Interview with Dr Fergus McAuliffe - Past Presentation Winner at Environ
Dr Fergus McAuliffe is a science communicator and researcher based at iCRAG, the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences. Fergus holds a PhD in environmental science, and has wide-ranging experience of science communication through TV, radio, print and digital media and live talks.
Fergus attended Environ 2016 as an invited speaker. He gave kindly of his time to answer questions on his career progression and provide some tips and insight for postgraduate students as they approach completion of their research.
1. What impact did receiving the award at Environ have on your communication skills and confidence in presenting your work?
I presented at Environ for two years in a row. It is a great confidence builder for postgraduate researchers to get experience in presenting to a scientific audience. Furthermore, as each Environ is themed, it challenges researchers to view their work in relation to the theme. Sometimes it is good to think of the bigger picture! I had done quite a number of public-facing talks and presentations before that particular Environ. However, communicating to specialists is slightly, but not completely, different. Many of the same things still apply: speak at a nice pace, make eye contact, only include necessary information on the slides etc. The main difference is the level of complexity that you can go to and the level of knowledge that you can assume that your audience has. This leads to the challenge of still explaining your complex research in a way that is clear to the specialist audience. Having successfully presented at Environ gave me the confidence that I can explain my research in a clear way on a peer-to-peer basis and gave an added pep in the step when I next returned to the lab knowing my research was on the right track.
2. You are now involved with scientific communications through your role at iCRAG and through various other roles. What has been the most unexpected reward of these roles (either professionally or personally)?
Bizarrely, I think the most unexpected reward of taking part in many science communication activities during my PhD training, is that I actually ended up making a career out of it! While initially entering competitions and writing popular science articles was a welcome distraction from the lab/field/desk (depending on the time of year!), after a while I began to really enjoy it. From the enjoyment, stemmed a train of thought that perhaps I could make a career out of communication and public engagement with science. Then, about a year ago, iCRAG - the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences - was established, and a position in communications and public engagement was advertised. At the time, there was a limited number of positions in Ireland in full-time science communication. So for me, it was time to throw my hat in the ring and see where science communication could take me. Alongside those, the additional activities that I have been involved, for instance 10 Things to Know About/The Science Squad on RTE1, Futureproof on Newstalk and also FameLab Ireland have been very rewarding and have allowed me to further my own science communication skills and to deliver coaching to the next crop of science communicators.
3. You have recently submitted your thesis, what advice would you give researchers in the final year of postgraduate research?
There is only one piece of advice to give: finish it. Little else matters. If that means staying in late, then stay in late. If it means coming in early, then come in early. If it means both of the above, then do both. Set yourself a realistic target and just get it done! Some things that I found helpful:
- Get into a good routine. This is an enormous cliché, but if you get it right, it can be a big help. In my last year each day I would try to get an hour of writing in first thing in the morning. Come in, open the computer, don’t look at emails, just write. After that, I would go about the field/lab work and stick at that for the rest of the day. Just the routine of knowing that the first thing to do each day was to write was a big help as I knew that no matter what happened during the rest of the day, I was already a little bit closer to a finished thesis.
- Keep in contact with your supervisors. Try and meet face to face at least once a month, and give yourself a lead in time to these monthly meetings. Knowing that you will be meeting your supervisors each month, will keep you focussed on getting the necessary done before the next meeting. Keep getting the tasks done: tick, tick, tick.
- Make an exit plan. This means deciding what is necessary to finish, timeline it, do it. Agree on this exit plan with your supervisors. Even getting them to call it an exit plan will help!
4. What are your top three advice tips for post-graduate students when deciding avenues to promote themselves?
A. Key to any job is your ability to communicate, be that with specialist or non-specialist. During your time as a postgraduate student there are plenty of opportunities to improve your ability to communicate, whether that be through entering competitions, writing blog articles, speaking at departmental seminars etc. These are safe environments in which to hone your skills. So, if an opportunity arises - take it! If an opportunity doesn't arise, make it happen: organise a series of public postgraduate talks, a research club etc. It is surprisingly easy to do.
Not sure of competitions to enter? Here are some:
- FameLab Ireland
- Thesis in 3
- Making an Impact Competition
- Institution specific competitions e.g. UCC Science for All, and UCC Doctoral Showcase
- Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize
B. Having some sort of social media presence is a big help. When it comes to interview stage, everyone is googled in advance. Make sure something positive comes up about you. For industry jobs, a strong LinkedIn profile will help. For postdoc jobs, a strong ResearchGate profile is perhaps more relevant, as well as an up to date webpage on your current department’s website.
C. Think about what you want to do next. The time to do that is now. About halfway through my PhD I had an inkling that science communication was for me. I then took any opportunities that arose to further my credentials in this field. If it is a postdoc that you want to do next, the concentrating on producing papers may be more appropriate. Indeed, learning about the funding calls e.g. MSCA, well in advance is a good thing to bear in mind. These application processes are lengthy and require a lot of groundwork well in advance. Learning about them well in advance will be a big help should you decide to pursue one.