Raise your voice

If there’s one thing that bothers me more than anything else in this field, it’s watching people timidly, quietly, and sometimes incoherently give presentations. I’ve seen it all – mumbling, whispering, keeping their head down or their back to the audience. Why would you do that? I can’t hear you, and I can’t see your face. Are you bored? Are you scared? Your demeanor does NOT inspire me to listen to you. If you don’t care, why should I?

Of course, everyone has to start somewhere. And I have no problem with a new graduate student presenting this way, so long as they are critiqued and correct these habits for their next presentation. The bigger concern for me is where this unwillingness to speak courageously about our research originated.

While struggling to elaborate my point for this post, I came across an interesting article on Nature Jobs. (Thanks to Dr. Becca for the tweet that made this post possible. 😉 The article talks about the pervasive use of passive instead of active voice in scientific writing (“This experiment was performed” versus “I/We performed this experiment”). All of us are guilty of this to some extent, including myself. I, like others, was taught during my primary education to not use the first person in my formal writing. But passive voice was also to be avoided, so what’s a girl to do?

The article suggests a culture of passive behavior among scientists is the source of our passive writing. An unwillingness to advocate for our careers exemplifies this behavior: Don’t promote your papers, they’ll promote themselves. Don’t pursue new collaborations as a student/postdoc, they’ll find you. Don’t sell yourself when applying for jobs, your publication record will speak for itself.

But networking (the word sends shivers down the spines of some academics) is an extremely important tool for scientists. You must be able and eager to interact with others – scientists and laypersons – in order to find jobs, obtain funding, get noticed. The head-in-the-sand attitude just won’t cut it for those hoping to excel in a competitive job and funding market. A passage from the article:

“Scientists must communicate about their work — to other scientists, sponsors of their research and the general public. Active communication means more than merely accepting invitations to give talks at other institutions. An ‘active voice’ in communication means searching for opportunities…”

So how do we apply the active voice to our own lives as scientists? First, as students and postdocs, we should take control of our careers. Present our research at conferences, travel to other labs, initiate collaborations (ask your mentor first, of course). If your mentor is short on funding, apply for travel grants through your institution, private organizations, or directly from the conference. When you’re at a meeting, seek people out that you’re interested in working for/with and ask if they’d be willing to sit with you over coffee or a beer. NEVER insulate yourself among people you already know…this is a waste of an important career opportunity.

Second, as mentors (this includes grad students and postdocs, too – we are all mentors to somebody), we should push younger scientists to take control of their own research careers. We need to grant some sort of project ownership to young researchers, allowing them to speak with conviction about their work. Also, we must remind timid speakers to pick their heads up, look us in the eye, and talk about their work – and themselves – with some enthusiasm (and volume). And remember – you’re always teaching by example.

Now, go find your voice.


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