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Five Ways PhDs Can Improve Communication Skills

People often cite public speaking as a number one fear – ahead of dying and being alone. But for modern doctoral students, public speaking and communication have become an important, if not essential parts of their career trajectory. Here's how to improve and perfect your public speaking and communication skills, whether you spend your days in a laboratory or a library.

Jun 19, 2016
  • Student Tips
Five Ways PhDs Can Improve Communication Skills

PhDs are usually passionate about their subject matter, but it can be difficult to communicate that passion for, or the potential of academic research to outsiders. At the same time, communicating and presenting research is a vital part of the PhD process and can be the key to a successful career in either academia or industry. And while most doctoral students are skilled at writing for academic publications and even presenting information to other experts at conferences, many PhD students lack some of the basic communication skills needed to convince funding bodies, inform policy makers, or simply engage the public. Contact and interaction with people outside the university are important to the support and development of research within academia and essential for students aiming for careers in industry or the private sector. So if you're one of the many doctoral students who would rather sit in quarantine than address a funding committee or give a lecture, read these five tips to get a grip on communicating in and outside the academic world.

The audience listens to the acting in a conference hall

1. Take a Course
You may think that, as a doctoral student, your days of sitting in classrooms is over, but the reality of life as a PhD is that you can, and should never stop learning. At this point in your studies, you may have little need for lectures on quantum mechanics or Greek philosophy, but your university probably offers a number of useful, and essential, courses aimed at developing some of the soft skills that you may have missed, or lost along the way to becoming an expert. Look for programs and courses in leadership, communication, and writing aimed at graduate students and postdocs. Remember that writing, and speaking, for the public will be a lot different from the work you do in your studies, and even preparing for an academic conference will require you to adjust your presentation style to the level and context of the event.

Closeup on young woman singing with microphone in loft apartment

2. Practice
This is why it's a good idea to take every opportunity available to present yourself. If you practice speaking and writing for a variety of arenas, you'll feel more comfortable when it really matters. Look for opportunities that will challenge you to condense, adapt, and refine your subject matter. Tutor or present lectures for local schools. Write articles for academic encyclopedias and textbooks. Enter events like the Three Minute Thesis competition, where candidates are required to consolidate their research into a three-minute, non-media presentation. Even speaking and presenting at non-academic related events will help you become more comfortable with public speaking and audience engagement. Give a toast at a friend's wedding. Get involved in a slam poetry night. Enroll in a theater workshop. Sing karaoke. Get comfortable on stage when it doesn't matter, and you'll feel more confident when it does.

Maze inside a head - from brain to speech

3. Know Your Audience
Another important part of practicing your presentation and communication skills is learning to identify and adapt to your audience. Before giving any presentation, or submitting any written work or communication, make sure that you understand who will be engaging with your information. One of the biggest criticisms and challenges faced by doctoral students is the perception that a PhD makes one 'too specialized.' Learning to communicate clearly with a wide variety of audiences can help dispel this myth and will open doors for numerous career options. Remember that a presentation for a small sixteenth-century history conference will be a lot different from addressing the board of trustees at an art museum.

A man with hands in pockets standing in front of a huge keyhole, New York and sky seen through it. Black background. Back view.  Concept of finding the way

4. Link to 'Real Life'
One way to communicate with different types of audiences is to find where, and how, your research applies to real-life problems. PhDs in sciences will often have to engage with news outlets and the press when their research has implications for real-world issues. But communicating complicated theories or dense statistics to the media can be difficult and doing so poorly will only create confusion and misinterpretation. Some universities, like Michigan Technological University, have STEM doctoral students practice writing about their research in ways that would be accessible to news outlets and the public. If your school doesn't have a similar program, team up with the journalism department or see if you can write press releases for your school's newspapers. If your research has local applications, arrange public forums at the local library or school. If nothing else, a personal blog can be excellent practice for finding, and explaining the real-world impact of your research.

Smiling people on business meeting in office

5. Get Involved
Of course, this all sounds like a lot of work and doctoral students are already swamped with research and other academic responsibilities. If you don't have time for a wide variety of public engagement activities, try involving yourself in one specific organization that will give you a chance to practice and develop your skills. In the US, academic fraternities and organizations often have local chapters that are incorporated into relevant university departments, and graduate students have access to full membership benefits and the opportunity for leadership positions. Even if your school doesn't have a relevant organization, getting involved with a local community organization, running for a local government position, or starting you own group - on-campus or off – can help you develop important skills and will make you stand out once you leave the confines of the university.