Our full process for reviewing applications to the ComSciCon Flagship Workshop and what we’re looking for in attendees.
Several long weeks will pass between submitting your application to the ComSciCon Flagship workshop and hearing the results. What happens behind the scenes during that time? How many applicants are there? How do we use the information on the application? What are we really looking for? We believe it’s important to be transparent about application review, so here is our method laid out for everyone. We hope that many find this post valuable, whether you’re a prospective attendee or just generally interested in how we have decided to tackle the process!
Phases of Review
We receive around 700-1200 applications from the US and Canada each year. Because we only have 50 spots available at our annual workshop and because the applications have such a high level of quality, this makes for some very difficult decisions. Each application is read and scored by at least two separate reviewers. This takes a lot of hours, so ComSciCom’s Logistics Organizing Committee, Programming Committee, and the Leadership Team all pitch in to help with the three stages of application review.
In the first stage, each application is assigned two unique reviewers. They give numerical scores to each question, which are combined equally in the total score. The reviewers usually review at least 100 applications each, and when they’re finished, all scores are normalized per reviewer. This accounts for variations in the distribution of score from different reviewers.
The top 200 applications by score, in addition to several others (see the “Equity and Diversity” section below) then proceed to the second stage. Here, each application is given two more unique reviewers, and the scores are once again normalized on a per-reviewer basis.
The third and final stage takes place live. All the reviewers meet to select a final list of 50 attendees and a wait list of around 20. All 200 applicants from stage two are included in this stage, as well as gold-star applicants (see below). Typically there is broad consensus to accept the top 20-scoring applications, but the final list is not solely based on score. Each year we discuss how best to handle diversity of fields, race, gender, and other demographics.
Keep in mind that we offer the ComSciCon workshop entirely free of charge to students; there is no registration fee, no application fee, all accommodations are provided, and we heavily subsidize the travel costs of our attendees. As a small volunteer-run non-profit, this is only possible due to the generosity of our sponsors. We may have a few (typically 1-4) spots reserved for students belonging to an organization (university or professional society) that has sponsored a ComSciCon Fellowship, meaning that they have fully funded one or two slots for their own students as well as contributed financially to support other students to attend. Since our budget and the conference location changes from year to year, sometimes we also must admit a certain number, usually 10, of local applicants in order to make sure that we can fully support the travel of all non-local attendees.
What we look for: Answers
Each reviewer follows a standard set of guidelines when assessing each answer. However, the qualities listed below are not requirements for a high score. Ultimately it is up to the reviewer’s judgment. Broadly we are looking for people who have provided thoughtful, unique responses and come across as a strong leader in SciComm.
Our first question asks about experience. We are looking for people who have sought out experience outside of the science communication required in a graduate program. Additionally, we are looking for people who demonstrate a long term commitment to an activity and have shown initiative, innovation, and/or leadership. We recognize that not every applicant will have had equal access and opportunity to professional and leadership experiences, so we try to take this into account when comparing applications.
In the second question, the applicant needs to describe their research as they would to the general public. We not only want to know what everyone studies, but mostly how successful they are at communicating it! Every year even great applications often include too much jargon in this response to be readable to our reviewers, who are themselves scientists (but typically in a different discipline). We will be more impressed with a simple answer than a complex one. A great way to make an application stand out is to have a creative response here, which addresses the broader context or importance of your work and appeals to a shared experience.
Thirdly, we ask about how ComSciCon will help further your goals as a science communicator. The primary purpose of our Flagship workshop is not only to help people improve their science communication skills, but to connect those who have the potential to create new collaborations together and generate more opportunities for others to engage in SciComm. This doesn’t mean that if you doubt your abilities you shouldn’t apply! Rather, in your application you should focus on what experiences and ideas you have to offer, and how you could use the experiences and ideas of others. It is certainly not required, but applicants who describe a specific project that would benefit from their attendance tend to stand out.
Our last question is new as of 2022. We want to provide a place for applicants to address why attending ComSciCon is important, how their work fits into society and science, and reflect upon how methods in science communication matter. We are looking for a thoughtful response which demonstrates a clear understanding of a specific issue, how it relates to their field or scicomm, and have an idea of potential actions that could address the issue. Most importantly, we are looking for strong leaders who consider the broader context of their work and how it should affect their scicom.
Equity and Diversity
The majority of past attendees found interacting with the other participants to be the most impactful part of the conference. We believe that diversity is important from both an equity standpoint and to provide the best experience for attendees. We are seeking a group of highly qualified attendees with diversity in: interests, skills, perspectives, race, ethnicity, gender, geographical region, type of institution, and field. Balancing these factors with our quantitative scoring system is not easy and is reassessed every year.
We commit to seeking continuous feedback and continuous improvement. We know that both our applicants and our accepted cohorts do not yet meet the full diversity of the population we serve and we strive to improve that.
One way we try to identify unique, excellent candidates who may be looked over based on our initial scoring criteria is the gold star system. During the first phase of application review, reviewers can give a “gold star” to several applicants. These applicants are the kind of person we want at ComSciCon, but may not check every box in a fixed, quantitative rubric. Perhaps they are missing something that would otherwise give them full marks, perhaps it’s anticipated that other reviewers may not necessarily recognize their potential, or perhaps they come from an underprivileged background and their relative lack of some experience could be due to systemic factors. Regardless, the reviewer may still think they deserve to be considered. The recipients of gold stars automatically progress to the third stage, where, regardless of score, they will be discussed along with the other candidates.
When it’s time to decide upon the final list of attendees, we usually automatically accept the very highest scores and discuss the others individually. Everyone in the final round is more than qualified, so we consider demographic information along with score in order to ensure diversity in the attendees. We consider demographics relative to the applicant pool as well as the U.S. and Canada populations.
The downside of having an abundance of exceptional applications each year is that ultimately we have to reject many qualified science communicators. Therefore, we strongly encourage people to re-apply and look for opportunities to get involved with our regional and specialized chapters. ComSciCon hosts many chapter events each year, which are able to serve a much broader set of grad student science communicators than our singular Flagship event. They share the same mission, goals, and basic structure as our Flagship event, but are balanced differently -- they typically have a greater focus on training rather than leadership in science communication. Many students attend and/or organize a Chapter event before attending our Flagship event.
The ComSciCon Flagship Workshop is a place to bring leaders together who will help shape the future of science communication. Keep in mind that leadership can mean many things. It is not necessarily a person who is used to being in charge. It can be someone who has an innovative idea, someone who has a strong drive to make things happen, or someone able to see the broader picture in their field. We need all types of people in science communication, so don’t underestimate what you have to offer!