Why excellent communication skills are vital to a successful science career

What is communication in science?

Science communication involves taking technically complex scientific topics and crafting them into accessible, informative, and compelling content for specific audiences. This audience could be scientific peers, the media, potential investors, government or other leadership decision-makers, or the general public. Successful communication requires strong scientific and industry expertise and practical messaging skills to bridge the knowledge gap between researchers and other diverse groups.

Academics, journalists, technical writers, marketing and public relations professionals, and environmental advocates may also benefit from building strong rhetorical abilities to help further society’s understanding of scientific research. Whether you aspire to become a scientist or a writer, to be a successful science communicator you must develop the skills necessary to explain relevant findings and why people should care.

Different types of science communication

In the past, the preferred channels for science communication included scientific journals, books, conferences, and traditional forms of mass media. But with advances in technology—and changes in the way people consume information—science communication has branched out into documentaries, podcasts, webinars, digital newsletters and magazines, social media, and virtual or in-person presentations such as TED Talks.

With an increase in online misinformation and a decrease in trust in the scientific community from certain members of the public and government, it’s more critical than ever to identify engaging ways to reinforce the validity of scientific research. The types of communication you may develop as a scientist include presentations to foster partnerships, academic papers to inform peers, grant proposals to obtain funding for research, or features and interviews with media outlets to educate the world.

Strategies for science communication

Strong communication skills are essential for networking, collaborating, educating, and succeeding in a career as a scientist. Below are important strategies you can employ to strengthen your science communication and help ensure your message is received.

1. Pinpoint your communication goals

The first step in creating effective science messaging is to identify your goals. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), examples of short-term objectives for science communication include raising awareness of a particular topic and making scientists, and science in general, more relatable. Common long-term goals include engaging the public to build trust, influence policy, improve scientific research, advocate for change, and create a positive dialogue.

The goals for your science communication will vary depending on the topic and target audience. If you’re communicating research on the efficacy of the flu vaccine to the general public, your goal is likely to educate people on the importance of vaccination and convince them to make an appointment. But if you’re speaking to mass media, your messaging may focus on rising hospitalization rates and the vaccine’s effectiveness to establish relevance.

2. Tailor messaging to your audiences

Multiple audiences consume scientific communications, so it’s essential to customize your messaging to align with each group’s interests and needs. For instance, messaging for potential research funders should include hard numbers highlighting the possible return on the investment. In contrast, conversations with a potential partner may focus on the expertise of the research team, prior successes, and the benefits of collaborating.

The AAAS recommends asking the following questions to frame your narrative more effectively:

  • Which audience interests may align with my research topic?
  • What do I have in common with the target audience?
  • What types of questions might the audience have?

If you’re eager to enhance your rhetorical prowess to help you advance your career, CLCH 3000: Communicating Science at Penn LPS Online is the course for you. Focusing on climate change issues, you’ll learn how to refine your communication skills to relate scientific concepts and quantitative data through messaging customized for different audiences. You must take at least two undergraduate-level physical science or life science courses before enrolling to set you up for success in this course.

3. Lead with the most critical information

Although scientists generally present key findings at the end of research papers, when communicating to the public, journalists, or fundraising stakeholders, the best practice is to lead with the most important takeaways. The AAAS recommends starting with the big picture and using a three-point structure to build your messaging around how it impacts your audience, including supporting details. Depending on the audience, these could be three conclusions of your research, applications of your findings, or critical data points that indicate a potential solution to a problem.

For instance, in an article in Smithsonian Magazine on top scientific discoveries in 2021, three notable conclusions on a study of the cancer-prone lemon frost gecko include:

  • Discovering that a gene called SPINT1, linked to skin cancer in humans, is responsible for the geckos’ golden color and skin tumors
  • Studying SPINT1 could help scientists better understand how certain cancers develop in humans
  • Researching how the gene is expressed in geckos that don’t develop cancer could help inspire new melanoma treatments

4. Avoid using jargon

Jargon refers to scientific terminology, including abbreviations, acronyms, or other technical terms, that could alienate a broader audience unfamiliar with their meaning. Even within the scientific community, similar language can have completely different connotations, so including jargon can dilute the impact of your messaging. The American Geophysical Union, a leading non-profit scientific association and publisher, recommends asking the following questions to determine whether your phrasing includes jargon:

  • Does it have a different meaning in regular conversation?
  • Do you only use it when discussing your research?
  • Would friends, family, or neighbors be able to explain or define it?
  • Does it serve as a barrier to communication rather than a bridge?
  • Are there alternatives that would be more widely understood?

