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Student Stories

Student Stories

Blogs and vlogs from students of the University of Edinburgh

I don’t know who you are; I don’t know what you want…

Reading Time: 3 minutes

…by Greg / from the United Kingdom / PhD Precision Medicine / 4th Year

I’m Greg, and I have been a scientist for the last nine years. I’m studying for my PhD in physiology. I’m currently wrapping up my research for Christmas, but this blog is all about making noise.

I was a chatterbox, as a child, so I’m told.

The Scottish education system has more than a few curiosities. At one time, they used to grade us on a scale of 1-6 with a ‘1’ being broadly equivalent to an ‘A‘, and a ‘6’ something like an ‘E’. After they graded us like that, they switched systems and graded us on a scale of A-C with a D being a fail but a close one (Please leave a comment if you know why this was the case). I remember the first A (that was really a 1) I ever got. I suspect to the surprise of many, it was in English, to be precise my oral exam. I cannot precisely remember what I spoke about but at the time I was a regular at a local Karate club and I think I wrote a speech on the ethics of contact sports. I can’t remember any other grades for individual assignments (or my classes) from academy or university (we’re given too many grades) but that English grade lives on in my memory.

The early stages of my undergraduate degree were not reliant on speaking skills (indeed it was the study and exam skills that developed) but speaking skills became significant in the later half when I began working in research and presenting data; working in the NHS and in my final year I sat on a number of academic committees as a student representative.

Talking and listening to people is a fundamental part of research. The experience of academics and other students is most accessible by talking to them because some things never get written down. The relationships I have built have often been the ones that got me the ‘best’ opportunities. My relationships were essential to securing my current post. As many have said before, and many more will say afterwards, research is a small word. Even my limited professional network at the time (I’d guess about 40 people) knew 2/3 of my supervisors.

Talking has a formal role in research. The two main roles are for interviews (both for positions and grants) and at conferences. I cannot write much about interviews because I don’t have much experience. My only advice comes from another domain – answer more than the question. You should answer a question (in this kind of setting) while trying to put forward the things you want to draw attention to.

In research, sharing your findings at academic conferences is probably the second most prestigious forum (peer-reviewed publication is top). I remember very little of my first conference talk. I know that I did it (there are pictures), that attendees asked me questions and afterwards people were complementary, but the talk was helpful to me. Giving a talk is all about narrative. In my view, the common mistake made in science is the think more data is better. Personally, I think creating a narrative is impressive, not your observations. An endless list of observations is relatively meaningless. The value is in how you organise them. In most research talks, the structure of a talk reminds me of those ‘how many triangles do you see?’ images. The talks itself is one part that can be broken down into small parts which in turn break down into smaller parts until you have one slide. The process of writing, designing and giving a talk is largely one of practice and responding to audience comments. Charisma, showmanship and public speaking can be mostly learnt. It isn’t a case of being born with it like writing, you will improve the more you do it and the more you exposure yourself to feedback.

Note. In my experience, you should rarely publicly give negative feedback to anyone who has given a talk, especially to someone who could be nervous.  Read online or watch some videos to develop your emotional intelligence if you do not know how to recognise it. It is very, very rare that publicly criticising someone benefits them. Give negative feedback in private when people do not have to protect their reputation in the same manner. You are more likely to get a positive response to your feedback.

Verbal communication can have a significant impact on our careers. How we talk influences how others perceive us; how we acquire new information, knowledge, and skills; explain our skills and values, and help find new opportunities. Consequently, this is a skill worth learning. Good speaking skills have gotten me into projects, events and jobs I don’t think I would have otherwise. I’ve learned how to speak through trial and error, formal learning and simple imitation. It has given me the ability to keep up and speak up in difficult situations.

Not being heard is no reason for silence.

You can find out more about my life in Edinburgh and science on my Twitter @endothelin1 and about my career on LinkedIn.


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