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#126 Katharina Schwaiger on Starting a Career in SciComm While Finishing a PhD

In this episode, Katharina talks about, how she became interested in pursuing a career in science communication after working on a SciComm project and also after witnessing the disconnect between the scientific community and society, during the pandemic.

Published onSep 08, 2023
#126 Katharina Schwaiger on Starting a Career in SciComm While Finishing a PhD

Are you a recent or soon-to-be PhD graduate trying to figure out the next steps? Have the events of the past few years gotten you interested in Science Communication? In this episode, you will hear from Katharina Schwaiger, who has been in a very similar spot!

Katharina holds a PhD in Biotechnology from the Technical University of Graz and currently works as a science communicator at the Austrian Center of Industrial Biotechnology (ACIB), a position she took on while still finishing her PhD thesis!

In this episode, Katharina tells our host, Elisabeth Reithuber, how she became interested in pursuing a career in science communication after working on a SciComm project at ACIB and also after witnessing the disconnect between the scientific community and society, during the pandemic. They talk about Katarina’s experience juggling her new position with the final stretch of her PhD, and about which PhD skills can help you be a great science communicator…and which skills you might need to learn on your own!

#126 Katharina Schwaiger on Starting a Career in SciComm While Finishing a PhD

Katharina’s warm advice touches on themes like finding your inner drive and learning to ask (for guidance, for a job…). Don’t forget, “sometimes, you have to feel the fear” and do it anyway!

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Elisabeth: Hello and welcome to PhD Career Stories. I’m your host today, Elisabeth Reithuber, and I'm very happy to welcome today's guest, Doctor Katharina Schwaiger. Katharina is a passionate science communicator at the Austrian Center of Industrial Biotechnology (ACIB) and she holds a PhD in Biotechnology from the Technical University of Graz, and already started her position as a science communicator while finishing her PhD thesis. And this is what we would like to talk about today. How she identified that science communication is the path she would like to go and how she managed to enable this seamless continuation from her PhD to the position she’s holding today.

So very welcome, Katharina, and thank you very much for sharing your story with us. 

Katharina: Thank you very much Elizabeth, for this great introduction. I'm very happy to be here, I'm very honored to share my story with PhD Career Stories and I hope your listeners enjoy this episode. Thank you!

Elisabeth: Thank you very much and warm welcome. May I hand you the first question directly? So, where did you get the drive to be so proactive during the last phase of your PhD?

Katharina: Yeah, in the last phase of my PhD, actually, this was still when the Corona crisis proceeded. 

And I had a very hard time in the Corona crisis, really, to stick to my wish to finish the PhD, because I really enjoyed this lab work, standing in the lab, doing the benchwork and so on. And then I was writing my first publication, my manuscript, and I was starting to again somehow think “why did I go into science, exactly?”.  So “what is your drive?” So, I really actively contemplated my situation, and I think at the end of my PhD I really learned to enjoy writing the papers, to enjoy doing this literature research, and to broaden my interest into also other, not so closely related scientific topics. And I thought science communication was a very nice way to have, let's say, this intense engagement with scientific topics, on the one hand side, where I did my PhD, but also to have a look outside of this box and to get into contact with other scientific topics. And this was actually also during the Corona. I think the Corona crisis really helped me in this situation. 

Elisabeth: So was it that you had more time to contemplate or was it also something else special about the health crisis?

Katharina: Yes! Yeah, I think it was- also, of course, the Corona Crisis is, of course, also the reason why I actually got aware of science communication in the first place. I mean, I already knew it from before, but there were so many things in the media, everywhere around during this crisis, and a lot of things also went wrong. And, also, this separation of society, of course, shocked me, because I was in a bubble of like-minded people when I did my PhD, you know? I was discussing with my colleagues about the Corona crisis but also about other scientific topics, but, yeah, you're moving yourself in a bubble, And it shocked me at first and I wanted to also, of course, contribute something to make a clean up with this fake news, for example. So this was also, I would say, a reason, but another thing was that I really had time to contemplate and get back to my old motivation, my intrinsic motivation, why I actually wanted to go into natural sciences: because it is my fascination. And I also want to share this fascination with other people and not just, you know, prevent the science skepticism. So it's like these two ways of motivation, yeah. 

