Academic Communication: Why is it so important and so difficult?
Guest Article by Professor Abby Engelberth
As far as I know, humans are the only species on planet Earth that have developed a written system of communication, and somehow we can still fail to get our point across. We can be too lazy to put in the effort to write well (or proofread), or the chosen words may not reflect what we really mean. I realize that as I write this post that I will likely also have some difficulty saying what I mean; some statement or comment will likely be misconstrued, or I won’t quite use the best word. With that in mind, know that all opinions are my own and my intent is lighthearted advice. Now, let’s get into communicating in academia. There are a variety of avenues in which an academician communicates – most generally it is either via written or oral communication (there is not a lot of non-verbal communication, save for the occasional eye-roll at a faculty meeting). I’ll now briefly describe each major type. Keep in mind that this post is geared towards tenure/tenure-track faculty with a teaching and research appointment (that is my appointment and experience, others experiences will be different).
Academics spend a large portion of their day writing. Some still put pen to the page, but most spend time typing. At the risk of dating myself, I learned how to type during my first year in high school in keyboarding class. To further date myself, I became an efficient typist thanks to AOL instant messenger. Much of my time on the computer in late high school and early college was spent typing to friends on-line – and I refused to use text speak (e.g. LOL or ROTFL) and strove to type in full and complete sentences. I know some academics became proficient typists because of coding whereas others may still rely upon the good ole’ hunt-and-peck method. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, things must be typed (note that decent dictation software is built-in to most OS – but dictation has its own drawbacks because it feels unnatural to speak how you write for a technical purpose). The majority of written communications, at least the ones that ‘count’, are either journal papers or grant proposals. But the majority of daily written communication is… email. Ah, the wonderful time-suck that is e-mail. Email never ends and I think it is here to stay for a while. The major advantage of email is that you have a searchable record if something was unclear, but often much of what is communicated via email would be better handled with a phone call or face-to-face interaction. But who wants to hunt around for someone when they can just stay at their desk and type 😉?
The most consequential writing you will likely do is for grant proposals. Grants are how faculty fund their research programs – which includes funding students, supporting experiments, maintaining equipment, travel for faculty and students, building outreach programs, etc. Writing a fundable grant is not easy and it takes a considerable amount of time. Faculty work on both individual or group proposals and both have their own unique challenges. An individual proposal means that it is basically up to you to formulate the idea, obtain the necessary preliminary data, craft the proposal, come up with the budget, and submit to a suitable agency. Most proposals are 15 to 20 pages in length and include background information along with a plan of how you will conduct the research to answer your burning question. The first iteration of a proposal takes 100+ hours to craft – additional iterations take less time, but are still 50+ hours. Note: all times are my estimates as I have never actually timed these efforts and would go mad if I were to do so. At least with the next iteration, you generally have some feedback from a panel on how to improve your proposal.
Collaborative proposals can be just as time-consuming because multiple people have to be on the same page and working towards the same goal – and often in a short time frame. Many of the big proposals ($2.5 million +) have a really short window. For example, a call for proposals may be issued in early May with a deadline of mid-June. Six weeks is a short turnaround time to get people together and craft a fundable proposal. I’ve learned that established teams usually submit to these big proposals and usually win upon their third or fourth submission. Collaborative proposals require a lead (known as the PI – primary investigator). The PI works to solidify the idea and dole out the writing assignments. The collaborators are then tasked with writing their section based on what they think the idea is. The more interdisciplinary the project is, the more difficult it is to keep everyone together. Collaborative proposals are tough because someone has to go through and try to combine the writings of multiple authors into a cohesive document with a single voice. The PI has to cut, paste, edit, re-write, and try to stay sane. The advent of Google docs and Microsoft OneDrive is making collaborative proposals easier – multiple authors can work on a single document simultaneously. But now we run into the issue of “what if it doesn’t work and the massive document we have been working on is lost?” I know I am working more towards getting everyone to use OneDrive, but it’s a slow process. Personally, I don’t understand how others aren’t exceedingly frustrated when a draft is sent out via email and multiple documents are returned with edits and comments and then someone is charged with combining all versions. Just put it online and work from a single document in the cloud. Seriously.
Once a grant is funded the next big thing is to do the work you said you would do and tell everyone about it.
Publishing results is the big way that academics tell everyone what they are doing. Disseminating a discovery is of utmost importance to an academic. Our productivity is measured in terms of how much, how often, and the caliber of our publications. And of course, there is a metric that is used to measure productivity: the H-index. Yay, all our effort and hard work is boiled down to a single number. So motivating. The H-index attempts to measure both productivity and impact (based on how many scientists cite your work). Helpful tip: Be sure to cite yourself to increase your H-index – that’s what all the cool kids do. If you weren’t sure how important publishing is, just think of the adage: publish or perish. It’s sadly true. Research focused academics need notoriety to bring in funds and students to continue doing what they love. How will people know about us if we don’t tell them?
