Site Meter Maxwell's Demoness: On Science Writing/Seminar Education-Personal Experiences

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Science Writing/Seminar Education-Personal Experiences

This is in response to Lab Rat's inquiry into what science writing/seminar courses are available to students, in which I go off on several tangents (psst- if you are reading, I am having trouble commenting right now).

My personal experiences:

If any science writing courses were available at my undergraduate institution, no one bothered to make me aware of them (nor were any apparent in the course catalog). We did have the occasional lab report due in the lab courses, where dry and convoluted writing styles were strictly enforced.

I majored in a program that did include requirements in writing. I tested out of all the general writing requirements so I can't comment on those, but there was a requirement to take one "advanced" writing course. Despite taking the honors version of the course, it was so low-level that nine of the ten papers I submitted were slightly polished re-submissions of papers that I had written for various courses in high school. The emphasis was on literary analysis (making things up) and paper structure (could the teacher find the thesis statement, was there only one main argument per paragraph, etc.)

I was also required to take "A speech course", which I fulfilled by taking an oral poetry class. Our final exam took place in a local coffee shop; it was a fun class but not particularly helpful to my career as a scientist. There was a one-credit pass/fail seminar in "Science communication" available only to seniors, which I also took. For this class, we each picked a paper (literally any paper from a peer-reviewed journal) and presented it journal-club style. This course was my first official in-class introduction to PubMed (which is a whole different rant). The science communication class was actually less helpful than the poetry class, because feedback was almost entirely along the lines of "speak up", "don't look at your notes so much" etc, whereas at least the poetry instructor made us memorize things and actually gave advice on topics such as how to improve vocal projection. I was not particularly impressed with the science communication course, but it was still more experience than most of the grad students I know have had by that point.

In grad school, we had to take a journal-club style seminar our first year. This was invaluable in terms of making that ever-so-important transition between reading papers (undergrad mentality) and understanding/critiquing/analyzing papers (grad school mentality). There was little emphasis on speaking skills aside from the very general, unsurprising because this wasn't really the point of the course, anyway. We are also required to give an annual research progress seminar and turn in a yearly progress summary, which is more than I hear many programs do. This is certainly valuable practice, as well as helping us keep our research progress on track and in perspective, but there is not really any training specifically provided in communication skills. This is something you have to get from your PI-fortunately mine refuses to let us slack off in this area, but again I am limited by opportunities to practice.

In retrospect, the one thing that has improved my communication skills further than anything else is several semesters of teaching. Since I care about student learning, it forced me to work on my communication skills in a trial and error way at the very least.

I guess what I am trying to get at, is that I have had better than average training in communication skills based on what I hear from graduate students in other programs, and yet I still feel very under-trained in this area, which is part of why I started writing this blog. So why are people surprised that scientists have difficulty communicating, especially with laypersons? Communication is a skill, like any other. I don't expect motivational speakers to do PCR, so why do people harangue us for being obtuse? (Rhetorical question, much?)


Ψ*Ψ said...

We definitely got some exposure to public speaking and formal writing, though it wasn't the best orchestrated. One semester of a communications course (actually pretty helpful for a nervous speaker like myself), two semesters of chemistry undergrad-seminar. At least we got some experience standing up in front of a room of people and trying to talk science. Our lab reports for almost all the upper-division classes were required to be written in journal format. Those of us who did research had to give a poster presentation. As much as it pains me to admit it (because I HATE attending them), group meetings have maybe been the most helpful as far as learning how to give a decent talk.
This is actually a pretty cool site you have going. (Maybe I'm biased because you have crystal structures posted?) Despite the "bio" part of biophysics, it does beat the hell out of biochemistry.

Maxwell's Demoness said...

It sounds like you've had some useful experiences, I just wish science degree programs would make a point of developing science-specific communications skills as opposed to getting haphazard exposure, y'know?

Thanks for the compliment and the link. I <3 my macromolecules.

I can't win with anyone... the biologists treat me like a crazy "math person" and the physicists all think I'm a big softie. ;-)

bk said...

MD - haven't had chance to read your full post, but what sort of trouble are you having commenting? 'preview'ing things screws it up - there is an open support ticket for that but I think the wallabies are on Easter Break now.

Thanks for stopping by.


Maxwell's Demoness said...


I keep getting an error "user name and email required" even though I have put in both, and then it goes through the "you post too many times" error.

bk said...

and you're not hitting the preview button?

Blargh. I really don't know what to suggest. :(

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