Tobias Maier became involved in science communication while a postdoc at the CRG, starting a successful German-language blog. After leaving the lab, he briefly explored entrepreneurship, before founding his own science communication agency. The network he’d built in science communication then led to a position at the National Institute for Science Communication in Karlsruhe, where he is now Deputy Director.
For those who are interested in science communication, Tobias recommends starting to communicate your science and attending science communication events. He also describes how difficult the decision to leave the lab can be and how he found a value-based decision-making process, supported by a career counselor, really helped with this transition.
You can find the full interview below, and a video version is also available on Tobias’ blog.
If you are interested in this career area, you can find additional resources at:
- (within EMBL only) – previous career day talks from Gary Male, Lars Bochmann, Susanne Benner
- NatureJobs Blog article – How to get a job in science communication
- Molecular Biology of the Cell perspective: Science communication: a career where PhDs can make a difference
- Upcoming DKFZ career day on science communication (11 October 2019)
For an introduction on how a better understanding of your values & interests can help in career decisions, see this article from NatureJobs. A handout with exercises related to values, interests and skills is available for EMBL fellows and staff on the EIPOD career service intranet pages (within EMBL only).
Your main position is as Deputy Director of the National Institute for Science Communication in Germany, what does this role involve?
The bread and butter work of NaWik – the National Institute for Science Communication – is to train scientists to communicate better. Our mission is to focus on scientists, and to provide training and any type of help they need to feel comfortable to communicate themselves with target audiences beyond their peers. I give a lot of workshops and travel – mostly around Germany – to give trainings on different topics ranging from social media, to the basics of scientific communication and scientific writing. I’m also managing our e-learning platform – where we offer online courses in science communication training. Then I’m also involved in a lot of the other initiatives we do and I go to conferences, give talks and presentations.
You got into this role via science communication itself. How did you transition from the lab into this area?
That’s a long and winding story. After a short stint at EMBL, I did my postdoc at the CRG in Barcelona. To stay in contact with my home country, I was reading German news, and was annoyed by how stem cell research was portrayed there. I started writing a blog as an outlet for my opinions on this topic, with a focus on scientific evidence. That was back in 2008 in the fairly early days of blogging. I was quite quickly recruited to the science blogs network and also had a twitter account. Ever since then I’ve written the blog. These were my first steps to science communication.
However, I had published quite well during my postdoc and my plan really was to pursue an academic career. I applied for group leader positions but it didn’t work out. So I decided that, if after 10-years of science, if I cannot do the next step comfortably, maybe this isn’t the environment for me to be in.
When I first decided to quit academia I really felt that I’d failed my dream and myself. Career coaching really helped me. What became clear during this coaching, was that if I identified and focused on my values – why I am doing what I am doing – I could find other positions I liked where I could implement these values. Having this mental construct, of my values and being able to take them with me, as well seeing myself – rather than as a failure – as someone actively taking career decisions, really resonated with me. I identified that I am an independent thinker, I like to have ideas and be able to implement them, and I like communication. I always liked writing papers and giving presentations. This is what drove me in science. Additionally, because I had started to communicate science and I had started my blog, the theme science communication was clear.
In the last year of my postdoc, I won a business idea competition at CRG for a software project related to science communication. It was kind of like tinder for scientists. People would register and upload 2-3 papers and we would then match these to PubMed. We would then send new and relevant papers to your mobile device on a daily basis and you could swipe to indicate relevance – this would in turn affect the search algorithm. I got some start-up funds for this immediately after the postdoc and ran the project for a year. It was a nice lesson and I really enjoyed being independent and freelance but I was in Spain where it was not easy to obtain further funds. I also don’t have a business background and probably focused too much on the project rather than the business side of things.
I then decided to start up a science communication agency for EU projects. I’d been working on EU projects during my PhD and postdoc and was aware that those projects needed a part on dissemination and outreach. The business idea was to provide these services to collaborations of scientists. Meaning, we would provide the science communication strategy for the projects and then implement those strategies – from making the website, planning outreach events and maintaining social media channels.
In 2015, I moved back to Germany for private reasons. During this time I contacted the National Institute for Science Communication and asked if they needed anyone to work with them, and they said yes they were interested in having me as an employee. It was a coincidence that the person that hired me here also recruited me to science blogs 10-years ago.
So – after creating your first roles yourself, your network helped you get the longer-term position?
Yes, and it’s funny: everyone always emphasizes the importance of having a network and of networking. I always found that difficult to do in science: I’m not the type of person who walks up to everyone at a conference and talks to them. But in the science communication world I could rely on this network, and it somehow grew naturally from the hobby that I was passionate about.
In your experience, having worked for so long in the lab, what do you think are the main differences between working in science communication and in the lab?
I don’t have pipettes around me so that’s one main difference. But, for me, it doesn’t really feel that different, although it’s a different type of job. I still have the same values and am able to do the things that motivated me in science, meaning that I have ideas and can implement them, I can communicate and I can interact with people.
Has your scientific background been useful in these roles?
It definitely helps me. In German there is a term “Stallgeruch”, which means the smell of the stable. I have this smell on me, if you like, of being a scientist. When I give my workshops to a group of scientists, I still see myself as one of them and I think they perceive me as one of them as I understand how science works. This is particularly helpful for the career development workshops I give, where I can authentically tell my story and I can really relate to everybody who thinks about careers be that within or without academia.
So you still feel connected to science?
