Trading the Pipette for the Pen: Transitioning from Science to Science Writing

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Sometime during my PhD studies, I had an epiphany: I liked learning about science more than I liked doing it. Although I had excelled in science classes as an undergraduate, I was unprepared for the drudgery of lab work, and the funnel of ever-narrower research questions that felt ever more removed from the questions that motivated me at the outset.

By the end of my third year, all I wanted to do—while mindlessly running samples, while putting off writing computer code—was read popular science. Stories about diverse subjects, from neuroscience to astronomy, captivated me as much as my own work on ice cores. I had always loved to write and I wondered if, perhaps, I should try my hand at science writing.

This isn’t an unfamiliar tale, according to Rob Irion, who directs the graduate Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Many of his applicants, especially those who have completed or are working on PhDs, say that instead of reading the literature in their own field, they “spend a lot of time in their department seminar rooms devouring everything else, and finding that they are really interested in all of it,” Irion says. This might be the closest thing to a litmus test to determine if you, like I and many others, might be a science writer trapped in a scientist’s career path.

Making the transition to science writing can seem intimidating; it certainly requires determination and effort. But taking a few critical steps, like networking and honing your writing skills, can help make a scientist’s next experiment on the page a successful one.

Get the Inside Scoop

If there’s one thing science teaches you, it’s how to learn something new. This time, instead of exploring how neurons fire or why volcanoes explode, you need to learn what science writers actually do and how they do it.

A good place to start is a literature review, including Carl Zimmer’s note to beginning writers and Ed Yong’s collection of science-writer origin stories. You could also study Irion’s recent journal article, geared specifically toward scientists with an interest in communication. And you should pick up a copy of the excellent Science Writers’ Handbook.

Next, do some fieldwork and meet some science writers in their natural environment. Irion recommends joining a local science-writing group (most major metropolitan areas have one), or reaching out to the people who handle media relations (often called communications, outreach, or public information officers) at your institution or company. They can give you a sense of the differences between public relations and journalism, and they often have experience with both.

Irion also recommends joining the National Association of Science Writers (NASW; new student memberships are only $33 for the first year) and attending the annual ScienceWriters meeting, a collaboration between NASW and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. There, you can talk with dozens of writers. “You will walk away with a really different perspective about what people do in this profession,” Irion says. “It’s amazingly catalytic.”

You can also reach out to individual writers who live in your area (you can find them on the NASW registry), or who cover subjects that interest you. “I can’t tell you how many people I have emailed out of the blue,” says Bethany Brookshire, a pharmacologist-turned-writer now at Science News. “They have been so kind in response.”

If you can, grab a coffee or schedule an informal lunch date with these writers and ask about their career paths and what they do on a daily basis. These conversations helped demystify science writing for me, and I always came away laden with good advice and plenty of leads on possible internships, fellowships, and places to pitch.

That’s also what happened to freelancer Helen Shen—a former neuroscientist based in the San Francisco Bay area. She sat down with Emily Singer of Quanta Magazine, who happened to be the sister of a friend. Singer told Shen about internship and graduate-study opportunities that she eventually pursued.

Shen’s experience is a good reminder not to write off your personal network when you’re launching a new career. “You might be surprised to find out how many people know someone in science journalism,” she says.

Put Pen to Paper

Of course, talking about writing only gets you so far. At some point, you have to put pen to paper and see if you actually like doing it. Writing classes can be a great way to test the waters, says Jill Adams, a pharmacologist who worked in industry and then as a non-tenure-track faculty member at New York University for eight years before jumping into science writing. (Adams took an online nonfiction course offered by the Gotham Writers Workshop; many other organizations and community colleges offer similar opportunities.)

If you are still in grad school, look no further than your university’s English department or student newspaper. “You are kind of in this cozy, safe environment to learn and get that experience and make those connections without floating in the real world,” says Eric Hand, a reporter for Science who took classes in journalism and covered the arts for the Stanford Daily while pursuing a PhD in geophysics. Students can also explore writing opportunities with their school’s press office and alumni magazine.

Science-writing workshops are another way to explore the profession and start making connections. Shreya Dasgupta, a wildlife researcher based in Bangalore, India, attended a two-week workshop, where she gathered tips and met mentors and peers that helped her launch her freelance career. I had a similar experience at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, a week-long event with outstanding instructors who teach the basics of science writing and provide feedback on your work.

Alternatively, some prospective writers make their own opportunities online. In 2008, Brookshire started blogging under the pseudonym Scicurious after meeting a writer at Scientific American who encouraged her to develop her skills that way. “From that point on, I wrote two to three pieces per week, all through my PhD and again through my postdoc,” she says.

She built a following and discovered that she loved writing—enough to turn down an academic position after her postdoc. “By then I had already been writing online for about five years, and I’d just become obsessed with the joy of sharing science with the world.”

Hone Your Chops

If talking to professional writers and dabbling in writing only fans the flames, it’s time to sharpen your writing and reporting skills. Every scientist goes about this in a different way, but in general, there are three strategies, pursued alone or in combination: internships, science-writing graduate programs, and the DIY approach.

Many magazines and newspapers offer internships (here’s a partial list), and NASW hosts an internship fair at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One opportunity that’s particularly relevant for those with science backgrounds is the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, which places science students at media outlets like NPR, National Geographic, and in my case, the Los Angeles Times, for 10 busy weeks.