Elisabeth: Yeah, that’s really lovely! And very strong motivators as well! But could you maybe describe a little bit more the situation you have been in: writing your thesis, starting your job, how did you handle that? How do you maybe also partition your time? It seems very intense. 

Katharina: Yeah, when I was finishing my PhD, I was already getting another perspective of a career. So, I wanted to get new opportunities, I wanted to have a new priority, maybe even. And because for me it was not really motivating staying in research, because I wanted to broaden my scientific interest or scientific knowledge, let's say expertise maybe - I don't know if you can say it like that…but the driver was really to (...) broaden my knowledge and I think, when I was finishing my PhD…

Let's start a different way: I was doing my PhD thesis in an EU project which was called CARBAFIN and there I was doing the research, of course, but EU projects also require a part, a work package which focuses on dissemination and exploitation. And this part was done by ACIB, by the science communication team of ACIB, and there I got to know the science communication team a bit more, a bit better and, in the end, I thought- Katrin Weinhandl, who is actually now my working colleague, she did such a great work in this in this project where I was in and I thought “It would be great if I could also do something like this'', because you are creative, you can really work very creatively, but you're still in a close contact with the researchers and that's why. I think this is also maybe a reason, because I got into contact very early also with this CARBAFIN project in the PhD and, by the end of the PhD, then I asked if it would be possible that I could already join their team, maybe.

And it was an intense time, of course, but still I had the privilege to have very flexible working times. So, my professor knew that I was already working in the science communication team, but also the science communication team knew that I had to finish my PhD or that I wanted to finish my PhD as soon as possible. So I was very privileged, let's say.

I also know from other colleagues that this can be a really intense time if you are already in a company doing an 8-hour job, a full time job, and then after work you have to sit down and write on the manuscript. This can be really intense, but this was not the case with me.

But I enjoyed the work. Both. 

Elisabeth: Yeah, that's really great! So, It was basically networking that got you the way in, and actually…courage, right? You dared to ask the question if they would need another person!

Katharina: So yeah, exactly. Yeah…I mean, I did not have to be that brave because they were part of this CARBAFIN project, of course, so we knew each other already, but I was wondering if maybe they are even looking for someone, maybe they need someone. And that's why I just asked and…yeah, sure. 

Elisabeth: Cool! Yeah, that's really great! And maybe (...) while working on this EU project, were you already involved in science communication, was it the communication team consulting you or did you already do your first endeavors in the new field?

Katharina: No, actually I was also doing some workshops even before the CARBAFIN project was finished, because we had another colleague of mine - she was organizing this workshops, she was already in this science communication team and she was also in charge of this dissemination work package of CARBAFIN, and they asked the PhD students if they were motivated to host some workshops and do some experiments with pupils. So, this I already did and after the CARBAFIN project was finished, I still had to finish my PhD thesis. I was working with the science communication team, let's say more than 20 hours, so almost full time, but I still had to finish the manuscript of my thesis. And I was there already holding these workshops, organizing some workshops for schools, for pupils. And this is really great because it is so rewarding really being in contact with young people who are fascinated about science as well. And I was establishing some experiments they could do in the lab and it was really great! And I really loved this work and I'm still doing it, so. 

Elisabeth: That sounds very giving, also, to have your audience so close and share their passion

Katharina: It is, exactly. Yeah, seeing them fascinated about things you were fascinated about back then is cool, it's so cool. And when they have these “a-ha!” moments it's very rewarding, yeah.

Elisabeth: Yeah, I can imagine. But so, giving workshops to pupils, that's not something we are used to doing. At least, I haven't, so what skills do you think you needed to do this that you maybe already had, due to, you know, your scientific PhD education or things that you also needed to learn and acquire on the job, so to say?

