Communicate Your Research Frequently and at All Levels

June 21, 2015

Communicating research, for example during a Ph.D. project, is tremendously important and rewarding and should have high priority. At the same time, communication takes time and without realizing the both short and long term benefits, it’s easy to not give it the attention and emphasis it rightly deserves.

In this post, I first share a number of reasons why research communication is beneficial – and then outline pratical ways to share and communicate one’s research:

Why communicating research is beneficial

To communicate your research, you need to clearly understand why this particular topic is important, and preparing for communication is a good opportunity to zoom out and remind yourself of the bigger picture. Whether you present your work to experts, colleagues, students or laymen, this is the case; there needs to be some kind of “why is this important”-introduction.

Likewise, communication is a good time to spell out where and how your particular efforts fit into the bigger puzzle. When giving a general presentation to non-experts, this part may not always be relevant, but when presenting to peers this is crucial – to clearly demonstrate how the research builds upon previous work and is the next step towards the long term goal.

Communicating your research – either in oral or written form – gives a mental boost, since you become aware of what you have learned and helped discover. This may seem trivial when you’ve looked at a particular problem for a period, but communicating it to others, and receiving their questions and comments, will help you realize that you’ve probably contributed to solving a non-trivial problem.

And just that, feedback from the audience, is also a benefit; basic questions and comments will help sharpen your arguments, complex ones might shed light on problems or unexplored angles in your research.

Being a role model, especially when communicating to students or potential students, is also a benefit, as it might inspire others to study and/or work in your research field. Similarly, communication may work as advertisement for your field, which may increase awareness from media, politicians and funding agencies, to name just a few.

How to communicate: Research presentations

Presentations to colleagues and peers are an inherent part of working in research, with group meeting presentations and conference talks as typical examples. As part of my Ph.D. project, I typically give 2-3 group meeting presentations, one nanophotonics research section presentation and 1-2 conference talks per year.

Often when I start preparing for these presentations, it feels a bit stressful; I feel that my research isn’t progressing as quickly as I wanted it to, that it isn’t complete yet (whatever “complete” in the context of research might mean) and that I won’t be able to tell an interesting story around my work.

Then I sit down and think through some of the points from the previous section – what are the big perspectives? Why do we work on this topic? Where does my work fit in the bigger puzzle? – and I always end up with presentations I’m happy about and happy to share with my colleagues and peers.

How to communicate: Visit other research institutions

Another chance to communicate your research to peers is by visiting other research institutions. Other researchers are happy to tell about their own work and to hear about yours, and initiatives to visit are in my experience well received.

I’ve made two such visits, where in one I simply went to see a group’s labs and hear about their work, and in the other was given a chance to present some of my own work. In addition to learning and communicating you also create network and contacts that might be useful later, for example for employment at that institution.

How to communicate: Write a blog

Writing a blog on your research is an easy way to spread the word. It can be in the form of overviews of what the research might be useful for, on particularly interesting problems or breakthroughs, on the details of the work – basically on anything. There might be different audiences for different types of research communication blogs, but even if only few people actually read your blog, it might still benefit you to formulate your personal take on the research.

On this blog, I haven’t written a lot about my own research, but on my other blog I’ve written about it at several occasions.

How to communicate: Lecture in courses

Crafting one or more lectures for a university course is another opportunity for telling about your work, with the added benefit of potentially inspiring and attracting students to your particular field.

Many years ago, during my first year of studies, I got inspired by a series of lectures given by my current boss, and I always try to keep that in mind when I give lectures, i.e., attempt to be inspirational and a role model.

How to communicate: Present to high schools

Presenting and communicating to high school students and teachers is another chance for practicing your “research story” and for inspiring others and being a role model.

Such presentations, as compared to research presentations and course lectures, need to address the overall goals (“Why do we do this, and what might it be useful for?”) and the very basics to a much larger extent, while the details should mostly be left out. Also, they could contain a more personal story, to illustrate a potential path through the education system to arrive in research.

A final type of communication is to give popular scientific presentations, typically with laymen as the audience. These are similar to high school presentations, with an emphasis on the big picture and the basic foundations in your research.

Naturally this type of presentations sparks very different comments and questions than those from researchers, and this may give some unexpected input and lead to unexpected pondering.

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