What do you feel were the most valuable lessons that you learnt from completing a PhD?
Definitely how to fail and how to ask for help. A lot of time is spent trying new things that won’t always succeed - it is therefore so important to be able to learn from situations where things are failing. I’m now much less afraid to fail, and to try something different. A PhD also teaches you how to learn, it teaches you determination, and it teaches you how to become good at something.
Overall, I would say that utilising failure is one of the most important things that you can learn from completing a PhD.
After completing your PhD, you have steered your career into the area of science communication. How did you find this transition, and what opportunities were available to you to assist with this?
It’s definitely been different to my time spent in the lab. Part of the reasoning for this is that I have had to do everything remotely due to the pandemic. Before moving to my current role, I had various opportunities to be involved in science communication, through writing for the RSC, and through a science technology and society studies programme that I completed as a part of my PhD. I also had the opportunity to work with an organisation in Washington called JCDREAM, which is a funding agency looking at holistic views of energy materials/renewable energy development. Working as a writer for Chemical Science and ChemComm was really helpful, because a lot of communication roles ask for previous writing examples which I was able to provide. These experiences definitely helped me in this transition.
What are the most difficult challenges that you feel graduate students face in general, and when they are looking to pursue a career in scientific communication?
In general for graduate students, I think it’s hard to separate your values as a human to your values in work. When your work isn’t going well, it can feel like it is a reflection on you as a person and your work, which it really isn’t. Science just doesn’t work a lot of time, and certain projects can be incredibly challenging!
Publication can also be tough as you can feel as though it is a reflection on you as a person. Having your research rejected can feel incredibly personal, especially given the amount of work you’ve put into each paper, but you have to separate yourself out from these experiences as much as possible and understand that sometimes your work just won’t be the right fit for certain journals.
For graduate students, there are also certain challenges when switching your career into a communications role. As scientists we are generally taught to talk about ourselves in quite a narrow way, for example as an expert in this specific type of electron microscopy or a certain area of synthesis. However, in reality we have a lot of knowledge and transferable skills that we don’t recognise as easily. It is important to highlight other skills that you have.
What would be your three top tips for any chemist looking to pursue a career in scientific communication?
First of all, find a platform to showcase your writing. It can be professional, or something more low-key like a blog. Just find somewhere to get your words out. If you have something to show to potential employers in the future, it can have a huge impact. You really don’t have to be great at it, but getting that experience early on is important.
Second, reach out to people – try and find your own network of people who have done this sort of thing, or have a technical background in various science adjacent fields. As a student, I found that people can actually be incredibly generous with their time – they want to help and they want you to succeed, especially because most people who have been down that path do recognise that the resources required aren’t always available. Find and leverage contacts, and really take advantage of having the time to do this.
Finally, make sure to take advantage of any opportunities during your studies, even if they take you away from the lab. I had an opportunity to take part in a one-week science policy programme, which helped me to realise that it wasn’t an area that I wanted to move into! These lessons are just as valuable as finding out what you do want to do. If you can start doing this before you have to make any big choices regarding which direction you want to go in, this can be really helpful and can make your next transition as smooth as possible.
You worked as a writer for Chemical Science during 2019 and 2020. What would you say were your highlights when working in this role, and what was your favourite Chemical Science article to write about?
Something that I really enjoyed was that it allowed me to read research from areas that were completely different to what my PhD focused on. There are some many interesting developments in the world of chemistry that otherwise I wouldn’t have had the time to read during my PhD. Writing for Chemical Science gave me an opportunity to do this, and a chance to explore the real breadth of chemistry. The work that I found to be most interesting tended to not actually be the materials stuff; I tended to like the organic or biochemistry-focused research.
One of my favourites was a bioinorganic paper, describing metallohelices as antimicrobial agents. This wasn’t research that I would have come across on my own, but I found it really interesting. We know that antibiotic resistance is a huge problem, but a lot of our drugs work in the same way and we don’t have access to new mechanisms to address this. I found this work really fascinating.
Check out Beth’s blog post about this Chemical Science article here.
10th anniversary collection
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Chemical Science we are publishing a number of special birthday issues, to recognise and thank members of our community who have been supporting the journal and publishing in Chemical Science since we launched ten years ago.
Explore our collection now.