Communication is one of the most often listed skills in job postings across all fields. In grad school, communication is as important to everyday life as it is to career development. For a PhD student, the benefits of effective communication skills can be seen everywhere from interpersonal relationships to research progress. While these skills are not often evaluated on their own, many measures of grad school success depend upon good communication – from congenial advisor relationships to paper acceptance.
To explore what good communication in grad school looks like, the EECS Communication Lab recently hosted our third annual panel discussion titled “How to Communicate in Grad School: What They Don’t Teach You.” At this event, four senior EECS grad students shared about their experiences with formal and informal communication. In this post, we summarize some of the recurring themes that came up in discussion to offer advice for making your communication more effective.
Know your audience
For any communication task, the first step is to analyze your audience. This holds true for both formal communication (like writing a paper or preparing a talk) and informal communication (like drafting an email to your advisor or collaborators). To communicate effectively, you need to know who you are communicating to or with. Think about what they already know, what they may need to be reminded of, and what the main takeaways are that you want to convey.
Thinking about your audience should come into all stages of communication. While writing a draft or having a conversation, revisit your thoughts about who you are communicating with and why. Identifying your audience plays an important role both in the details of communication such as designing a slide to convey your most important point and in high-level preparation such as planning for what your audience already knows. Communicating effectively about anything from interpersonal conflict to research requires careful consideration of the other party.
Treat communication like a skill that can be developed
Being an effective communicator is not something you are born with; it is something you develop over time. Even the best communicators can always find ways to improve. In the same way you would practice a sport or a musical instrument, you should apply the same discipline to practicing communication. Seek out as many opportunities for practice as possible, and get feedback from a variety of people. The more you communicate, the more comfortable you become, and the more your skills improve.
When preparing for a talk, record yourself. Then, watch the video, paying attention to areas where you can improve. As a starting place, you can look for the following things:
- Do you use filler words such as “uhm” or “like”?
- How is your vocal tone?
- How is your body language and eye contact?
- Are you effectively delivering the message you want to convey?
If you find it helpful, you can add metrics to quantify your performance and track your progress over time. It is also important to practice in front of others. Seek feedback from your friends, colleagues, and mentors.
Communication is an essential skill for effectively conveying your research and instilling interest in your work. It’s worth investing time to improve it.
Planning is an essential skill in many kinds of communication and for overall research progress. Drafting a paper plan early in a project helps keep you focused. While it’s fine to pursue new research directions as you gain new information, make sure to revisit the big picture to make sure your new direction will lead to publication. When it’s time to put together a paper or a talk, spend some time thinking about your audience and goals for communicating your research. Draft an outline before you start writing or making slides. Thinking about the big picture before getting lost in the details can save you time by keeping you from working on pieces that will ultimately get cut from the final draft.
Planning is also essential for more everyday tasks. Before a meeting, it can be helpful to reflect on what you are looking to get out of that time and what direction will be the most helpful to you. For example, in a meeting about your research progress with your advisor, you may be looking to solve a specific technical problem you are stuck on. To plan effectively, you can prepare a slide deck with several figures and your hypotheses about why what you’re trying is not working. Going to a meeting with a plan, specific goals, and visual aids can help direct the conversation where you want it to go.
Every student’s relationship with their advisor is different
One of the biggest communication challenges that grad students face is navigating a relationship with one or more advisors. These relationships can be tricky to navigate because advisors play many roles to a grad student; they are part teacher, part mentor, and part boss. At the heart of these relationships are the people in them. Every student is different, and so is every advisor. Focus on building a good relationship (or improving your existing one) through open communication. If you’re having trouble getting your advisor’s time, schedule a meeting. If your advisor has an administrative assistant, they are often the go-to person to get you on your advisor’s calendar.
Remember that like any other relationship, the one between a student and an advisor will not grow overnight. Be patient, and experiment to see what works. Work to learn your advisor’s communication style over time. Seek to learn their expectations – for example, do they want to have a paper draft two months before a deadline or the week before? Ask them what they prefer. Ask others in the lab for effective ways of communicating with your advisor.
Because an advisor wears so many hats, the line between professional and personal can be a gray area. If personal issues arise that impact your work, you will need to communicate that to your advisor, but your relationship with your advisor will determine what level of detail is appropriate. Ideally before this happens, test the waters to see what is comfortable for both of you to discuss.
Importantly, your advisor should not be your only source of support in grad school. Seek out additional mentors who you can talk about certain problems with. People in a slightly more advanced career stage (senior grad students, postdocs, junior professors) often make good mentors because they have had similar experiences to what you are going through.
Practice self advocacy
For any kind of communication to be effective, you need to reflect on your goals. Knowing the purpose of writing a paper or scheduling a meeting with your advisor will allow you to seek out the resources and support you need. Communication involves taking initiative, whether that’s applying to a conference or talking to your advisor about vacation time. Consider what you need to be successful throughout your graduate career, and be prepared to advocate for those things. Remember the old adage: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
If you’re not sure what you need or how to get it, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll be surprised by how much people want to help. If you don’t get a useful answer the first time, ask a different question or ask a different person. Asking for help with technical or non-technical problems can also be a great way to establish new network connections. While solving problems on your own is part of the path to becoming an independent researcher, even the most senior researchers ask for help when they need it. If you’re stuck, you can save a lot of time and energy by asking questions and seeking help.
Resources for MIT EECS Grad Students
- For help with writing, speaking, or visual design, visit the EECS Communication Lab.
- For help dealing with stress or conflict management, reach out to EECS REFS.
- For peer-to-peer support, connect with THRIVE, GW6, or GSA.