The moment you realize you have become a “Community Engagement Manager”

In January 2017, we wrapped up the training week for the inaugural class of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from the January training, the Fellows will report back on the Trellis blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Today, we’re sharing Elisha Wood-Charlson’s tale of becoming a community engagement manager.

Posted by Elisha Wood-Charlson, Communications Project Manager at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education

White lightbulb
Lightbulb – Great Idea!” by uberof202, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Actually, there were several moments – four to be exact – where I stumbled into, explored, and finally embraced the role of “Community Engagement Manager”:

 

Moment #1

If you have been, or currently are, in the graduate school trenches, then you are well familiar with the classic career path towards a tenured faculty position. But it isn’t for everyone. Along the way some of us realize that our paths lead elsewhere.

When I finally made time to reflect on my science career, I realized that it wasn’t headed in a direction that felt right for me. Yet every time I dipped into the realm of “science communication”, I really enjoyed the experience. Especially when I was able to communicate an open and transparent story – verbally, in writing, or even as a nicely documented data set. So after much internal deliberation, I decided it was time for a new career path where I could explore how to make science more efficient using effective communication. This was moment #1 on my path to becoming a community engagement manager.

 

Moment #2

And this is where transparency continues to be important: A transition from the classic academic path to something less well defined can be awkward. On the plus side, that same move came with a renewed sense of curiosity. I found myself asking, What is science communication really, and how do I fit into this rapidly growing field?

After some time and effort devoted to networking and building new professional collaborations, I got ‘lucky’ (with the kind of luck that Louis Pasteur meant when he wrote “Chance favors the prepared mind”). After networking and a bit of rebranding, I earned the title “Communications Manager” for a Research Coordination Network (RCN). This may sound like a Community Engagement Manger position, and you would be right, thought I didn’t know it at the time. This was moment #2.

 

Moment #3

In October 2016, my professional network paid off once again. I was alerted to a new program being launched by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) called the Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP). Upon reading the final paragraph on the CEFP homepage: “What is community engagement?”, I became aware of moment #2 (I was already doing this job), and moment #3 – that this might actually be me:

A community engagement professional or community manager is someone who facilitates the activities of a community and the interactions between community members. These activities may or may not take place within a dedicated online network, but likely involve the use of online tools. Community management may be considered as “in-reach” rather than “outreach” or public engagement.

Suddenly, my passion for open and transparent communication in science became “in-reach”, and I became a community manager. It was surprisingly empowering to finally have a tangible concept to assign to my new career path!

 

Moment #4

In January 2017, the CEFP started off its inaugural year with a weeklong training at AAAS in Washington D.C. I openly admit that I sat down at that table the morning of Day 1 with absolutely no idea what was going to happen, who these other “community managers” were, and what we were going to do for an entire week.

Stories from that week are better described elsewhere, so I will end this piece with moment #4: Now, after a week of training with my fellow fellows, I have no doubt that these are my people and this is the career for me.

 

I encourage anyone else wondering if this career path is right for them (or wondering if maybe they’re already doing it) to take the leap and look into some of the resources that Trellis and the CEFP have started to collect. There’s a blog series called “Meet a Scientific Community Manager” where you can read more stories from scientific community managers on the ground and see if you’re one of us after all.