Conversation skills in a PhD

I have a tendency of buying a book whenever I get to an airport. This time the lucky book is called Improve Your Communication Skills by Alan Barker from the independent publisher Kogan Page. While I am not a big fan of books related to entrepreneurship, management and those topics, I found this book appealing because it is written in a very interactive way. It really appeals to the reader and provides interesting and very useful tips related to conversational skills.

Reading the first four chapters of the book during the flight reminded me of an article I wrote previously and that I would like to revisit in a more formal way. First, let me make bold claim: communication is one of the cornerstones of science, I will try to argue why further in this note. Nowadays, doing science without being able to communicate your results in a written or spoken way is something that some people, including myself, would think unconceivable. I believe that academics and scientists cannot be seen simply as lonely researchers doing arcane and obscure experiments, calculations or mathematical proofs. Academy, to me, is a perpetual exercise in communication; academics are expected to be mentors, guides and speakers in their own field of expertise and therefore communication skills are important. Nonetheless, an important consideration is that communication skills do not only refer to presentation skills, which is something many people would think of instantly when thinking about communicating science. Indeed, this brief note is about another “type” of communication: conversations.

The importance of conversations in science

Conversations have always played an important role in the development of new knowledge. In philosophy, a well-known way of generating knowledge is the ~dialectical method~, which consists in creating new knowledge departing from a “discussion” between two or more participants. A well-known example is the Socratic Method, which consists essentially in a loop of three sequential steps:

  1. Present a thesis: in this step an idea is presented by the main interlocutor.
  2. Question the thesis: the other interlocutors can ask questions and try to falsify the thesis.
  3. Synthesis: In this stage the main interloctuor defends his/her thesis and can incoroporate (hence synthesys) arguments from other interlocutors into its own argument, generating a possible new thesis.

Then the same three steps can be repeated ad infinitum (if only one had that much time to think about a single problem…).

Although there are many critics of dialectics, like the renowned philosopher of science Karl Popper, my intention here is not to enter on a philosophical debate. In general, I believe that dialectic discussions are intrinsic of science, as questioning and falsifying hyphotheses are, in a sense, what make science what it is. I have then somewhat established the importance of conversations in science and proceed to argument about conversational skills for PhDs in a very brief way.

Conversational skills ARE important for PhD students

PhD students are essentially budding scientists, our main goal is to generate new knowledge, to stretch the boundaries of known science, if you want to put it in a very dramatic way. Therefore, we need every possible tool at our disposal to accomplish that goal, and conversational skills are an important tool at that. From my point of view nothing is more enriching than a productive discussion with your supervisor or a professor at a conference; or important than the insight you can get when a fellow PhD student and you share a couple of beers. These are the reasons why I believe conversational skills are important. Because they allow us, and everybody for that matter, to enrich our own point of views and theories with the expertise and experience of others.

Published: February 18 2018

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