From covert spy to real life communicator: A PhD Journey

Marina Damiano | | Tactics

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The last five years of my life were a lie. I’m like a CIA agent and getting a Ph.D. is my covert op. Cover ID: bench chemist. Real life ID: communicator.

How did I get this cover ID? Well, I was not the kid who asked for a chemistry set for my birthday. I did not try to blow things up or make potato batteries in my younger years. My favorite subjects in high school were music and German. My intended college majors were music performance and German, but since the job prospects were not too hot, I chose chemistry. I quickly learned that job prospects for chemists with bachelor’s degrees were not hot either, so graduate school seemed like a logical choice.

Unlike a CIA agent, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Graduate school is unlike anything you will ever experience and is also completely different from college.  My undergraduate education afforded me the opportunity to study a new subject each day, however, my top tier graduate education simply would not allow it. Until the last year of school, it was research, all day, every day.

During the first few months of graduate school, when we were picking research groups, a research associate asked what kind of science interested me. I told him medicinal and analytical chemistry, and research with a clinical application. “Pick one thing and focus on it,” he said. “No one wants to hire a polyglot Ph.D.” I remember this moment not because he used the word polyglot incorrectly, but because it was the first of many throughout graduate school in which I was told, in one form or another, to be someone other than myself.

You could argue based on that last statement that I should not have gone to graduate school in chemistry. Science has always been a career, not a passion for me. But before I graduated college, I knew I wanted to innovate in science. I knew I wanted to make a difference. Most importantly, I knew I needed the Ph.D. (and other credentials) to make people listen to and respect what I had to say.

Unfortunately, there are not very many obvious opportunities for Ph.D. students in the sciences to learn how to command an audience. Most of us do not do much communicating outside of group meeting. I lucked out because in the summer before my last year, my school launched a communication fellowship, called Ready, Set, Go, designed to teach STEM graduate students how to talk to anyone about their research.

RSG focuses on the three C’s of presentations: confidence, clarity, and connection. Confidence results from improvisation classes and impromptu talks about our research. Clarity requires us to identify our audience, define our message, and tell a good story. We make the connection through meaningful displays of data and credible presentations. At the end of 12 weeks, we put it all together at Seven Minutes of Science, our final symposium for which we gave seven-minute TED style talks about our research to an audience of 100. Communication experts, scientists, and lay people judged us on how well we executed the three C’s.

As an RSG fellow and winner of the Top Speaker Award, I feel that it is my responsibility to share with the community the benefits of a program like Ready, Set, Go. RSG boosted my communication and presentation skills, so much so that I have not been nervous to give any presentation since, including my thesis defense. Because of RSG, I can think on my feet to create analogies that help non-scientists understand my work.

RSG is a huge selling point to companies. I looked for a job away from the bench and one that was as unconventional as possible. Newsflash: those jobs are not advertised. I had to create them. When a networking opportunity arose, I studied the speakers’ bios and forced myself to strike up a conversation, even if it meant being the last person at the event. At times there were 15 qualified people in front of me, but none of them had RSG in their back pocket. I wish I could capture the look of approving astonishment when I brought up my training. Most said something like, “Wow. It worked well for you. Scientists usually are not very good at communications. You had such a great opportunity.” The folks at RSG also provided links to a professionally polished version of the talks that I could share on my resume.

There is no doubt in my mind that RSG was a major player in the offer for my current position in scientific communications at a business-to-business life sciences marketing agency. Of course, those three letters behind my name got their attention (mission accomplished, by the way), but my communication experience was their call to action.

In the corporate world, unlike academia, time is money. Business people have neither the time nor the technical background to listen to jargon. To them, you can teach technical content to a good communicator, but it is neither easy nor worthy of their time to teach communication skills to someone who is purely technical. Bottom line: if you’re looking for a non-traditional job, your degree will only be relevant if you can communicate with non-scientists.

I am writing to empower you graduate students who feel like you do not quite fit in to the research environment. Do not be discouraged. There are options for you, but rest assured they will not fall into your lap. Luckily, you already know what it is like to start a project from scratch, do background research, and work hard to get results. Give yourself a leg up in the job search and enroll in a program such as RSG at your school. If it does not exist, approach your school of journalism or communication to start one.

Now that my mission is accomplished, my professional life is no longer a covert op. I live as myself: science communicator.