An excellent way to avoid jargon and increase relatability in your science communication is to incorporate analogies and anecdotes that make complex topics more accessible. And if you want to engage your audience, it’s vital to appeal to them in a way that allows for dialogue and addresses misconceptions, such as those promulgated on social media, rather than denouncing the people who espouse them.

5. Include data-based visuals

Another strategy to improve the efficacy of your science storytelling is incorporating different media forms to explain research data. This includes photography, illustrations, animation, video, infographics, charts, and graphs. The more interactive you can make the experience, the better. An added benefit of creating visually compelling digital stories, images, and reels is that they are easily shared on social media networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tik Tok. This is a significant advantage because it is easy to customize this media for your target audience, build awareness, and—if you’re successful in your execution—convince your followers to share your communications.

Why is science communication important?

Science communication is important because, when done correctly, it can build trust, educate, and inspire people to do good. In a 2019 review article featured in Frontiers, various accepted definitions of the goals of science communication were cited, including one from The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine that included:

  • Sharing recent findings and generating excitement for science
  • Developing and growing the public appreciation of science
  • Increasing general knowledge and understanding of science
  • Influencing opinions, policy preferences, or behavior
  • Ensuring a diversity of perspectives is included when pursuing scientific solutions

When research findings are communicated concisely and coherently, there are many benefits to society and the scientific community. According to academic and professional publisher Sciendo, effectual and open-access dissemination of research can build support for science, influence behavior, and support informed decision-making at the individual, community, and governmental levels to help solve societal issues.

This is particularly important when it comes to an urgent subject such as climate change or the proliferation of a virus like COVID-19, as these require actions such as passing evidence-based climate policy initiatives and educating the public on symptoms, risks, and treatments.

Another benefit of compelling science communication is the ability to inspire the next generation of scientists to investigate methods to prevent and cure disease, develop new technologies, and make a positive difference in the world. Read on to learn about five rewarding careers in science that you may want to investigate.

1. Biochemist or biophysicist

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical properties of living things and biological processes like cell development, growth, disease, and heredity. The minimum education requirement to work in some entry-level positions in this field is a bachelor’s or master’s degree in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, or physics. However, a PhD is needed to work in independent research-and-development roles.

2. Computer and information research scientist

Computer and information research scientists study and design computing technology to solve complex issues in business, medicine, science, and other fields. Employers typically require a minimum of a master’s degree in computer science or computer engineering for consideration, but certain employers may prefer those with doctorate degrees.

3. Environmental scientist

Environmental scientists specialize in using their expertise to protect the environment and human health by cleaning up pollution, advising policymakers, and working with industries to reduce waste and other hazards. Although some entry-level positions may require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in natural science or a related field, you may need to obtain a master’s degree to qualify for higher-level roles.

4. Forensic scientist

If you're a true crime buff, you may be familiar with forensic scientists. Responsible for collecting and analyzing evidence, forensic science technicians typically specialize in laboratory analysis or crime scene investigations. Employers may prefer applicants with bachelor’s degrees in biology, physical science, or forensic science, and this role typically requires a significant amount of on-the-job training.

5. Medical scientist

Medical scientists conduct research to help prevent and cure disease and improve overall human health, often through clinical trials and other investigative methods. Medical scientists typically obtain a PhD in biology, chemistry, or a related field. However, some may opt to earn a medical degree instead of, or in addition to, a doctorate.

Start your scientific journey at Penn LPS Online

Whether your career goal in science involves combatting biodiversity losses, mitigating the impacts of global warming and increasing gas emissions, or tracking the epidemiology of new diseases and viruses, you must be capable of convincing others why your research matters.

With the Certificate in Science Foundations at Penn LPS Online, you can enhance your understanding of physical and life sciences and develop the groundwork needed for further study. The Ivy League courses in this program are designed to provide the scientific and mathematical tools to allow you to evaluate data, apply logic, and effectively communicate complex scientific concepts to diverse audiences. The scientific skills and knowledge you acquire may be relevant to careers in health and science adjacent fields of education, public health, and law.

If you want to complete your Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) while developing a solid interdisciplinary scientific foundation, the concentration in Physical and Life Sciences may be an ideal fit. With course requirements covering biology, chemistry, and physics, you’ll learn the scientific method, analyze and research alternate points of view, interpret quantitative and qualitative evidence, and communicate scientific findings through oral, visual, and written media. The expertise you obtain may be applicable in health, research, and clinical settings and provides a foundation for pursuing further graduate study.

Ready to get started? Apply today to the Physical and Life Sciences concentration for the BAAS program or enroll in the Science Foundations Certificate. If you haven’t already, fill out our online application form or view our course guide to explore your options.

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