How do I become a “community-whatsit”?

This post was written when I was in the then AAAS CEFP training program, now CSCCE. It first appeared on the CSCCE blog on August 3, 2017. I am grateful to Lou Woodley (CSCCE) for edits and comments. The post was written in relation to my role as Community Engagement Officer at INCF (International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility).

“Don’t worry about understanding everything at once, NOBODY has the right background for this” said my MSc thesis supervisor, a dozen or so years ago. Then, the advice applied to mathematical modeling of the biochemical networks involved in learning and memory, an area that came with heaps of dense academic papers peppered with acronyms and incomprehensibly condensed descriptions of experimental protocols. Now, that advice applies equally well to community management, an area of expertise I did not even know existed in science until a few years ago.

With the ongoing funding crunch and uncertain academic job market, interest seems to be growing in alternative careers. As a person who went from a regular PhD to an atypical job at a science non-profit, I’m increasingly often asked for career advice that boils down to ‘What should I do to get to where you are now?’.

Recently I participated as mentor in a career workshop for postdocs and other students, and I was getting the same type of questions. Since I had no idea one could become a community manager, I ended up in my position mostly by a series of chance choices and events. But there are some things I am in retrospect glad I happened to do or learn, because they turned out to be very useful.

Should I get a PhD?

It depends. My PhD has been immensely useful, since I am still in a related community. If your intended community does research, or is close to science in some other way, having similar experience will help you understand them better, and will make it easier to talk their language. Joining a field shows you how it is to come into a community as a new member, and is a useful experience to have later when you are helping others become part of the community you manage.

Learning confidence in dealing with hard, perhaps unsolvable problems — like your own research project — is the very definition of a useful transferable skill. With that said, a PhD is also several years of niche work that will be hard to bear if you don’t love it (at least part of the time). And there is an inordinate amount of time spent formatting reference lists.

Should I learn something else?

Besides the content of your PhD? Definitely. I began my random walk towards community management with communication, and that is probably a good starting point if you have a background in research. If you are coming directly from academia, chances are you’ve become an expert at communicating clearly with your scholarly peers but are getting increasingly blank stares from anyone else. Or you might be a communication genius, but unless you have some way to prove that, many people will assume the incomprehensible scholar stereotype applies to you, too.

Science just published a great article on whether you should add another degree after your PhD and as they say, adding verified experience can help. But it doesn’t have to be formal courses. Writing a blog or running a podcast/YouTube channel/improv theater troupe will not only give you experience in communicating with a varied range of audiences. It will also serve as a handy track record of communicative ability. A general familiarity with social media will also be useful; if you are not working with it yourself, you will likely collaborate with those who do. And any task involved in generating or framing content — such as editing, layout, print, photography, user experience design and website management — is a valuable potential community manager skill.

Is it less stressful?

This question tends to come from people having done at least one post-doc and looking with bleak disillusionment at a future that seems to mostly consist of writing rejected grant applications. The answer is: Nope. At best it is differently stressful. Instead of organizing your life around one big risky project with a well-thought-out plan, you’ll be juggling an untidy heap of lesser but more severely conflicting projects — the inaugural CEFP fellows motto of “We multi-task while multi-tasking” is only partly a joke — and will most likely see your plans evaporate into thin air on a weekly basis. And instead of not knowing what you are doing after your three years of funding run out, you’ll be subject to the vagaries of yearly or even quarterly budgets.

But I can’t find a job like that out there.

To which I say: Grow your job into the role you want! A lot of jobs border on potential community management roles. Mine was a traditional one-way communications job at the start. I did not plan to spend the rest of my life writing newsletters and layouting print materials, and I also felt that we as an organization could probably serve our community better if we were a bit more communicative.

So I asked my boss to let me start a few social media efforts in our organization’s name, beginning with Twitter. I went to conferences and talked, talked, talked to everyone who was introduced to me as a community member, trying to find out what they wanted and needed. I got involved with a few community initiatives, some that worked and some that didn’t, and spent hours trying to pinpoint what made some take off while the others simply puttered along. I organized boring workshops and interesting workshops, and tried to do the latter more and more often. Gradually, I began thinking more like a community manager, and less like a regular communications person.

