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021: The 4 simple tips that will make your writing stand out

Even if you’re not working on a paper or grant proposal today, you’ll probably communicate about science.  You’ll send an email to a colleague, chat with your PI, or present a paper at lab meeting.  In every case, you’re trying to convey an idea or change someone’s mind, and that’s why it’s so important to communicate clearly.

Write Right

science writing
Carol went on to win the Nobel Prize for her work on keeping chalk boards relevant in the 21st century.

This week, we invited David Shifrin of Filament Life Science Communication and the Science Writing Radio podcast to share his top four tips for what he calls “non-technical writing.”  That includes those emails, conversations, and presentations you’re doing every day of the week.

Here are the tips he shared on the show:

  • Define your audience: Create each piece of content for an “audience of one” and don’t try to be all things to all people.
  • Define the problem: Focus, try to convey one main idea, and support it with every sentence.
  • Less is more: Use white space, don’t feel compelled to tell everything you know, and edit yourself ruthlessly.
  • Tell a story: Data is critical, but data only makes sense in the context of a story. Use emotion, story arc, the hero’s journey, etc. to engage your audience.

David has a 15-point checklist to improve your scientific communications on his website.  Check it out at

Freaks of Nature

The ethanol took on mythic proportions this week.  David sampled the Rompo Red Rye Ale from Jackelope Brewing Company in Nashville, TN.  They describe a “rompo” as “a mythical beast with the head  of a rabbit, the ears of a human, the front arms of a badger, and the rear legs of a bear.”  Magically frightening!

Josh and Dan couldn’t find that locally, so they drank a beer with a head of hops, the ears of hops, the front arms made of even more hops, and the rear legs of a bear who died from an overdose of hops.  It was the Freak of Nature Double IPA from Wicked Weed Brewing in… wait for it… Asheville, NC!  It’s like Nashville, but headless.  See what I did there?




020: Do I really need to do a postdoc?

As you near the end of your graduate school training, you will feel defeated, worn out, and ready to take a nice, peaceful job at that bookstore down the street.  But if your career goals include leaving the bookstore and returning to lab, you’re probably considering postdoctoral training.  Question is: do you really need to do a postdoc?

Later that day: “I haven’t smelled β-mercaptoethanol in ages. This is great!”

To Do, or Not To Do

Fifty years ago, you could finish your PhD and be offered a faculty position, no questions asked.  Twenty years ago, you’d get that same faculty position after doing a lengthy postdoc.  But the times have changed, and not everyone wants to jump on the tenure track.  That means there are some of us who don’t need a postdoc and shouldn’t do one.

There are a few clear cases where a postdoc is an unstated requirement, but there are also times where grad students take a postdoc because they haven’t figured out what they want to do with their degrees.  That means  you can actually avoid the entire process.

We’ll talk about the different types of jobs you can achieve as a scientist in academics and industry, and whether the postdoc will help you get there.  The key is deciding early what you want to do and getting a job BEFORE you graduate.

Pumpkin Spice Latte Lager

We finally break down and sample a Pumpkin Ale from Schlafly Beer in St. Louis, MO.  It’s tastily-spiced, but not over the top like some of these brews that made the bottom of the Paste Magazine pumpkin beer taste-test.  You’ll see flavor phrases like “road tar,” “licorice,” and “Ipecac.”  Yuk!  

019: How to Avoid a Toxic Lab

The research is cutting-edge. The publications are top-tier. Funding is abundant. But this lab has a toxic secret that will make your life a living hell.


Hidden in Plain Sight

Identifying the seventeen varieties of mold living in your walls before you try to remove it. #ItsAScienceThing

This week, we answered a question from a first-year grad student who found himself in a lab that felt more like the gladiator’s arena than an ivory tower.  The PI created an adversarial environment where it was every scientists for himself.

This summer (my first lab rotation) was in an HHMI lab and the PI was both non-existent and absolutely poisonous. Furthermore, their caustic attitude bled into the rest of the lab. It seemed like the rest of the staff withheld information so as to throw you under the bus during lab meeting. This experience has led me to reconsider my position as a grad student as well as a scientist. How do you handle a bad lab/mentor?