There are many types of journal articles: original research, reviews, rapid communications, opinions, and case studies to name a few. How these articles are written or crafted will depend on the type of article and the authors. Original research, in my experience, is focused on disseminating results from an experiment. These are often generated by a graduate student and, after much feedback and editing, are the most common type of publication. As a graduate student, this is where you would spend most of your time and it may frustrate you to no end. Writing well takes practice and writing up your results for publication will take a lot of practice. When I was a graduate student my PhD advisor would print out my manuscript and take it home to read, often in bed just before lights out. She would bring back the pages with many comments and edits for me to work on and sometimes, if it was getting good, she would put a sticker or a cute stamp on it for me. I think my first publication went home with her 10 times before we got it to a place to ask our collaborator for additional feedback. Writing takes work and time – there is no substitute for experience (a strongly-recommended online course called ‘Writing in the Sciences’ is available for free on Coursera here). One of the challenges I have faced as a faculty member is impressing upon my students how much time and editing is required to produce a manuscript for submission. Some students want to get it perfect before giving to me, but that is not possible and it really is a collaborative process to create a publishable manuscript (one approach is to go through several outlines before writing a full text, as popularized by Professor George Whitesides).
Once a manuscript is submitted to a journal – I’ve completely glossed over the bit where you have to select the appropriate journal and format your paper to their specifications – the manuscript is evaluated by the editor and either sent back due to lack of fit or sent out for review. Upon submission, you are asked to provide names of persons that should be able to provide sufficient review of the manuscript. At this point, you may also have the opportunity to provide names of people that should not be asked to review due to either conflict of interest or personality. The reviewers are given about three weeks to read and make comments on the manuscript and then submit their assessment. The editor takes this assessment into consideration and then lets you know what needs to be changed or updated to be able to publish – or they let you know that it is unacceptable and needs a lot of work before it can be considered and that you’ll need to resubmit, either to the same or a better fitting journal, once it is better. You then do what you need to do to get it out the door again. A faculty member generally has multiple manuscripts they are working on at various stages of completeness. Journal articles are like laundry, it is a job that is never done and feels like it will never end.
Not only do academics spend much of their time writing, but they also have to speak. Out loud. To other people. On a semi-regular basis. Conferences, invited talks, teaching, and outreach are common speaking outlets. I’ll concentrate here on conferences and invited talks.
Presenting at Conferences
Now that you’ve had a grant funded, conducted the research, generated the results, and either published or nearly published, you get to go to a conference center or hotels in fun and exciting locations§ and share your findings with a room full* of people that may be listening or just using an open chair to write an email. Your talk is intended to quickly share your science with like-minded people to generate interest in your area or spark new ideas for collaboration. It is up to you to be a captivating speaker with a carefully crafted message. However, this is much easier said than done. Many, if not most, conference talks are exceedingly boring. The speaker is nervous or unpracticed. The talk is a reiteration of a journal paper but on PowerPoint slides. The message is lost or bogged down in the details. And after listening to six nervous speakers in a row, it’s no wonder the audience is checking email. While I am by no means a professional speaker, I can be engaging when needed and can craft a well-thought-out presentation. I’ve read numerous books on presenting science and I’ve learned how to pare down a presentation to what I want the audience to walk away knowing. Too much information will kill a presentation. The other aspect of an engaging presentation that is very difficult to teach is how to have a presence and positive rapport with the audience. It is painfully obvious when a speaker is nervous or uncomfortable and it just makes the presentation drag. Practice helps here too. Are you sensing a theme? It takes work to be an effective communicator. I credit high school musical theater for helping me to be comfortable in front of an audience – sadly though, there is no singing or dancing at academic conferences.
Invited Talks or Seminars
After you’ve been in the job for a few years you will likely start to get invited to give talks. This can be in the form of another conference or at a seminar for another university. These are both favorable opportunities to share your work and recruit students. Your invited talk will focus on your research as a whole and not just a single paper or project. This is where things get messy, but messy in terms of slides, not like food or mud or anything. When crafting your invited talk you will need to bring together the different projects you are involved in or supervising. Students will send you their slides (made by them, for them, with their personal flair added in) and it is up to you to combine into a cohesive talk. Fonts and styles will need to be changed and updated and animations removed or modified (or you’ll forget to do that and be completely surprised by something that pops onto the screen – just don’t let the audience see your surprise). This is why sometimes the PI will have a template or style that they want students to adhere to; they know that this will all have to be combined later and they want to save themselves some time. The invited talk is where an academic is able to share their work and show everyone how cool their research is. I’ve given a few invited talks and while they make me very nervous, it is also so exciting to share my passion with interested‡ scientists. Invited talks get others thinking about what you do and how it can fit with what they do. A well-crafted talk can open doors to new opportunities and collaborations. It can recruit students or postdocs. A not-so-well-crafted talk can still inform, but the level of interest will be much lower and you may not be asked back or recommended to other venues.
I hope that I’ve been able to demonstrate the importance of communication in academia and how difficult it can be. Crafting your message and finding the most suitable words is tough and takes practice. If you are willing to put the work in, you’ll have a productive career in academia – but that advice is true for almost any profession.
§Fun and exciting are subjective terms.
*Full, in this instance, may refer to a mere five people or to an actual crowded space.
‡Interested can mean either attentive or forced to attend