May 2009 marks a milestone for me: 5 years as a full-time science writer. Folks interested in the career (usually scientists) contact me occasionally about the transition, and I caution that it’s different for everyone. But here are my basic guidelines.
1. Look before you leap. It’s easy to have a bad week, month, semester, or even years in a laboratory. But does that mean that science writing is a better path? Not necessarily. It’s not a high paying career, and the entry barriers can be substantial. You have to know how to write and convince people to hire you, either into a staff position or regularly as a freelancer. You might need additional training such as writing courses or even a journalism degree. Do your homework. Read up on the career path (I’ve included some resources at the end of this post). Try writing for your campus newspaper or an alternative weekly. Start slowly: my career transition began in 2002, and it took me almost 2 years to figure out what I wanted to do and how to get there.
2. A writing program might (or might not) be the answer. In 2002, I read about a science writing course being offered at the School of Journalism at Indiana University (where I was a Ph.D. student in chemistry). I contacted the professor, Holly Stocking, about auditing the course. Our signals crossed, but when I showed up on the first day to ask again, she told me that I had to enroll if I wanted to sit in. I asked if I could sit in for one day and then deal with drop-add. Two hours later, I was scrambling around to find 3 credit hours of tuition money, and it was probably the best money I ever spent in graduate school.
But I chose not to do a full science journalism program. There are many wonderful programs out there, but I knew that I needed to be out of school and working in the real world. I got plenty of advice from seasoned journalists that said that a science journalism program provides “the path of least resistance.” I agree with that assessment, but I also think that I made the right decision for me. Particularly now, taking on that much student loan debt isn’t trivial, so it’s worth thinking carefully for financial reasons, too.
3. Find a mentor. This part is a lot like the research world. A good mentor opens doors, facilitates introductions, listens and offers advice. Holly, the professor at IU, made virtual introductions via email when I went to my first science writing conference alone, helped me plot strategy, and even just listened when I was frustrated with lab work.
4. Be prepared to answer the question “why are you doing this?” This question came up– in some form– in every interview that I had for at least the first 2 years that I worked as a writer, particularly when I was applying for internships. Potential employers, understandably, want to know who they’re working with and whether I was serious. It was a legitimate question: I had a degree that qualified me to work for a pharmaceutical company earning several times what I made as a magazine intern.
5. Don’t expect your old colleagues to get it. I actually never asked my former labmates outright what they thought of my transition. On the afternoon that I found out that I’d be a summer intern at Discover magazine, I walked into lab and announced it, excited, like I’d just gotten a dream postdoc. The first response? A lukewarm “Oh, that’s nice.” Another more distant colleague cornered me in an empty hallway with hushed questions about doing something “different” and what that was like.
6. Judge your audience carefully before pulling out the 3 magic letters . I don’t lie about my Ph.D., and I don’t hide it. However, I don’t introduce myself in professional settings as Dr. Sarah Webb. It varies depending on the situation. Unless I’m doing work that hinges on my technical background or writing for a researcher audience, it doesn’t help much to tell people. Editors want to know that I’m a good writer– my degree doesn’t tell them that. In most cases, and particularly when I write for kids, I want sources to talk to me like a normal person and not like I’m a scientific colleague.
7. Challenge perceived boundaries sooner rather than later. When I told my Ph.D. adviser that I wanted to be a science writer instead, she tried to help, encouraging me to look at scientific journal work. It was a good idea, but it also felt too safe because I was trying to break the confinement of a single subject area. Instead, I focused on getting a mainstream media internship, and it paid off. Working at a monthly science magazine and on local TV news (second internship through the AAAS Mass Media Program) helped me make the full cultural transition from science to journalism. As a freelancer, I do a lot of work for science journals now, and I really enjoy it. But if I hadn’t dipped my toes into mainstream media early, I don’t think I’d have the same career breadth that I do now.
8. Practice good cultural awareness. Sit back, listen, observe the cultures at work, and understand where you fit in the process. Scientists are worried about their results leaking out so that they can’t publish or that a journalist will misrepresent them. Journalists are annoyed when scientists ask them to read the story before publication because it’s a breach of ethics. Scientists, who read and comment on each other’s work all the time, don’t always understand that their version of factual review isn’t appropriate in a journalist’s world. These norms can vary depending on how researcher-focused a publication is and their individual policies.
In addition, science writers come in all types, from experienced general reporters who gradually made their way to the science beat to Ph.D. scientists who left the bench to others who switched careers from literature or art. I’m a firm believer that there’s room in the sandbox for everyone, and the variety of skills and perspectives are part of what makes this field exciting. If you’re an ex-scientist, you’ll always have to prove that you can write. If you’re an experienced reporter without a science background, you’ll always have to prove that you know your science.
9. Seize unexpected opportunities. One of the scariest parts of leaving science for me was the fact that my career suddenly wasn’t planned out. Instead of postdoc, academic job, tenure track, I had 6 months of internships followed by. . . . nothing. At one point I applied for an exhibit writing job with a graphic design firm– I was a science writer, and I’d worked in a museum before, why not? It turned out to be a great gig, work that I’m really proud of, and it was a steady job that helped me launch my freelance career. But I had no idea that it would turn out that way when I applied for it.
10. Don’t expect it to be easy. Science writing is a craft and is not correlated with having an advanced degree in science. It’s tough to get started. It’s not any easier than taking the academic track and building an independent career in a lab. It’s just different, and if it’s a good fit, it’s an amazing journey.
Want to know more about science writing careers?