Name One Thing with Dr Lori Palen | Advice for Graduate Students on Communicating Research

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Welcome to Name One Thing the interview series where I ask academics, researchers, postdocs, and other professionals what they wished they’d known in grad. school. Our first guest is an expert in communicating research, a scientist, consultant, and business owner, Dr. Lori Palen. Dr. Palen, thank you for taking the time to provide your wisdom and experience. You’ve provided some amazing resources for communicating research and great pieces of advice for all graduate students. We appreciate it!

Research communication expert, Dr. Lori Palen

Image of Dr. Lori Palen, research communications specialist.

Name: Lori Palen (she/her)
Degree: Ph.D. in Human Development & Family Studies
Current role: Owner and Principal Consultant at Data Soapbox, LLC. Data Soapbox helps researchers communicate their findings to the people who can use them to improve lives.
Find her at:

X: @LoriPalenPhd

1) Name one thing you wish someone had told you when you were a graduate student.

There is one thing that I actually did hear as a grad student that (1) I wish I’d heard earlier and that (2) I think every graduate student needs to hear. In my last year of grad school, I attended a workshop with Edward Tufte, the grandfather of modern data visualization (i.e., charts and graphs). Edward Tufte hates PowerPoint presentations, and he lays out a really compelling case for why the typical PowerPoint presentation is terrible. And suddenly I had an explanation for why I was bored or confused in just about every conference or colloquium presentation I’d attended…and it wasn’t that I had adult-onset ADHD or that I was missing something as a first-generation college student. Most scientists are not trained in effective communication techniques. The same ineffective techniques get handed down from generation to generation of scientists because there are few direct/immediate incentives for good communication and few consequences for bad communication. And this isn’t just an issue with PowerPoint…it’s an issue with the conference posters crammed with tiny text and the journal articles that meander from one jargon-filled sentence to the next.

So, know that just because respected scientists develop communication products in a certain way, or your advisor requires you to develop products in a certain way, does not mean that it’s the objectively best way. (In fact, it probably isn’t.) Learn what you can about effective communication from folks like Garr Reynolds, Jon Schwabish, Nancy Duarte, Steph Evergreen, Cole Knaflic, and Zen Faulkes. Apply what you learn when you can. But, if your advisor requires you to communicate in ways that aren’t best practice, my advice is to do what they require until you get your degree, and then hopefully you’ll have more control over your communication products after that.

2) Name one thing that has served you well in graduate school and throughout your career as a scientist and business owner.

Taking initiative. In graduate school, I pursued activities and opportunities I was interested in without waiting for someone else to encourage, model, or require it. I proposed and wrote manuscripts using data from the research projects I worked on. I applied for and received a professional development grant, which ended up being an early brick in the foundation of my business. I found and applied for a crap-ton (scientific term) of non-academic evaluation research jobs, one of which ended up being the job that I held for the first 12 years of my research career.

Taking initiative is a behavior that is essential for operating my own business today. No one is handing me work…I need to identify potential clients and prove to them that my services can add value to their research activities. And, clients appreciate when I proactively identify challenges/needs and propose steps to address them.

3) Going from a graduate degree in the social sciences to a business owner is an unusual career trajectory, name one thing you’d like graduate students to learn vicariously from your journey.

You can create opportunities if they don’t already exist. After realizing I wanted a job that was exclusively science communication, I learned that there were no opportunities like that at the organization where I was and I wasn’t able to find or land the right role at other organizations. So, I made my own opportunity by starting Data Soapbox, and now I get to do the work I love. In the words of the Velveteen Rabbit, “Everything that is real was imagined first.”

Students, check out Data Soapbox and follow Lori on Linkedin for strategies to improve your scientific communication!

Wishing You All the Best in Your Academic Success.
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.

Interview Disclaimer

We aim to share diverse perspectives and experiences. The views, opinions, and experiences shared by our guests in this interview series are solely their own. Their participation is not an endorsement of our services, products, or views, nor does it imply an endorsement of their services, products, or views by us.