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Experts agree that misinformation is harmful. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when misinformation was high, adults engaged in risky activities including washing food products with bleach and applying household cleaning products directly to their skin.
People have suggested many strategies for combating misinformation, but one of the best, and most doable, isn’t being discussed at all: to train graduate students in video communication. Graduate students today should know how to speak to the news media on camera and how to create compelling videos for YouTube and TikTok that can connect with the general public—helping dispel misinformation on a vast variety of topics.
Why graduate students? Because they are a giant workforce of future experts. In 2022 alone, more than three million students enrolled in graduate schools across the United States. Graduate students spend years gaining a deep education in their respective fields.
But graduate training does not prepare students to share their knowledge widely. As an academic, I should know. Despite starting graduate training 20 years ago and serving as a faculty member for the past decade, I have yet to receive formal training in how to communicate research on camera or how to engage audiences.
My experience is typical. Consider the program of study for graduate students in biology at Harvard University. The expertise of those biology students is vital to the future of human health. Yet, students apparently are not required to take courses on how to discuss this topic with someone who is not a fellow scientist.
Current curricula mean that scholars don’t reach beyond the ivory tower. In the humanities, academic books typically struggle to sell even 600 copies. A shocking 72 percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist. Perhaps even more interesting, among Americans who could name a scientist, the top three most-cited names were Anthony Fauci, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye—scientists who speak often to the mainstream media (in the case of Fauci) or who speak about research on popular television shows (Tyson and Nye).\
Notice another feature about these three scientists: They are all men.
Graduate students need to get on camera not just to explain important concepts to people outside their field but also to show diverse images of what it means to be an “expert.” If you don’t believe that matters, consider the Draw-A-Scientist test. In the 1960s and 70s, researchers asked over 4,800 elementary school students to draw a picture of a scientist. Almost all of the children drew male scientists. Only 28 children (0.6 percent of the sample) drew a female scientist. Those 28 children were all girls. Clearly, children linked “science” with “men.”
That study remains relevant today. Children’s perceptions haven’t changed drastically since the 60s and 70s, despite increased representation of women in the sciences in recent decades. A meta-analysis in 2018 examined 78 studies that replicated the Draw-A-Scientist test since that first landmark study. Across 20,000 drawings, 73 percent were of male scientists.
Another key reason that scholars must get better at sharing what we learn: taxpayers fund a large portion of our scholarly work. The United States invests over $169 billion annually in research and development. It is our responsibility to communicate our knowledge to the public.
When we fail to teach graduate students how to communicate effectively on camera, we leave a void that misinformation fills. The rise of misinformation in recent years has made it harder than ever for people to determine what information is factual and what is false—or even which nuances matter. A survey on COVID-19 misinformation found that 78 percent of adults agreed with or were unsure about at least one false statement related to COVID-19.
And misinformation has consequences. A recent World Health Organization review found that misinformation affects mental health and can even delay the provision of healthcare.
Of course, it would be great if more graduate students were better and more frequent writers, too. Even if they were, however, many journal articles written about publicly funded research are hidden behind paywalls—an issue the White House is seeking to correct by 2026.
If scholars today want to communicate with the general public, they should prioritize becoming camera-ready. Younger audiences seek out video-based content, so much so that in leaked documents, Meta expressed alarm that younger users were leaving their photo-based platforms for video-based platforms. Those fears have played out. In the United States, 95 percent of teens use YouTube. TikTok, a Chinese-owned video-based platform, now has 1.7 billion users worldwide.
We shouldn’t let fads drive graduate training. But the rise of online videos isn’t a fad that’s likely to go away anytime soon. And arguing about fads misses the point. Videos are engaging and promote connection. That’s why 91 percent of businesses use videos as a marketing tool.
Many academics will scoff that we aren’t in the business of marketing. But we are. We’re in the business of sharing and increasing the reach of ideas. We market ideas. Our funders agree; they just call marketing “dissemination.” In fact, many funders now require dissemination plans. At the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, dissemination is a core priority area.
It’s hard to imagine how to fit more classes into graduate education, as there’s so much to learn already. But training could take place outside of the classroom. Dalhousie University, for example, hosts workshops for Ph.D. students on topics like media training, story development and social media strategies.
Video creates new opportunities for scholars to engage new generations in the joy of learning. Take André Isaacs, a faculty member at The College of Holy Cross. His popular TikTok channel has galvanized more than 400,000 followers to think about chemistry and what inclusion in STEM means. Isaacs shares videos that range from discussing what students can gain from office hours to showing the delight that comes from joining a lab. In his case, his team happens to dance through the lab in tie-dyed lab coats.
Many more graduate students could join in that kind of fun, too, if they had skills in video communication. And many more Americans would receive accurate and trustworthy information on some of the most important and pressing issues of our time. It’s time to rethink how we train graduate students.