Katharina: Yeah, so (...) giving workshops, of course, is not something very easy, I would say, because you have to sometimes present complex scientific processes or biological chemical processes to pupils who don't have such a big pre-knowledge about, I don't know, photosynthesis, for example. And we know it is a very complex topic so presenting the science not too complexly is very challenging at first, if you are always only reading scientific papers, for example, or something like this. So you have to find the right wording, do not use technical terms, also the design of how you prepare your PowerPoint slides, for example - such small things which I already really enjoyed doing when I was preparing some conference talks of mine, so I really enjoyed designing the slides and presenting it in a very visually attractive way, so that also people who are not really familiar with the scientific topic can understand it. 

And I think yes, this is maybe a skill you have to have. And you also have to see if something is getting too complex or too specific, you have to see if certain details are necessary to understand the whole process, the whole chemical process behind or to understand (...) a scientific topic in general. (...) I think this you have to learn and I also had to learn. Also when I was writing, for example, blog articles, Katrin Wienhandel - I already mentioned her before, she's in the science communication team as well - she also said “Ahh, you are using too many technical terms, no one will understand it”. [laughter] So, of course, you have to really focus on that. And another thing is also, for example, I never really used social media for me personally, I was never really interested in it to promote myself let's say, which is also good to have, if you do it already in your PhD, because of course other people get to know you and get aware of you if you’re posting for example that you have conference talk and it is shared by the the university or whatever other people will be aware of you, but this I hadn't done, social media was a completely new field for me and now I am the social media manager of ACIB. [laughter] So, this I had to learn, it was completely new for me, but now I think I can say I know how to use hashtags to find the right content and so on. 

Elisabeth: And did you acquire those skills yourself or did you have some mentors?

Katharina: No, I would say I acquired it myself, yes, because the social media channels (...) did not have so many posts before. So I think, when I overtook it, it was, yeah, it was not so well established (the social media channels), let's say. And now I feel more comfortable also writing a post, I'm more efficient and so on. So yes, these skills…I think I did it by myself, but I also have to mention that I visited one webinar, it was in the very beginning when I was still doing my PhD, and this also helped me a lot (...) to start with the social media channels.

Elisabeth: Ok, and you briefly touched upon that, but how did a PhD help you in that? Reading a lot of scientific information and what else? Which skills could you profit from now in your job?

Katharina: Yeah, that's a really good question, because the PhD maybe is not necessary to be a science communicator, but I think if you have a PhD, you can maybe distinguish better scientific publications, which are, scientifically, a bit more valuable, from others that are not so high-value. But I think also if you are in contact with the researchers, for example in EU projects or so, and you are the science communicator (you're not really the researcher involved as a researcher in this project), it is good to have a certain scientific background because otherwise you would not really follow the presentations, you cannot really follow them. And you can also ask questions if you are understanding a little bit more (...). I don't know, it's difficult for me to tell, but I think I'm really glad to have the PhD now, because now I'm in a completely different science topic, with science communication, because this is a biomedical research project I am in now and I'm doing this dissemination and exploitation. With biomedical research, neuroscience and so on I did not have too much experience, of course, from my biotechnology background. However, I studied biochemistry in the master’s, so I still know a little bit, but I think here it is really, really good, I think you're more efficient getting familiar with a different topic which is not so closely related to your PhD. 

So I think it really helps, yes. 

Elisabeth: Hmm-hum, that's great!

Katharina: And you are taking a little bit more for granted maybe. [laughter]

Elisabeth: Yes, of course. I mean, you maybe also know how tricky it is sometimes to come to get those results and that it's not always so easy to have it black and white, I guess.

Katharina: Exactly, exactly, yes. That's a good point, yes

Elisabeth: Yes, that's really cool. So, it seems like you grew quite a lot in your role and it's also very diverse. I mean, from what you mentioned, you're working with pupils, you're writing blogs, you're doing social media outreach and you are working on EU projects, so this seems to be a very varied job.

Katharina: Exactly, yes. That’s true, it is. So one project is, for example, a pure science communication project where we are organizing an open science event in Graz. And this is completely different to the other EU project where I am the work package leader of this biomedical research project. So, it's really diverse, yes. 

