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Strategic Communication Inside and Outside of Academia

Effective communication. As a young scientist, you have been told many times how important effective communication is to your career. After all, a scientific career is based largely on written and oral communication. On average, scientists write more professional documents and speak in public more often than other professionals. So it is natural that we consider communication one of our discipline's strong suits.

However, many young scientists who venture into careers beyond academia find that the communication skills they learned in graduate school are inadequate. This is because academic notions of "effective communication" are only a subset of the skills you need to be effective in your job search as well as any job. (Even new faculty members will tell you there is much more to their career than publishing manuscripts and giving seminars!)

The Academic View of Effective Communication

Most scientists are told that two key skills they will need are a) the ability to write good papers (and grants) and b) the ability to give good talks. Some of the better training programs do in fact run special workshops in written and verbal communication. But while students may be fortunate to be trained in "formal" modes of communication, they often do not learn the critical importance of broader "informal" communication that plays a very large role in an individual's career.

In many ways, academic communication can be very restricted. There is an air of secrecy to academic discourse. After all, you wouldn't want to say too much about what you are doing for fear of being scooped by the competition, right? Academia also favors careful and deliberative communication over communication that may be quicker but is less accurate. As a result, young scientists learn to be careful and conservative in what they say, and to speak up ONLY when they can speak as a true expert on a subject.

Communication as a Strategy

In the "real world," however, you have to do more than communicate your results in an exact manner. You must also communicate your accomplishments, goals, and ideas to your organization, colleagues, and your network. In fact, you must be willing to deluge the world with your ideas and vision. Guy Kawasaki, one of the founders of Apple and author of Rules for Revolutionaries calls this "pooping like an elephant!" Those who manage to communicate vigorously are recognized for their accomplishments and are seen by their peers and bosses as the most effective members of the team. (In other words, even in a meritocracy, how is anyone going to know what you've done unless you tell them?)

Explain Your Accomplishments: The 80:10:10 Rule

A while ago, I met a senior VP at a major oil company who was an alum from my Ph.D. program. She gave me a succinct explanation of her strategy for career success; she called it the 80:10:10 rule. "80% of my time," she explained, "I try to do the best job I can for my employer. I try to bore into the most critical problems facing my organization and I do my best to deliver valuable solutions."

"10% of my time," she went on, "I devote time to my own intellectual development. I meet with managers outside my area of operation, I read outside my field, and I travel to other companies to learn what they are doing."

"The final 10% of my time," she concluded, "I spend telling as many people as I can what a good job I'm doing ... the 80% of my time I am actually doing my job!"

The bottom line of her strategy is this: If you make a regular habit of communicating your accomplishments to others, you will stand out.

Upgrade Your Network

As a young scientist, you will meet many people through the projects and collaborations you do. As you move from one project to another or from one institution to another, you will inevitably have less contact with some people and more contact with others. But since all your past and current colleagues constitute a very important part of your network, it is very valuable to keep them all informed of your activities and accomplishments. You never know when you will need a letter of reference from one of these folks. If you have been completely incommunicado for a few years, reestablishing the contact, and getting the best letter of reference, may be difficult.

There are a variety of ways of maintaining professional contact with colleagues. They include:

  • Periodic group e-mails: Try establishing a mailing list of your past colleagues and send out a quarterly report on what you've been up to.

  • Periodic letters: Many people send out an annual letter during the holidays telling their far-flung friends and family about the past year. You can do the same thing with your far-flung colleagues. At the very least, send out an annual note to past supervisors or bosses to let them know you are still alive. This will make it easier to talk with them in the future.

  • Reprints: Try establishing a mailing list of friends and former colleagues and send them out reprints as your papers are published.

  • Make "dates" at meetings: Scientific meetings are often the only time that you can see former colleagues in person without great expense. You can keep in touch with colleagues by contacting them in advance and arranging to meet for lunch or dinner. By making a date in advance, you can avoid the scheduling conflicts and confusion that invariably surround scientific meetings.

Communicating at Work: WAR and Other Strategies

Most graduate students work for a single PI and see their PI almost every day. In this environment, it's easy for your boss to see your daily accomplishments and setbacks. However, in the outside world, many young scientists find themselves in an environment with thousands of colleagues, reporting to superiors who may not be in the same building, or even in the same state! In such an environment, the informal methods of communication that served you well in graduate school simply do not work.

Bosses need a constant supply of information, so staffers who do not supply information readily can be perceived as difficult to work with and unproductive. In such an environment, it is critical to develop strategic methods for communicating your progress and your needs.

One common method is a WAR, or Weekly Activity Report. Employees who are working on projects that their bosses do not often check on find it extremely useful to give a weekly status report on their progress. The report can either be a written document (usually an e-mail) or a regularly scheduled face-to-face or telephone meeting. Written reports are especially useful because they form a written record and can be referred to in cases of misunderstanding.

There are other less formal mechanisms for voicing your ideas, airing your concerns, and being noticed. Simply speaking up in meetings is a powerful means of being recognized as an individual with something to contribute. You should also get into the habit of following up suggestions with an e-mail to clarify and reinforce your ideas.

The most informal modes of communication can turn out to be the most important. One strategy I have seen some folks use is to never respond to questions such as "How are things going?" with a simple "Fine." Instead, tell your colleagues and friends about what is actually going on in your work. Explain to them what projects you are starting or what resources you are missing. You will be surprised at how often they respond with valuable information and advice.

The Rewards of Strategic Communication: Job Hunting Made Easy

Once you have developed good communication skills and habits, you will find that job hunting itself becomes much easier. You will have an active and engaged network of friends and colleagues who know about your activities and can be alerted to your career goals and job desires. You will have past bosses who are prepared to speak on your behalf. Most importantly, you will have friends who can mention potential job openings to you before they are advertised.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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