Becoming a Storyteller: Embracing your humanity as a scientist

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, Science communications

The process of doing science is hard. Deciding what do as a scientific Doctor of Philosophy is harder.

Since you’re here, you know that you can find as many blog-posts on transferable skills and potential career paths as you could ever want. I’ve argued before that you should try out any and everything you’re interested in. When it’s time to sell yourself to a future employer, though, it’s equally important to be able to frame these choices in a relatable way. You need to be able to sell yourself with a compelling story.

I recently went to an Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science workshop. It was excellent. Distilling the experience into a short summary couldn’t do it justice. Though we mostly focused on how to communicate our projects to the public during our afternoon there, three points really stood out to me that could, and should, be applied more broadly.

  • Inspiring other people is about them, not about you. When talking about your science, or yourself, the easiest way to build rapport is to find commonalities and passions you both share.
  • The details you leave out are more important than the details you leave in. You should be able to tell your story—scientific, personal, or professional—in under six seconds. It’s always tempting to want to highlight all the work you’ve done, but most of the time focusing on a few salient details will serve you better.
  • Prepare and practice, but be forgiving of yourself. Readily acknowledging your missteps, laughing at yourself and highlighting how you’ve learned from your mistakes will make both you and your audience (whether it be a crowd, interviewer, or stranger at the bar) more comfortable.

Becoming an engaging storyteller comes down to being able to look at yourself objectively. See yourself through others’ eyes. Thinking this way will help you get your point across; it may also help you clarify internally what you’ve learned from your path and where it might be taking you.

As I reflect on my own progress towards deciding on my post-PhD direction, I’ve realized that I’ve grown in more ways than I ever expected to in graduate school. This growth has usually happened when outside of my comfort zone. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in the past four years is that it can be a painful process, but it never hurts for very long. This is the last of my contributions to this blog series, but I hope I’ve convinced you that taking a leap can give you power, that even the best scientists are people too, and that incremental progress is okay. Good luck out there, and cheers to eventually figuring it all out!

Current position: 4th Year Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience
Program start date:  August 2014
Institution: Emory University

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