Whoa, that journalist got to go on the paleontologists’ dig in Mongolia…without being a paleontologist! I’ll bet she gets to look through telescopes with astronomers, too!!
Such was the epiphany, inspired by a National Geographic article and profound, indeed, that convinced me to pursue science communication. Recently, I got to speak with members of Stanford’s AIMS (the Association of Industry-Minded Stanford Professionals) at an evening dedicated to this alternative career path that interests many researchers.
Tiago Faial, an associate editor at Nature Genetics, told us about his work in scientific publishing, escorting articles through the system. My experience is in popular science writing and research communications at MyScienceWork. I’ve seen some helpful articles and tools out there, some specifically aimed at scientists preparing to make the leap to communicating research instead of doing it. The following selection is not at all exhaustive; I just wanted to share some highlights of the resources that I came across. Here they are!
Is my PhD a good thing in sci comm?
As PhDs, or soon to be, you may be wondering if your degree and specialist’s knowledge will be an asset in the field of science writing. It certainly can be! There may also be things to be aware of, habits or styles of thinking that are important for research, but need modifying to work in journalism.
Robert Irion, Director of the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz addresses those ideas in his article “Science communication: a career where PhDs can make a difference”.
And there’s this advice from geologist-turned-science-writer Julia Rosen and other former scientists she interviewed about making the transition:
Getting to Know the Field
That last one was published on a site you should definitely explore: The Open Notebook. True to their tagline, they bring you “the story behind the best science stories”. This includes interviews with journalists about how they found a particular story and how the process of writing it unfolded. One particularly cool resource is the pitch database: See exactly how a writer pitched a story and compare that initial vision to what was eventually published.
For more guidance, there’s the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. They address topics like salary ranges to expect in the field, and the question on everybody’s mind: How Do I Know If I Should Become a Science Writer and If I Have What It Takes?
Do check out the full list in CASW’s A Guide to Careers in Science Writing.
Join the Club
Then, there are the professional societies, like the National Association of Science Writers. Members receive bonus material, like access to job listings and tips for understanding contracts, but there are also great resources freely available on the site. NASW collects links to pieces on issues in science writing and “Tricks of the Trade” from writers—for example, Some Suggestions for Handling Quotes. And there are useful, specific themes like “New to science writing?” and “All about freelancing”.
In the Stanford neighborhood is the Northern California Science Writers Association, which you can join and actually meet people working in the field. Like, face to face! They have dinner meetings with scientific speakers and lots of good networking; practical workshops (I’m going to “Data Scraping and Visualization” to learn to create cool data-based graphics); and they send out job postings.
And what can you do on your own? In the lab between time points, on the weekends when you have “nothing to do” (haha)? Write!! Popularize your own work for family and friends. Write about some science news that had you excited. Just start writing and see if you really like it. To get warmed up and get feedback. Submit it somewhere or offer it as a guest post on someone else’s blog, if you don't already have your own. No sense keeping those cool science stories to yourself!
Whitney Heavner of Stanford’s own NeuWrite West tells me that they take submissions for the blog and for their monthly science writing workshops. “In fact, we usually workshop submitted pieces before they're published on the blog (or before they're sent to other venues), so it's a great way to get direct feedback on unpublished drafts,” she says. That’s a great opportunity – take advantage of it! NeuWrite West focuses on “reading, writing and radio covering neuroscience and beyond.”
If structure helps you focus, take a class. Try a science journalism course, online or at your university, that will let you test it out. Back in the day, I took a feature writing class for one semester with Doug Starr, co-director of the Program in Science Journalism at Boston University, and I was convinced! I will always be grateful for that experience.
Twitter is where it’s at.
Also, get on Twitter! Do it! Don’t be afraid of having nothing to say; you can listen without tweeting and still learn a lot. And there is a whole lot of science and #scicomm to listen to. Follow your favorite science media outlets, research universities, industry accounts, any of the many scientists using social media and science communicators in their various incarnations. And then you’ll start sharing great stories, too—the ones you read and the ones you write.
Image credit: Eric Heupel / Flickr (Creative Commons license)