From postdoc to science communicator: how to make the leap?

As we headed out of the conference center, we felt the burning heat of summer in southern France. I had asked Ben Libberton for an interview on his post postdoc career, and we aimed for a small bakery where we could get a baguette while talking. I didn’t know I would run into Ben in Toulouse, but as I did, it was the perfect opportunity for an interview. We were both there to attend the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2018 conference. One of the themes at ESOF was careers for ECRs (early career researchers). In line with this theme, we sat down for a career talk.

Ben works as a science communicator at the Max IV Laboratory* at Lund University. He started here about a year ago; before that Ben was a postdoc at the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Center at the Karolinska Institute for four years. He was focused on the academic track and headed for the next step as assistant professor.

But Ben is now a science communicator, so how did that transition come by?

When I was two years into a four-year postdoc, I started getting interested in communication. I would share the work that came out of the center, and when my boss realized the center needed a more focused effort on communicating their results, she pointed me out to be Public Information Officer.

One of the perks of communication is that you can start doing it in the role you have now. And Ben did this big time in his postdoc. You don’t need an official title to start exploring the world of communication, but getting an official title can make your work easier, not least because it gives you explicit permission to do it.

Getting the title made a big difference. I could now reach out to journalists with more authority, and they, in turn, knew who to contact for information.

So how did Ben promote the work of the center?

When a paper came out, I would promote it on social media and to the press. It’s also important to involve the Press Office at KI and the journals in your efforts. In addition to press releases, I wrote blog posts and made videos for YouTube.

Blogging and public speaking

Ben also started blogging on the blog that you are reading on right now. You can find his posts here.

I really enjoyed blogging. I wrote about subjects outside of my research field. It was a good way to broaden out. And the feedback we got from the blog coaches was great. You can also use blogging to build a portfolio to show at job interviews.

Not only was Ben a postdoc, blogger, and now also public information officer, he was also an active member in and even on the board of Stockholm International Toastmasters (SITM). I happen to be in SITM as well, so I was keen to hear if Ben’s toastmaster experience had affected his career.

I competed with a speech titled Science and Society. Later, at my interview for the opening at Max IV, I gave that same speech. Public speaking is always an important skill, and it’s not that difficult to be better than the majority. Also, the Toastmaster format fits well with modern communication. You give 5-7 minute speeches, which is also what you would want a blog post or a YouTube video to be like.

Don’t know what Toastmasters is? You can read more about my early experience as a toastmaster here and Toastmasters international here. Being a toastmaster is yet another way to hone your communications skills on many levels, as you learn to give engaging speeches, coach others, organize and run efficient meetings, and even run a club if you go for the board. And, as Ben did, you can also compete in public speaking.

Taking the leap

It’s not always easy to decide to jump off the academic career ladder. Even though most ECRs will do this eventually, deciding to take the jump can be difficult. So what made Ben take the leap?

At the end of my postdoc, I was offered to stay as an assistant professor. But as I didn’t have my own funding, it wasn’t the best option for me. At the same time, the job came up at MAX IV, and it fit my interests. I hadn’t made specific plans to go this way; it was an opportunity I grabbed.

Now, what does it entail to be a science communicator?

In a big communications department, each role may be fairly specialized. For example, you may have a person who writes all day. But in a small department, you have to fill many roles. Ben does the latter.

My role at Max IV is divided into three parts. First, I do outreach to the public, government, and press. Second, I keep the existing users of Max IV informed on how the facility is running, and I keep an eye out for potential new users. Third, I look for new research fields that could benefit from using the Max IV facility. I really enjoy the diversity of the job.

Do you want a career in communication? Here’s a bit of advice

As a former postdoc who made the leap into science communication, what’s Ben’s advice to current PhD students and postdocs who want to do this too?

Lack of experience is always a problem, but communication is special as you can start doing it now. Grab the opportunities you get and don’t say no. You could get experience through an internship. Or you could start by exploring how to best communicate your science. For example, document your work with videos, where you include links for further reading. Explore what you might like to do, as the communication field is broad. And get into event organization. This is a very important skill in any communication job. I can’t stress this enough.

As the lunch break came to its end, we headed back to the conference. If you want to know more about what went on at ESOF, then keep reading this blog. And if you want to know more about careers in communication, then read blogger Jessica Norbergs series on the subject here.

 

* The Max IV Laboratory is a synchrotron radiation facility in Lund that generates the brightest x-rays in the world. Their motto is We make the invisible visible.

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