing blog posts!) I'm not necessarily saying that I'm going to succeed in this grand scheme or that I know how. I don't, but I do know it is going to be hard and I'm going to try and enjoy it, and, if I don't enjoy it, I should probably go and do something else. It's definitely worth asking the question of your human resources department and your boss when your post doc is coming to an end: what happens now? 

All I know is, if you've embarked on a research career and you've got this far, you're quite a long way along the rainbow. Keep going to the end, and you may just find a pot of gold.

A pot of gold.