Younger Chemists Committee

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ACS Presidents Column

Develop Communication Skills and Believe in Yourself

Posted on January 27, 2011 at 4:52 PM

Article from ACS Graduate Student Bulletin Issue January 2011

(by Kyle Zimmerman Photography)

By Dr. Nancy B. Jackson, ACS President, 2011

I admit that when I was invited to write an editorial for the Graduate Student Bulletin, I struggled a bit trying to figure out what to say that might be relevant to current grad students. After all, my graduate work was—Gasp!—done in another century. But, I did what any good twenty-first century researcher would do … I turned to the Web for inspiration. One of the first sites I came across was called the “Chemistry Grad Students & Postdocs Blog.” Surely, I would be able to find something here that would spark the creative juices. I wasn’t disappointed. The topic of discussion was, “top tips for success in grad school.”

Creating Camaraderie

One of the first blog entries I read was from a grad student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The catchy subject line was “Finding Guidance from Older Peers.” Hmmmm. So is that what I am—an “older peer?” Turns out though, the writer was actually addressing the need to step away from your studies every now and then and spend some time with other older students, particularly those who are close to completing their degree work. The value of doing a bit of socializing, according to the writer, is in gaining insight into how others approach thesis writing, research work, and postdoc searches. “As I approach the end of graduate studies,” he wrote, “I can only imagine how much harder it all would have been without the unstaged guidance I’ve received from some older friends.” Sage advice indeed.

I know that my experience in getting my doctorate at the University of Texas was especially good due to the camaraderie of the graduate students. The graduate students in our department were able to field three softball teams: two men’s teams and one co-ed team. They also had a basketball team that was one of the best intramural teams at the University. One of the basketball players and graduate student colleagues is now my husband! Another one of the basketball players and graduate student colleagues is now coaching my son’s high school soccer team (a part-time job he does along with his full-time research position). Remember, our profession can be a small world.

There was plenty of other sound advice on the blog: build a circle of support, keep an open mind, learn from networking, and combine hard work, communication, and recreation.

The mention of “communication” really jumped off the page at me. That is one of the key themes during my presidential year, specifically the communication of science to the public. I was pleased to see the value the writer—who had recently completed her doctorate and postdoc—had placed on developing the skill of communication: “Both scientific and nonscientific communication [are] vital for success. The ability to communicate … will be a practical skill long after graduate school has ended.” Amen!

Participating in International Collaborations

This year chemists everywhere have a great window of opportunity for communicating about chemistry. The United Nations has declared 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry. The goals of IYC 2011 are to increase the public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs, to encourage interest in chemistry among young people, and to generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry. I hope you can find some time to carve out of your busy academic schedules to participate in this worldwide celebration of our science.

Chemistry, along with science in general, is becoming increasingly international in nature. Investment in research and development is growing significantly in Asia and many countries such as Brazil and even Russia. Many scientific and engineering challenges are also international in nature: energy, sustainability, water, and health sciences. The growth in chemical research around the world will give today’s graduate students opportunities for international collaboration. Learning another language, living in a different country, and/or developing awareness of different cultures are all skills that will be very useful in a young person’s scientific career.

Understanding the Secret to Success

I am fully aware that asking you to add something else to your already-crowded academic regimen is asking a lot. I know from personal experience that pursuing an advanced degree in the chemical sciences is no easy undertaking. In fact, it can be downright daunting. I had many stops and starts in my undergraduate and graduate education. Because I started college as a political science major, it took a while to build up the nerve to actually major in chemistry—and then to get all my courses completed. Before I went to graduate school, a very successful chemistry professor told me that it takes 10% brains and 90% “elbow grease” to get a doctorate. I think he was right.

That’s why whenever someone asks me, “What is the secret to success?” I have a very simple answer. You are. Throughout my life, since those early days of undergrad and grad work, I have learned that believing in yourself and a willingness to work hard is the true catalyst for your success. Never give up. You will always find allies and support along the way.




Dr. Nancy B. Jackson is manager of the International Chemical Threat Reduction Department at Sandia National Laboratories and 2011 President of the American Chemical Society. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1990.

Categories: ACS Presidents Column