Elisabeth: Yeah, really fascinating! So I was wondering, also, during this transition period, did you ever doubt maybe that this was the right path for you, that this is what you would go forward with? 

Katharina: During this transition period, no. But before. [laughter] During this transition period, I really had a focus on “yeah, I want to do this”, I really had this intrinsic motivation: “I want to go out and talk to the people and to share this fascination for science with people.” This was the intrinsic motivation, so there I did not have doubts at all. But, before I really decided to go into this direction, I had doubts, yes. I think everybody who did a PhD knows that there are sometimes difficult times as well. And yes, I had some self doubts of course because this was also maybe during or at the very beginning of the Corona pandemic, and also some some private things were not maybe not so perfect and yeah, a lot of things come together and you're really wondering “Is it really the right decision doing a PhD? Is it the right topic?” and so on. So, I think everybody has this and I had it a lot of times also in between, it's like a roller coaster up and down.

One period was really where I really thought about quitting the PhD but I had the opportunity to get a life coach and this really helped me find the focus again or find my inner wish or (...) the motivation again for science, for this topic I was doing in in my PhD. And yeah, this motivation, it came back with this life coach. The cool thing was that actually the life coach did not suggest things or something to do - it was more that I, by myself, got aware or recognized again why I went into science, and this passion for science. I recognized it again and it was more like a philosophical context, which led me into science, and I again learned to go into myself, (...) going inside and really focusing on your feelings, on your motivation and what triggers you, what triggers your fascination, what triggers your passion and what causes it, and then being open to new perspectives, to new career opportunities as well also embracing a new priority or something like this. So this was really helping me at that time and it worked. 

Elisabeth: Really great, also, that you had the courage to reach out and ask for help and get some guidance because this can indeed be very, very valuable. 

Katharina: Yeah, exactly! I’m very thankful, also.

Elisabeth: And this can also be inspiring to someone else in situations where it's not so easy to just reach out. And I think you also did it when you asked people if they needed someone, this was again [a situation] where you reached out and asked them. So, this is really, really great!

Katharina: Yes, exactly, really being active is maybe a good point. 

Elisabeth: Now, I think you have a really inspiring story and, before wrapping up our discussion, do you have anything you would like to add or maybe some tips you want to share with listeners that might be in the same situation - you know, towards the end of a PhD, trying to orient [themselves], and look into the future?

Katharina: Yeah, sure! Some advice: to just follow up on what I just said, maybe from time to time start to contemplate, to really focus on your intrinsic motivation, what is causing your emotions. If you have a situation you are struggling with, just try to focus on your emotions, where they are coming from, because then you can more objectively find the solution for certain situations. And maybe the second one is: be open minded for other possibilities, for other opportunities on your career path, because I think (...) sometimes you have such a tunneling thinking, I think often it is very relieving if you just try to find another path and another priority, maybe. That's also something important - for me it was, at least. 

And you, in your PhD Career Stories, you're also having a lot of different opportunities, so that's great!

Elisabeth: Yeah, that’s true! There is a lot outside if one wants to explore, also.

Katharina: Exactly! And I think there are also some agencies which are really on this topic, so they give you advice on different PhD career opportunities as well, so that's also a very cool thing, I think. 

And the last thing is, of course, very obvious: take the chance to also speak at conferences, at networking events, outreaching events, et cetera. Also maybe take the chance of using social media, so that people get aware of you and of your research. Talk to the people! Maybe also don't hesitate to talk to your idol, if you have one.

And feel the fear sometimes! [laughter]

Elisabeth: OK, yeah, thanks a lot, Katharina! That was very, very inspiring - to hear your story and also to feel the passion you are having. [laughter]

Katharina: Thank you!

Elisabeth: Yeah, thanks a lot for your time. 

This was another episode from us, PhD Career Stories. Stay connected with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter, so that you don't miss another episode. 

And this Is Us signing off for today. Thank you very much. 

Katharina: Thank you, bye! 

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