Yes – for sure. I hear what many, many researchers in many different fields are working on. I now even have a much broader understanding of what science is about that goes beyond my own little niche. I also get to know the kind of institutional, administrative level of science – how it’s organized, how do institutions think – how do they plan the future. That’s a very interesting angle.
When you think about your work now, what do you think is the biggest challenge?
It’s a very challenging field. Science communication is a field that is not firmly established as something that has to be done. Our biggest challenge is not convincing scientists how important it is to communicate. They know this and often have great ideas about how to do it, but they are aware that this costs time & resources and that this investment is not rewarded. It is not something that is established as something that contributes to scientists’ success. This is a challenge I see and want to work on.
And the best part?
Giving this workshops is something I love: I like to go to a place for 2-days and work with scientists on different topics. This began back in 2013, when – alongside my science communication agency work – I started working for a company called HFP consulting who give leadership workshops for scientists, for example EMBO lab leadership courses. I then developed my own career development workshops and gave grant writing workshops. Now here at NaWik, I give workshops on all types of communication topics.
What other skills, experience and character traits – other than communication skills – do you think are important in science communication roles?
It helps to be able to write – I’m by no means a great writer or trained writer but I practiced with my blog. Being open to other people and interested in other people and a natural curiosity in what they do – also really helps me. It’s an evolving field so being able to respond to change is also important. I think every scientist working in a lab will tell you that not a single day is like the day before, and I think it’s the same in my current job. It’s never routine it’s always new. In a way, most of the skills I used in my academic career, are still pretty much being used now.
What advice do you have for people interested in moving into science communication and/or training?
People who consider moving into science communication often ask me what they should study or whether they should do an internship at some institution or news outlet. From my experience, it really worked by just starting to communicate science. I don’t think you need formal training – there’s no need to study an extra degree – but just get your feet wet: see what you like and try different media. It’s never been easier to do that. Choose you media, define your target audience and just try it out. If you want to work with school kids, maybe outreach is the way to go. Do you want to talk to other scientists who are not in your field? You can set up a twitter account, or a blog and just start writing. Often social media or blogs allow you to start anonymously – so you can start without giving away your real name to see how it feels like. Podcasts also have a revival now, so if you have a nice voice why not start a podcast?
Networking is also important for science communication especially, as it really is a changing field. In April we have a symposium for communicating scientists here in Karlsruhe. So if you are communicating or you are interested in communicating science this could be an event to go to. There is also an annual event in Germany, called Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation. I also know that locally, there are regular informal meetings where science communicators get together.
One trend I see more and more is that scientists are hired in communication roles in institutes. I feel the rationale behind this is that it is easier to teach someone who knows about science how to communicate well, rather than teach someone with a communications background about how all the science works. I think scientists really have an advantage there and that it is a growing field. So talk to communicators at your institutes, try to understand their work, what it is they are doing. It helps to understand where they come from. Traditionally these were press offices, writing press releases and communicating with journalists, and more and more now have fully blown communication departments with multiple channels, organizing outreach events, often involved in helping scientists with their own communication measures. What I also see popping up often right now is positions for social media and organizing local outreach and engagement.
Are there any misconceptions about the sector that you come across frequently?
As seen from someone active in research, the misconception is that this is a lower job. This perception comes naturally from being on the academic track, and being told not to look left or right and focus on your academic career. Even working in a company outside is seen as a lower job.
Science communication also struggles sometimes with lack of knowledge about who the actors are in communicating science, what our motivation is, and whether it is science PR we are doing. I think it is important to be clear about this. On the one hand you have journalists who are independent and they do the critical research and reporting. Then you have the science communicators, who also do journalistic formats and many different media and roles – but they are paid by the institute so it is some kind of PR and they don’t have an entirely free choice in what to say or communicate.
Is there a particular place where positions are advertised?
To be honest, I’m not aware of a single place. It helps to follow people on twitter. In Germany, there is wissenschaftskommunikation.de, which is a fantastic resource. They have profiles of people who communicate science. Going to conferences and just talking to people also helps.
Was there anything that surprised you about working in this sector?
In academia you work together with people who all have a similar background – everyone is well trained and intelligent, and thinks along the same lines. I think what is surprising about going into communications is that you meet people with different backgrounds and views on life. It wasn’t so much of a surprise as a welcome change to meet with people and see the world through different eyes. That way you can see the world also through the lens of people with a background in journalism or corporate communications.
Is there anything else you want to mention?
When people come out of academia and want to change, it often is that they are frustrated and as if they failed. I really encourage people to take some coaching and take some time so you can get back on track and see career change as something positive. There is a philosopher, Ruth Chang, at Rutgers University who does research on decision making. What she says is that when you at a cross-road of making a decision, it shouldn’t feel like a burden that causes stress or fear, but as an opportunity where you are able to take change. This is something positive. You can decide what direction you want to go. So see this as a positive step, a career decision, that is for you yourself.
I think it’s also important to realize that while you are doing a PhD or postdoc you are really acquiring a vast set of skills that you are completely unaware of: resilience, logical thinking, communication skills, writing skills, self-management skills, project management, budget management. It’s a vast array of skills that are fantastic on any kind of CV. However, it really takes an effort to translate what you have done in academia into a language that someone else would like to see. Outside research, it doesn’t matter where you published your papers, but it matters what you actually did on the project and how you carried it out – what skills you used. It really needs a change of prospective. It’s not about quickly assembling a CV and sending it out 100 times. It really takes time to write a CV that will resonate with a future employer.
EMBL staff / fellows can search and contact other alumni working in this career area to seek career advice / informal mentoring via the EMBL alumni directory. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.