Stop Saying That Communication is Time Wasted

Not my cousin. But probably not far off, either.

A few years ago — shortly before the COVID pandemic up-ended life — I had a chance to travel back to Texas A&M for a special occasion: my cousin’s Ring Day ceremony. For those unfamiliar with the (admittedly intense) traditions of TAMU, older alumni in a student’s family typically come to present their kin with their Aggie Ring. As the first person in my family to attend Texas A&M (and someone who didn’t get to celebrate her Ring Day in the usual fashion), it meant a lot to come back and take part in my cousin’s ceremony.

At the time, he was halfway through his junior year, studying physics and astrophysics. As we waited in line to pick up his ring, he told me how he was preparing to attend his first conference — a big milestone for any young researcher — where he would be presenting his first-ever research poster.

“Ugh,” he told me, “I’ve wasted so much time working on my poster.”

That single comment stopped me in my tracks. Here was a budding young scientist — someone who hadn’t even yet attended a poster session — calling his effort to communicate his work a waste of time.

This is not an attitude that springs from nowhere; my cousin must have gotten the impression from someone else that his efforts to report his work were wasted. (And, as someone who heard similar messaging during my years as a student, I suspect I know exactly where that came from.)

A Response

“What good is your research,” I asked him, “if no one ever knows about it?” There’s a reason that publication and presentation of scientific work is part of the research process. If our research results live only in our own lab notebooks and on our hard drives, then all of that work — all those hours and hours of effort — are pointless. They’re just busy work, unless we’re sharing that knowledge.

And why bother sharing that knowledge if you don’t take the time to share it well? No one at his poster session, I pointed out, was sitting over his shoulder the entire time. Things that are obvious to him about his work will not be obvious to his audience. His job is to distill all that he learned in the course of his research into a message that was helpful to other physicists. “Taking the time to do that well,” I said, “is never time wasted.”

Bottom Line

How many times have you complained that the time you spent on writing journal articles or presentations or research posters was time wasted? How often have you repeated that attitude to others, especially the youngest members of your group?

Communication is part and parcel of being a scientist or engineer. I know firsthand that companies value prospective employees with strong communication skills over those who lack them. But many students won’t take the time to learn the challenging skill of science communication if that skill is so obviously unvalued by those around them. By denigrating time spent on communication, we undermine ourselves, our work, our students, and our industries.

What good is your research if no one ever knows about it? What good is it if no one understands your explanation?

Even the most talented communicators among us had to work to develop that skill. There is no shame in time spent strengthening your communication game.

How different would our fields be if that were the message we spread to students?

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(Image credit: C. Liverani)

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