All the major deciding points in putting me where I am today looked like random events at the time. There happened to be funding for a PhD position. On a whim, I started a blog. I was lucky to find a job where I could stretch my old role into a new one. Ask most other community managers, and I suspect they will look back at an equally random career trajectory.

So don’t worry. Nobody has the right background for this at the start 🙂

You can learn more about scientific community manager roles (including Malin’s!) in the CSCCE Meet a Scientific Community Manager series. Find all of the CEFP Fellows’ posts here.

This post was originally posted on the CSCCE blog on August 3, 2017.

Why social media research should not be done by the non-social-media-literate

Jag är förkyld och orkar inte blogga på riktigt, men jag blir fortfarande arg när någon forskningskommunicerar dåligt på internet. Ni får den engelska varianten för jag orkar inte heller översätta.

This was, as many of my blog posts, triggered by someone being wrong or misleading on the internet. The worst cases often come from newsreleases, this one too.

I’ll just leave you to quickly skim this little gem

TLDR: Social media linked to depression
(note the sneaky weasel word ’linked’ in the title, it does NOT mean ’causes’)

Sigh. ”It used to be a hen-and egg situation, but now we clearly see increased social media use linked with depression”. NOPE. This is clearly STILL a hen-and-egg situation. Despite the claims in this newsrelease it is still not proved by this study that social media results in depression.

For instance, in the long lead-up to my depression, I buried myself increasingly in my phone as a defence, because I was too cognitively depleted to engage with my family, and social media (and mobile games) was easier than real interaction. I think that is a pretty common reaction in stressed and tired people in general, I’ve seen it a lot in new parents. And stress and tireness are commonly a risk factor and possible trigger for depression.

My take-home from this is rather: be wary of changed social media usage patterns in people, it indicates that they don’t feel well and may get worse.

And being condescendent and/or aggressive about someone’s social media use, which is the most common approaches I have seen the social media antagonist crowd take – and won’t THIS news release trigger them into a frenzy – will not help things, rather the opposite.

And even more annoying, becasue the whole research field of ”let’s prove with SCIENCE that internet/social media/’screen time’ is BAD’ (I refuse to dignify that marsh with an academic name) does this. Let us stop with the cliche-based guessing hypothesising from non-social media literate people, that is just bad science!

Social media doesn’t make people feel bad because they follow a lot of unreachable, superficial narcissist accounts – because that is not what people in general DO on social media. A few masochists might, but in general people follow other people they like and know, or want to be updated on, or individuals or groups that have the same hobbies as them. Yarn social media, for instance, has lots of nice people and content on each platform I use or follow. Instagram #knitting is my favourite cheer-up-channel.

It really *is* FORTRAN, all the way down

Two weeks ago I learned something that completely shifted what I thought I knew, and which seems to not be widely known. Thanks to Mike Croucher (Walking Randomly), whose blog I have followed as long as I can remember following blogs.

Did you know that programming languages are built on other programming languages? It should have been self-evident, perhaps, but I never really gave a thought to where programming languages actually come from. Second; did you know that large portions of Python and R are built on, and dependent on, FORTRAN?! (yes, I know its name is supposed to be part lowercase nowadays, but in my mind it remains FORTRAN77, like my student days – no, I am not ancient, but my teachers’ tools were).

The reason I blog this now is: I mentioned this the other day to an old friend who is a real bona fide computer scientist and researcher, and he DIDN’T know.

And as MC tells it, “Much of the numerical functionality we routinely use today was developed decades ago and released in Fortran. More modern systems, such as R, make direct use of a lot of this code because it is highly performant and, perhaps more importantly, has been battle tested in production for decades.  Numerical computing is hard (even when all of your instincts suggest otherwise) and when someone demonstrably does it right, it makes good sense to reuse rather than reinvent. As a result, with no Fortran, there’s no R.

And yeah, the same goes for Python, and a lot of other really basic (meaning not ‘simple’, but fundamental) numeric tools that are used everywhere. At least one of SciPy and NumPy has been a part of every Python toolset I have tried so far.

