Outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

The Buddle Lab, with Nalini Nadkarni (centre)

About two weeks ago, an email from my advisor turned up in my inbox that said something to the effect of, “Canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni is coming to McGill to give a talk and hang out with our lab. This is a great opportunity, so please come.” When I pulled out my Top-Secret Graduate Advisor Decoder Ring and reread the email, it clearly said, “BE THERE OR I WILL THROTTLE YOU”.

I immediately marked the dates on my calendar.

Now, canopies are not my area of expertise. In fact, I mostly work in climatic zones where there are NO trees (or else the trees are small enough that you can reach up and touch the so-called “canopy”), so I really had no idea what the big deal was. I just figured that my advisor’s excitement stemmed from the fact that canopy work is one of the tools he uses to address questions about arthropod ecology. Nevertheless, a few days before Dr. Nadkarni’s talk, I thought it would be prudent to take some time to acquaint myself with our visitor. So I googled, found her web page at Evergreen State College, and read her CV.

Result: MIND BLOWN. TOTAL BRAIN-CRUSH.

Then I watched both of her TED talks. Yes, that TED. You can watch them here and here. My brain-crush amplified exponentially. Not only was she an incredibly prolific and well-respected scientist, she was also an extraordinary advocate of science outreach**. In the final days leading up to the talk, I was all ohboyohboyohboy.

My advisor asked me to live-tweet the event, something I’d never done before, and I gave it a try. From those tweets, I created my first Storify (an application that compiles social media soundbites). You can read my Storify summary of Dr. Nadkarni’s talk here: http://storify.com/GeekInQuestion/nalini-nadkarni-talk-at-mcgill-university

Some of the last few points she made were among the most poignant for me:

She was definitely preaching to the choir, in my case. The Q & A period allowed me ask something that’s been on my mind. It was similar, actually, to a question I recently asked about teaching.

I stood at the microphone (a little nervously), and said something like: “I’m a grad student. One thing I’m passionate about is science outreach with both specialist and non-specialist audiences. However, we grad students repeatedly get told that the only important currency of academia is our publications, and that science outreach is not a good use of our time. Clearly, you’re someone who thinks it’s important. What do you say to this idea that it’s not valid or important work, and how do you find the time?”

Her answer, I thought, was both honest and encouraging. It also very much reflected a general philosophy that threaded through her discussions of her work and her outreach activities. The philosophy seems to be: “There are systems that have been in place for a long time. These systems are not likely to be changed any time soon. There is little point in trying to change a system if you want to advance you own ideals or goals: you’d probably be wasting your time. Rather, find ways to work both with and outside the system, and create your own opportunities.”

Doing some outreach with high school students from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, plus 10 other schools from provinces across Canada (via the ArcticNet Schools On Board program)

Basically, she said this: If you’re interested in working in academia, then you need to work within that well-established (and unlikely-to-be-changed) system and generate the required currency. Do your research, and do your publications. As a grad student, your outreach contributions may not be recognized or valued. You may not be able to do the kind of outreach you’d like, either because of the time or resources required. But go ahead and do the outreach stuff anyways, in whatever capacity you’re able. Later on in your career, when you have access to the resources and as long as you’re working for an institution that accommodates it, you can expand the outreach component of your work in bigger and more meaningful ways.

What I heard was, “Play the game and pay your dues BUT don’t be afraid to also work outside the system in the meantime: in the long run it will pay off“.

I think an additional underlying message was: If doing outreach is a reflection of your values as a scientist – if it’s important to you and personally satisfying – then there’s no reason not to do it just because “the system” says it doesn’t matter.

March to the beat of your own drummer, in other words.

What do you all think?

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** although I talk about “science” outreach specifically in this post, because it falls within the realm of this particular example and of my own experiences, I do think that similar challenges and opportunities exist for all grad students, regardless of their area of study.  We should all take the time to share our passion for our field of research with broader audiences, however we are best able, as often as we are able.  I’d be curious to hear whether other grad students feel differently about the academic “value” of outreach activities in non-science fields!

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cross-posted at www.thebuggeek.com

2 responses to “Outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway”

  1. Marina says:

    I’m only an undergraduate student but in my field I’ve already also been told not to ‘waste time’ on Outreach (I coordinate the astronomy outreach program) when I should be focused on research and grades in order to be a ‘good candidate’ for grad school. I love this entire post — especially that last quote about doing it because it reflects your values as a scientist. It seems analogous to those who genuinely want to be great musicians and then get sucked into the ‘system’ of show biz and forget the core reasons they had for wanting to do it in the first place. I totally think Outreach is a great reminder for scientists as to why they started… seeing that look of curiosity on a younger person’s face always reminds me of how curious I always was and thus reminds me why I’m sticking with science. Just discovered this blog today — great post!

  2. It’s sad to hear that this negative message is getting transmitted so early in a student’s career – but I’m glad that you’re ignoring it!! :p I think it’s important that people like us continue doing the outreach work, not just for those who appreciate it, but also for ourselves – it’s tremendously rewarding and reminds us why we’re in this line of work in the first place! It’s easy to forget when one gets bogged down in the doldrums of academia.

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