Internships like this provide a crash course in journalism for scientists. And for those who want to continue to write after the internship is over, the stories they’ve written can be used as clips to land their next journalism job—or to pursue more formal journalism training. After Shen finished her AAAS fellowship at the Philadelphia Inquirer, she enrolled in the year-long certificate program at UC Santa Cruz.

Graduate programs in science, health, or environmental journalism can also be found at many other universities, including MIT, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Boston University, Johns Hopkins University, NYU, and the University of Georgia, and many involve a mix of coursework and internships.

Although Irion stresses that people should take the path that’s right for them—and carefully weigh the cost of tuition—he thinks that “an organized training program provides you with a very deep tool kit” that accelerates students’ learning. “I see students from my program and elsewhere getting good jobs after one internship,” Irion says. (See “Ask TON: What Does a Science Writing Master’s Program Get You?”)

However, many science writers have built successful careers without participating in these programs. “I have never felt at a disadvantage,” says freelancer Jennifer Carpenter, who was doing her PhD in evolutionary genetics at the University of Edinburgh when she started writing press releases for the European Science Foundation. She went on to do internships at the BBC and Science.

Along the way, she took charge of her own education, reaching out to potential mentors and studying the craft of journalism. “I read the Columbia Journalism Review pretty religiously,” she says, and listened to NPR’s On The Media and BBC Radio’s Feedback, which featured commentary and criticism of the BBC’s programming. Carpenter also read—and continues to re-read—codes of ethics (NASW’s code is here) to keep up on the rules of the profession, and tried to absorb wisdom from her editors.

Face the Challenges

Scientists who sidestep the ivory tower for science writing—or any other career—often face barriers to leaving. Grad students are often conditioned to think anything other than the tenure track is a failure—not to mention a disappointment to their advisors, their friends and family, or themselves. “Many people, including me, go into academia having never wanted anything else in their lives,” Brookshire says.

But there are more challenges scientists should be prepared to face as they continue their metamorphosis. For example, many struggle to connect with lay audiences and have to recalibrate their sense of what’s newsworthy. Adams says she used to use her husband—a nonscientist—as a sounding board for story ideas. Doing so helped her realize which subjects would only interest a specialized audience, and reminded her that certain concepts she took for granted were foreign to many readers.

Many scientists also suffer from a form of perfectionism—and an almost pathological attention to detail—that can be debilitating in writing. “I observe a lot of mental struggles to realize that not every article that you produce is going to be the be-all and end-all of articles on subject X,” Irion says. You can do a good job without agonizing, he says. “In fact, you have to.”

That’s especially true when adjusting to journalism’s short deadlines after working at the glacial pace of academic research for so long. Shen was shocked by the fast turnaround times at The Philadelphia Inquirer. “At the newspaper, as soon as your editor tells you that you should work on something, you’re already late.”

Many scientists also need to shed their timid habits—by, for example, learning to conduct interviews over the phone rather than email, and asking tough questions that sources may not want to answer. They also may carry with them an engrained sense of caution when it comes to the wider implications of research; as journalists, however, it’s their job to show readers why science matters on a larger scale.

But while having a scientific background carries particular challenges, it also confers particular benefits. Early on, Adams already knew to ask scientists about the process that led to their new results and the hitches that almost certainly occurred. “I wasn’t undercutting their confidence or the quality of their work, but I knew there was more to the story than this clean paper they put out,” she says.

Former scientists also have practical skills that come in handy, like a strong background in basic scientific concepts and research methods, and a deep grasp of their own field. Writers with scientific training can also decipher statistics and quickly digest technical papers that might take other journalists hours to slog through.

Beyond that, however, scientists and journalists share some fundamental traits. Shen cites qualities like curiosity, skepticism, and persistence, particularly in the face of unconvincing answers, which she says she encountered occasionally, for instance, while reporting policy pieces for Nature. “I think both scientists and journalists are tuned to push back on that,” she says.

One Step at a Time

The territory between science and science writing can seem imposing and mysterious, but many scientists have navigated it successfully, each following a unique path. There’s probably no wrong way, but there’s no clear road map either. “Every person is an n of 1,” Shen says.

At first, that fact gave me anxiety. But then I found an analogy that helped me cope with the overwhelming task of changing careers. I discovered it on the ScienceGeekGirl blog, where Stephanie Chasteen describes her own transition from physics into science communication:

Bacteria—thermophilic or acidophilic bacteria, for example—do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient—a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine.

 

Julia Rosen

Julia Rosen

Julia Rosen is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and covers earth science, energy, climate, and food. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Science News, Scientific American, Nautilus, and elsewhere. Find more of her work at her website or say hi on Twitter @ScienceJulia.

 

 

 

Image at top by Roco Julie via Flickr.

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7 Comments

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  3. Good on ya. Very nice, and great that Beryl Benderley highlighted this in ScienceCareers. One point that jarred, though: A scientist now working as a science writer has not transitioned “from science.” You are still a scientist. It’s for life. This is perhaps a soapbox issue for me, but I feel very strongly about it. I haven’t done an experiment since 1987 but still self-identify as a scientist.

  4. geophysicist-by-day says:

    Oh my goodness! Your first sentence just sent resonating shivers down my spine. Thank you for sharing your experience, and for validating some of the thoughts I’ve had during my academic career. I have always considered science writing as something I might really enjoy, and this post gives me an invaluable list of resources to start investigating if that is truly the case. Thank you!

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