3 Things I Learned at the Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) National Meeting

Recently, there’s been some interest among my fellow graduate students in starting a student-run blog. This blog, called The BRIDGE, will feature stories about life as a graduate student, the work we do, and the various science-related events happening on campus. The goal is to “bridge” the gap between graduate students and the public, as well as to provide current graduate students with the opportunity to practice science communication.

I’ll be regularly contributing to this blog and so to give you a taste of things to come, here’s the first article I’ve written for The BRIDGE. Of course, once the blog goes live I will be posting links to it.

So without further ado, here’s “3 Things I Learned at the Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) National Meeting”

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Apparently, there’s a lot of good things going on at Penn State in terms of science outreach. For starters, Penn State hosts a science summer camp for K-12 kids every year called “Science-U”, which advocates science literary in youth. In the fall, they also run a public science fair event known as “Discovery-U“. And then of course, there are people like me at Penn State who are trying to get working adults more interested and in tune with science through online blogging.

But enough about Penn State! More importantly, the GWIS conference was an effort to educate graduate students on science communication. Particular emphasis was put on becoming an effective science communicator, as well as exposure to the many different types of jobs involved with science outreach. Rather than walk you through the entirety of the conference however, I’m going to tell you the three main take-home points:

1. Science outreach is tough!

Teaching string theory, the structure of an atom, or the intricacies of a cell to the average person is really quite difficult. Scientists have been researching these topics for centuries! So how exactly do you convert centuries of scientific inquiry into a 30-second elevator pitch that the average person can understand — let alone, want to understand? Of course, if your target audience is children, the task is even more daunting because of their short attention span.

While the average PhD-holder might see careers in science outreach as being beneath them, this couldn’t be further from the truth. True, we’re probably too overqualified to be the volunteers explaining science at the various outreach events, but it takes a PhD to figure out what to say in the first place! In reality, science outreach involves a lot of thinking outside the box. You’re essentially trying to explain the scientific world through a series of simple metaphors. Ultimately, the number one take-home message of the conference was that science outreach is really tough, and there aren’t enough scientists doing it.

2. If anything, academia should be considered the alternative career for scientists

In the past, getting your PhD pretty much meant you were going to eventually become a professor. In fact, a 1973 NSF survey of PhD-holders in the biological sciences found that over 55% went on to a tenured or tenure-track faculty position. At that time, any other career track (e.g. scientific writing, industry research, or patent law) was considered an “alternative” career. However, today’s situation is quite different. By 2006, the NSF survey showed that merely 20% of PhD-holders went on to hold a tenured or tenure-track position within 6 years of graduation. Thus, 80% were either stuck in a never-ending post-doctoral position or going into these so-called “alternative” careers. So in the end, what we refer to as “alternative careers” in science are quickly becoming the norm, and the “traditional” academic route has quickly become the alternative.

3. Don’t worry, everything will be okay in the end.

Perhaps the greatest (personal) takeaway from this conference was that no matter what you end up doing, everything is going to be fine in the end. As graduate students, we are always worrying about work/life balance, getting a job with a good salary, raising a family, etc. As the speakers pointed out though, these are struggles all people go through in life. Besides, getting a PhD is about more than just becoming an expert in your field, it’s also about becoming an expert on how to learn. PhDs are the ultimate learners and can pick up new topics very quickly. Combine this with an already deep understanding of science, and we become very marketable for nearly any job. So no matter what you end up doing, you will find a job with a decent salary, you will find your personal work/life balance, and if you want to, you will start a family.

Lastly, one thing that was common to all the speakers at the conference was that their path through life was not very clear-cut. They all took twisted, convoluted career paths to get to where they are today. But everyone does this; that’s just life in the 21st century. While we all may envision what we’ll be doing after graduation, things never work out the way you intend them to. Nonetheless, the fact that you’ll have a PhD means that after all the dust settles, you’ll still be fine!

While I can’t package everything that happened at the GWIS National Meeting into a single blog post, hopefully I have done it justice by presenting three of the major themes that were presented. Of course, if you want the full experience, you’ll just have to go to next year’s meeting! Even if you don’t though, attending career development workshops like this is still very crucial for graduate students. Not only do these events provide valuable life lessons, but also an opportunity to network with others. And building bridges is truly the secret to success!

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