Communication is key

I’ve been a grad student for what feels like forever now. And if I had to choose only one lesson to pass on to new grad students, it would be on how important it is to be able to communicate with others. And I mean communicating through your writing as well as orally.

I also think it’s a huge shame that this seems to be one area where grad schools do very little (if they do anything at all) towards helping students improve. Instead, they tell you to give a presentation or write a paper. Then, you get a grade, and if you’re lucky, a few comments. But rarely does someone actually take the time to explain where you went wrong and why. And, more importantly, how to fix it.

The good thing, is that the ability to communicate well can be taught. Some people are more natural at it than others, but everyone can improve. I’m lucky, and it comes pretty easy for me. It also helps that I’ve always done all my schooling in English. But, I’m also very verbose (wordy) and colloquial (casual) in my writing – which can make it more difficult for others to read, especially if English is not their first language.

I work closely with my research team, which consists of professors, undergrads and grads. Some of us are naturally good communicators, while others aren’t. When I interact with these people, it’s generally in a safe, low-risk situation (our weekly group meetings), and so everyone gets a chance to practice their oral communication skills. And, over time, I’m getting a chance to see most of them learn and improve. Which is exactly what you want to see.

Being able to communicate is vitally important. Your research, your funding, and your opportunities as a grad student, and your future employment all depend on it. There is so much research going on, that it is not worth peoples time to have to muddle through your research to find out if you’re doing something interesting. It’s your job to convince them of that.

If you feel that you’re not a great communicator, then make the effort to change. If it has to do with your writing, then search out friends, colleagues, your supervisor, on campus services, or tutors who are willing to read through your work and give suggestions. Be clear if you’re looking for help to check your grammar/spelling, or content, or organization. You may need to develop a thick skin, but realize that you need these critiques to help you improve. And be willing to evaluate each one, even if you don’t agree.

If it has to do with your oral skills, then look at presenting every opportunity you get. Look into on campus speech and debate clubs or city wide programs like Toast Masters. Practice giving presentations in front of an audience as close to the audience you’re going to to present to. And ask for detailed comments. Are there slides that are unclear? Do you move around too much? Too little? Do you have a nervous tick. Do you look at your audience?

The more time you spend on your communication skills, the easier it will become and the more natural it will feel.

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