So what is the problem with many of our most indispensable software tools having a well-optimized FORTRAN skeleton? Compilers are the issue – the tailormade ways you tell the *really* basic low level parts of your specific processor what to do with your code. And processors are different. Hence, FORTRAN has over a dozen open source and commercial compilers adapted to different brands of processors – and for the commercial ones you have to trust that the organization that owns the compiler wants to continue supporting it. The currently most recommended compiler is commercial. However, open source efforts seem to have kept in step, more or less – though there are/were some question marks on whether everything FORTRAN-dependent would work well on Apple’s new Arm-based ‘Apple Silicon’ machines. (Imagine getting a shiny new expensive Apple computer – heavily marketed to people with rather vague knowledge of technical aspects – and everything goes wonky? The uproar.)

So, in essence, many modern open source computing resources rest on weaker legs than is really comfortable. It reminds me of that fantastic XKCD on dependencies. (There really is an XKCD for every tech scenario imaginable)

Ad-hoc guide to tweeting as an org

This was triggered by a request on Twitter, on guides/guidelines for tweeting as an institution. I scrambled through my mental inventory and came up blank. Then I figured that hey, I’ve done that for 11+ years, I might actually have some recommendations…

So, points to think of, off my head: 

1) Sort accounts into lists that make sense (e.g. members/staff, non-members, org accounts, relevant news sources)

2) Set a policy for each list on likes and retweets

3) If there are several tweeters, put their username in the org account description and have each sign their replies, if any, with their name/username

4) Have a policy for how you treat tweets from outside accounts. I tend to retweet a lot of community stuff and community-relevant stuff. That kind of behavior leads to a rather errant-looking timeline…

… which might not be what you want, if you assume people are reading your account in timeline view (I don’t think many do this, but maybe you want to display recent tweets on your webpage or some such)

5) Ping community members if you tweet stuff you know to be relevant to them. But it has to be very relevant to merit a ping, and not done too often

6) Hashtags are your friends, as an org. Try to have one for each relevant thing you communicate regularly; and don’t be shy to pick up a tweet, put it in retweet mode and just add a (community relevant) hashtag for visibility

7) Set up a best practices doc, even if you are the lone tweeter. There is some value in making your thinking explicit on a page, it usually clarifies things and helps you stay consistent. Also, onboarding new same-account tweeters gets WAY easier if you start with some common ground established

This post was originally a Twitter thread in response to a question from Hannah/@story645:

Jag återpublicerar

Ett av syftena med den här ny(gamla) bloggen är att samla sådant jag har skrivit på andra ställen, som kanske inte kommer finnas för alltid.

Jag håller på att importera gamla bloggar och annat skrivet hit, och märka upp så att det syns var de kommer ifrån.

Vetenskapsnytt, -2019.
Matmolekyler, 2007-2017.
Gästblogg hos Tidningen Curie, sommaren 2014.

How a blog snowballed into my current career

I started blogging science after a couple of months into my PhD, because I needed an outlet for all the fantastic papers I found that were ”not relevant” (to my studies and project). I had been reading author blogs (LiveJournal!) mostly, seen the odd blogging scientist now and then for a few years and figured ’Hey, I can probably do that!’. As it was early days, I hadn’t quite yet succumbed to the academia == English norm, so I wrote in Swedish. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was like 3rd or 4th blog *in total* in Swedish focused on science. After a few years, I had built up enough of a presence to be invited to talk and write in other venues, including a summer stint as a ’real science journalist’ over the summer at one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers, Dagens Nyheter. I picked up some interesting friends during bloggin, including a food writer, and we two decided to apply for a book grant (I thought it was risk-free, we would not get it, because the one thing I knew about grants is that you don’t get them). But we did, and I had to go to my professor and say, ’Hey, I got a grant and will need to work part time on my PhD thesis’. He accepted. At that time my blogging dvindled to almost nothing, and I turned to Twitter instead (’it is a very short format, it won’t take much time’. Hah.).