Thankfully, this was just a rotation, but it raises an important question about how to detect the subtle signs of disfunction.  We share one simple tip that helps you discover the hidden drama before you commit to joining.

And it’s not just advice for grad students on rotation – you’ll want to take the same advice if you’re choosing a postdoctoral lab because the stakes can be even higher!


Cutting on the Bias

We also took some time to answer listener mail about our recent gender bias episode.  Josh and Dan take the implicit bias test semi-live and on the air, and share their results.  If you haven’t taken it yet, go find out how biased you really are.  Jerk.

And we get the giggles about the fuggles with Ad Astra Ale from Free State Brewing in Lawrence, KS.  It was sent in by some listeners at the University of Kansas, so thank you to all of our Jayhawks friends!

018: How NOT to choose a career you’ll love

If you wake up every morning excited to go to work, you’re ‘in-the-zone’ all day, and you come home refreshed and excited to start a new day, please stop reading now.  Everyone else, join me in paragraph two.

A story for the rest of us

Oh good, they’re gone.  It’s hard enough to work at a job you dislike, but it’s much worse when the people around you seem to love what they’re doing.  As they succeed, you feel like a failure.  They seem engaged with the work, while you watch the clock until closing.

But fear not: there are steps you can take today to find a career you’ll love.  Step one is to learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid their stupid choices!

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” -Yogi Berra

This week on the show, Daniel shares his story of landing in graduate school and realizing too late that it wasn’t a good fit with his work style or abilities.  Experiments weren’t working, and he began to lose hope of ever finding a career he’d love.

Quitting was an option, but there’s such a stigma in the academic world for those who “leave with a Masters.”  In the end, he finished the degree, and took the time to understand which aspects of his work life made him happy.

Along with the harrowing tale of poor life choices, we discuss the red flags that indicate you might be on the wrong path.  We also identify a few of the components of a satisfying career and why it’s important to start seeking them today.

Reaching for the top shelf

To extract Daniel’s story, Josh bribed him with a special ethanol this week.  It’s Basil Hayden’s Bourbon with one ice cube.  If you’re in grad school, you may have to take out a loan in order to buy some!

Josh also shares some fun research linking bee foraging behavior to caffeine content in the nectar.  It makes the bees head out to the dance floor, and they seem to get addicted to the sweet tasting stimulants.  It’s like Red Bull for bees!

017: Does science have a gender bias? It depends on who you ask.

Later that day: “Um… oh… uh… no, Dear! I swear I thought it said ‘suffering.’ Please let me back in the house.”

Shocking Fact No. 1: If you put a woman’s name and a man’s name on the exact same job application for lab manager, the woman is described as less competent and will be offered less money.

Shocking fact No. 2: If you show  the results of that experiment to faculty members in scientific fields, the men are less likely to believe the results.  They say the research is flawed and the findings are suspect.

Question: What happens if you change the results of the resume experiment?  Will those male faculty members still think the research was shoddy?  Or will they believe the new results because it fits with their pre-conceived notions about hiring?

On this week’s show, we discuss some new research that gives hints as to why gender bias in the scientific community is so pernicious.  How can you solve a problem when not everyone will admit that the problem exists in the first place?

And before you leap to judgement about those unenlightened pigs, be sure to check your OWN implicit biases with these simple tests.

Everyday Sadism

We’re also celebrating Halloween with a murderous IPA from Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine.  It’s the “Little Horror of Hops,” and the mascot is this handsome devil:

HorrorHops_12oz 5X

We enjoy the bitter brew, and Daniel reveals the darker side of our taste preferences.  Recent research implies that people who enjoy flavors like coffee and beer are actually more likely to express psychopathic tendencies!  That explains a lot about the Hello PhD hosts…

We hope you have a Hoppy Halloween (see what I did there?) and please tweet your #ScaryScience costumes to @hellophd.