Learning About Communication Skills within Academia: An Interview with Dr. Andrew Fox

Dr. Andrew Fox is a professor in the Department of Psychology at UC Davis. To learn more about communication skills within academia, I asked him a few questions about how he personally uses communication skills on a day-to-day basis in his professional life.

Photo Credits: Do Tromp

1. What kinds of writing do you do for your job?

There are three things that I write—I write teaching content, I write emails, and I write articles. And they all have to be very different. In the process of making things happen, you have to write emails that are interesting enough for people to read so that they continue reading.

2. Would you say these emails are very detailed?

I would say emails are three-parts excitement, one-part detail. And I would say that the scientific writing I write is absurdly detailed. I think that the first priority of science writing is to be unambiguous and to be as clear as you can. Once you achieve that goal, then you can think about things like “does it read well?” and “is it interesting to look at—does it hit the right points?” But you first need to write the results and the methods as clearly as possible, sometimes at the cost of having longer sentences that are a little hard to read because I need to be like, “this is exactly how we did it.” But that said, an advisor once explained to me that he finds it so amazing that in the world of science, most people feel like they are done with a project because they designed it, collected the data, and got results. And, he says that in his mind, you’re about halfway done, because the thing you really need to do is to then communicate that to others.

3. In what aspects of your career are listening skills important?

I would say most problems that occur in trying to work with others are because of misunderstandings. If you’re unwilling to engage and try to find out what someone is trying to say, even if their words are not as clear as you prefer them to be, then you will generally end up having bad working relationships with others. I mean, the job of a professor is kind of weird because it is often introduced in a talk that I am the only one doing this work…and that is just blatantly false. There are very few papers that are not truly dependent on the work of at least five other people. It’s those kinds of things that allow me to work with experts in the fields that I’m not an expert in. To do an MRI scan, ideally you want an MRI physicist to do the scan to get optimal quality and things like that.

If you can’t understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, you often end up in situations where you’re not getting the most out of your study because of your inability to talk with them about what your goals are. This is something I’ve seen eat away at different projects because people are sort of listening to the words and not trying to understand. And so the result is that you can have fights with the IT staff or administration because you’re not appreciating the constraints they are working under.

I think that in lecture, you can hear a student ask a question and very easily answer something else if you aren’t listening to what they mean. It’s that kind of listening that is important—it’s not just being quiet and waiting for the other person’s words, you need to engage with their thoughts and try with your best ability to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to communicate.