Home | Jeremy Côté
Bits, ink, particles, and words.
As a scientist, the usual “proof of work” is the paper, a small artifact that encapsulates the essence of a problem and its resolution (or at least, progress the scientist makes). But the process of going from an initial idea to a finished paper is less clear for outsiders.
My goal here is to shed some light on the topic of projects, and all the work that goes into a paper. This is similar in spirit to how writers have gaps in between books in a series. Between publications dates, they need to plan, write, and edit their next book! It’s a lot of work, and makes for the long period between when a writer begins working on a book and when it goes out on shelves.
When communicating a new idea to someone, use the language they’re familiar with.
Seems reasonable, but as soon as you go out into the world, you see plenty of examples where this doesn’t happen. In this essay, I want to describe what happens when we commit this error in the realm of science.
Grab a physicist, and force them to sit through a mathematics seminar. Assuming they know the basics of the topic to follow the equations, I bet they will tell you, “I don’t know what this person was going on about! The way they presented things was just…weird.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I present my work. When a family member or friend asks what I do, the interaction tends to look like this:
Them: “So, what do you do?”
Me, looking away and mumbling: “Research.”
A long pause, and then them: “Teacher?”
Wrong, but close enough. “Sure, in a way.”
But I’m a scientist, not just a teacher. Working on puzzles is what I do. So I want to take a crack at describing what I do, and what I don’t do.
Science is a game of exploration, but it’s also a game of communication. If you make a groundbreaking discovery but you lack the skills to communicate it, your discovery won’t amount to much. I suspect most scientists will agree with this sentiment. Communication is important if we want our results to diffuse into the broader community. We also need to communicate when applying for grants and scholarships, or otherwise selling the value of our work. Each time we answer the question “Why does this matter?”, we’re communicating our values.
And yet, we don’t teach the art of scientific communication. Instead, we rely on students figuring things out as they go. We expect graduate students to just “level up” from writing laboratory reports and essays as undergraduates to writing papers for the scientific community. Not only is this a tall expectation, I think we miss out on communicating we should value when writing.
I’m thinking about this within the context of my own PhD. I’m done my first project, and I’m in the stages of writing. Despite my love for writing, there’s no doubt this process has been the most tedious and exhausting part of the project. Through multiple drafts, rewrites, and so much editing, I want to discuss the topic of finding your story.