So I wrote a book in parallell with my thesis work for about a year, spent some much needed time on Twitter whenever I got up for air, and at the same time my second mentor started working in something big and global I vaguely knew was about neuroscience, so I didn’t se her that often (that was INCF). I skimmed their web page occasionally to see what she was doing, and one time I came across an old job ad of theirs for a scientific communications officer, degree preferred, and with knowledge of neuroscience. I had learned from my journalist friends and acquaintances that hired positions in scicomm did basically not exist, and always had hundreds applying. So I asked offhand when we met next time, ‘How on earth did you not get anyone, and do you need help with anything urgent’? Long story short, the next week I had a talk with the project PI and got offered the job. So I went to my poor professor, AGAIN, and said ‘I want another 20% off my thesis work, because I accidentally got this other job…. And he accepted AGAIN, so then I did 20% book/20% INCF comms/60% thesis for another year, during which the book got finished and printed, INCF newsletters came out regularly, and the thesis got written. Then I took the weekend off, and started full-time at INCF next Monday (while still doing the occasional talk, interview or blog post on the book).

I still have a sort of parallel ‘career’ as a scicomm person, though mainly I’ve written for free for causes I like (the blog that became the book, for instance), and I mainly do my scicomm via Twitter. I’ve been on the Advisory Board for Poulär Astronomi (Popular Astronomy) since my blogging days. Right now, I am one of the Swedish members of an EU project called RETHINK, about improving scicomm (its Swedish Node is run by Vetenskap& Allmänhet). I also run a network, founded with some friends and friends-of-friends, for research communication professionals called FORSKOM (it lives on LinkedIn, and is officially bilingual Swe/Eng).

Kalendern lucka 9 och 10 – bubbelkonst och färger

Kalenderns nionde lucka innehöll tre små färgflaskor med blått, rött och gult, och en koncentrerad såpbubblelösning. Vi blandade färgade bubbellösningar och blåste färgglada såpbubblor på papper med sugrör. Det krävde lite övning men funkade till slut för alla.


Nästa dags lucka skulle ha samma färger, pipetter och en liten palett. Från grundfärgerna kunde man sedan pipettera fram orange, grön, lila och brun. Fast till slut blev det mesta svart.

Kalendern lucka 8 – rymdpepparkakor

Vi hann ta fram lucka 8 också, och den innehöll bästa sortens experiment — bakning! En liten kartong full med rymd-tema-figurer, inklusive två sorters raket i 3D.


Och vi hade en passande liten pepparkaksdegsnutt i kylskåpet, så vi började bums. Vi insåg när vi gräddade att man behöver nog egentligen en deg som inte blåser upp sig så mycket. Det får vi fixa till nästa gång.

Kalendern lucka 7 – hydrofob sand

Vi hann till slut med att leka med den magiska sanden i lucka 7. ”Magin” ligger i att sanden är väldigt hydrofobisk, så mycket att den bildar smala korvar om man häller den i vatten.

Sedan försökte vi lyfta upp sanden med sked, och så fort den kom över ytan föll sandkorven isär i en till synes helt torr hög.

Sedan lyfte vi upp sanden, skedvis, till en bit aluminiumfolie. Där flöt den runt på en film av vatten, tills vi sög upp vattnet med hushållspapper och hällde sanden tillbaka i påsen.

De blanka fläckarna är små vattenpölar!

Community engagement working notes: monthly peer meeting

In 2017, I entered a AAAS Fellows program on Scientific Community Engagement, called “Community Engagement Fellowship Program” or in short, CEFP. The program has now moved to the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement.

Group photo of 20 smiling people in blue tshirts, all 2017 community engagement program fellows.
The CEFP 2017 Fellows, photo by permission of Lou Woodley. I’m in the middle row at the left.

This program was a turning point for me, personally and professionally. Many of us still keep in contact, and one of the things I regularly do is meeting virtually with another CEFP fellow, Stefanie Butland. She’s in Canada and I am in Sweden, so we meet virtually over audio (for the bandwidth to keep up with us). I really recommend you to do something similar, if you are lucky enough to find a compatible person.

We meet the same day each month, and usually check in the day before to confirm the time or adjust it if necessary, and we always end the talk by confirming the next meeting time.

We use these talks mainly to ask for advice on challenging issues – for a while Stef talked about the same hard issue for months and it worked out! – and for celebrating achievements and successes. Several of the issues work themselves out while we are discussing them.

It works because we are strict about keeping to 15 minutes each. Usually, we self-regulate around our own 13-minute marks. Despite the short time, we can get a lot done, because we trust each other and are honest. And we both have similar and different experiences, good and bad, from our community manager work, so there is almost never the need to explain a lot of detail.