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Developing Effective Communication Through Aligning Programming to Needs
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Mallory Fix-Lopez and Rebecca Toner


Postdoctoral scholars are—and need to be—their own best advocates. Moving from the lab or the library, postdocs must tailor explanations of their work for various audiences, not just peers and others “who know.” This kind of self-advocacy is labeled as marketing, branding, and leadership development in other fields, most notably in industry. One’s brand represents not only the individual but also the institution, lab, and research itself. But it is the responsibility of the institution to support postdocs in the development of the skills and strategies necessary to advocate, ultimately supporting them to better represent their work and institution.


A deceptively simple question often asked as an icebreaker at a networking event or maybe even your next family gathering is, “So what do you do?” But, as a researcher, the answer can be complicated. For many postdocs, their work is a small part of a bigger whole. Their specialization is a progressive link towards a cure, a new therapy, or answers to important questions. How does one communicate such important work and why it matters without getting...complicated? How do postdocs learn to best advocate for themselves?


A researcher’s effective communication comprises half or more of most Individual Development Plans (IDP). The NPA also includes communication skills as item 3 of their Core Competencies. This focus on effective communication in the IDP and the NPA Core Competencies is particularly important for international scholars. While already communicating at advanced levels of English, international non-native English-speaking postdocs have particular linguistic needs, especially in the area of pragmatics—the intersection of language and culture. According to the NPA 2016 Fact Sheet (PDF), approximately 52 percent of postdocs in the United States are international postdocs on temporary visas.


What are institutions doing to meet the unique needs of these international postdocs? For all postdocs, what is being done to ensure that research goes beyond academia to reach larger audiences in a way that fosters collaboration, truth-seeking, and informed audiences? Common answers to these are that:

  1. Postdocs are referred to Intensive English Programs (IEPs) already in existence.
  2. International postdocs already have a high level of academic English and don’t need further training around effective communication.

Effective programming is not one size fits all and must address the true needs at hand. While IEPs are certainly great resources for referral, they are often very costly to the individual postdoc. There is also a disconnect between the general academic English being taught and the pragmatics training that international scholars need to communicate their work effectively to various audiences. Additionally, while it is true most postdocs present very high levels of academic English, they don’t always know or learn the interpersonal and communicative skills needed to bring positive attention to their research, including clear messaging, storytelling, cultural intelligence, and language for small talk. Given the demands on their time and personal resources, many international postdocs aren’t sure how to start improving these necessary pragmatic skills beyond their lab. Ultimately, this results in their research being underrepresented.


Making the IDP useful and effective in goal setting around communication is only effective if programming truly responds to the identified needs. Time, money, and effort have been spent developing IDPs, and now is the time to reflect on current programming to support postdoc development in coordination with the IDP. With English as the language of international communication in many fields, particularly the sciences, it is the responsibility of institutions to train all their scholars for self-advocacy and communications success.


Mallory Fix Lopez, MS Ed/TESOL, is an applied linguist and founder of the education consulting firm language connectED. She is also a faculty member of both English and Education in the English Language Programs at University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and the Community College of Philadelphia.


Rebecca Toner, MA Ed/TESOL, is an applied linguist and chief learning officer at language connectED and is a faculty member in the English Language Programs at the University of Pennsylvania.