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Ph.D. Training: Using Communication to Drive Critical Thinking and Collaboration

The classic Hollywood depiction of a scientist is a person working in solitude. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in today’s high-paced, highly connected, technology-driven world. Many novel discoveries are the result of the combined work of teams of scientists from diverse fields. Graduate school is a critical time to master the skill of communication for working in collaborative environments.

Learning to communicate
Science is deeply rooted in fact and skepticism. Throughout the process of earning a Ph.D., whether in the graduate program in biomedical sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine or elsewhere, a graduate student must master the skill of critical thinking. Without a strong rationale or logic, it is difficult to interpret your own work or that of others. Implicit in the mastery of critical thinking is the ability to convey your arguments and critique those of others.

Male And Female Scientist Working In Laboratory

As with all skills, practice leads to mastery. When you are just starting out, your background knowledge is low, so it is sometimes difficult to convey your point confidently and clearly. The first step in gaining self-confidence is talking with your mentor and lab mates. This group will be most familiar with your work and can offer a detailed perspective on your project. Choosing a lab for your Ph.D. includes finding a scientific project that excites you and a lab environment that suits your personality. The casual discussions that naturally occur in the laboratory lay the foundation for effective communication.

Talking with friends from other laboratories affords an opportunity to practice communicating about your project in a relaxed setting. It may not inherently be obvious, but these casual discussions are an important part of your training, as they are an excellent way to learn how to express ideas to a diverse scientific audience. Moreover, new and interesting collaborations can come from these interactions. My most successful and most fun collaborative projects have arisen out of conversations with friends.

It is also important to be able to present your work in an official setting. Formal presentations force you to organize your thoughts clearly and make a cogent argument that best showcases your work. Graduate school affords a plethora of opportunities: advisory committee meetings, departmental seminars and national and international conferences. Seize every occasion.

Giving and receiving criticism
Scientists devote countless hours to their work, make a huge commitment to it and display tremendous passion for their research. Because of this, criticism of your work can feel like a personal attack. Learn to put your ego aside, heed constructive criticism—and stand your ground. You think about your project more than anyone, so if you believe you are correct, defend your position! Construct a clear and logical argument to counter critiques.

Often the best way to perfect a skill is to teach it. If your lab takes summer research interns or rotation students, volunteer to be their mentor. This teaching opportunity will provide the perspective of the evaluator, which will help you appreciate what your mentors consider when providing feedback. When giving an evaluation, it is important to realize that how the message is delivered is as important as the message itself. Some people appreciate frank, honest opinions, while others crumble under brutal honesty. Cultural differences should also be considered. Recognizing these differences can lead to more-productive discussions.

Like mentoring, seminars are a great forum in which to practice your critical thinking and communication skills. Attend seminars with your ears and mind open. Take notes and stay focused on the presentation. Force yourself to ask questions. In many instances you will not be an expert, but often seemingly naïve questions can actually offer novel and useful perspectives. Asking questions at seminars may be daunting at first, so practice by chatting with your friends and colleagues about their work. You will gain confidence, and then asking questions in public will be less stressful.

Communicating science to nonscientists
Most of a scientist’s time is spent talking with other scientists, but presenting your work to nonscientists is also important. Friends and family will be interested in what you are doing, so practice pitching your science to them. Removing scientific jargon and breaking things down to an elemental level helps distill the essence and relevance of your work. Research is mostly funded by taxpayers’ dollars and philanthropy. To gain more public support for research, we need to be spokespersons for science and clearly convey the essential value of what we do.

Whether you become a principal investigator in an academic lab or find a career path outside academia, communication is critical to success. For example, industry scientists work in teams on projects; those with good communication skills will tend to be promoted over those who cannot effectively lead a group. Journal editors also work in teams under deadline pressures, so they must succinctly and convincingly convey why a paper is worth reviewing or not.

A Ph.D. in science prepares you for so much more than just a life as an academic scientist. Through effective communication, you can create opportunities to apply your critical thinking skills in any area that captures your passion.

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Teresa V. Bowman, Ph.D.

Teresa V. Bowman, Ph.D.

Teresa V. Bowman, Ph.D. is assistant professor, Department of Developmental & Molecular Biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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