Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:
What does one learn in a science writing master’s program? What are the main elements of a typical curriculum? What are the benefits of doing such a degree? The drawbacks? Is there any hope of graduating without incurring crippling levels of debt?
Dan Fagin, director of the New York University Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program:
Every science journalism master’s program is different, but the best ones are all focused squarely on teaching you to produce great work and otherwise thrive in the science journalism marketplace as it exists today—and also tomorrow, as best we can ascertain. That means teaching you to think critically, act ethically, innovate fearlessly, research thoroughly, organize your work rationally and tell stories with style and clarity.
We do this by setting you loose to do the work of journalists, but in an environment steeped in intensive feedback from faculty and peers. It’s quite similar to the real world of journalism except that editing guidance is much more detailed and you work intensively on a range of journalistic skills so diverse that many professionals might never encounter them all in a lifetime: features, straight news, videography, data visualization, book proposals, beat blogging, magazine-length narratives, audio podcasting, investigative techniques and many others.
Along the way, you meet and learn from dozens of high-level practitioners in journalism and science. You publish on your own and also in high-level internships (not the coffee-getting variety). The goal is to make you a superb science storyteller in any medium, thus making you irresistible to employers who can afford to be very picky thanks to the very challenging job market for staffers and freelancers.
Before committing to a program, it’s very important that you ask some tough questions—of yourself, and of the program director. Are you certain science journalism is what you want to do? If you’re not, do some reporting and writing on your own and make sure you truly love the work. Journalism school, like journalism, is not for the ambivalent. Check to make sure that the program you’re considering is fully transparent about how all of its graduates—not just a few stars—fare in the job market. Schedules can change from year to year, so look to see exactly who will be teaching you, and how large classes will be. Ask for course syllabi and read them closely. Even more importantly, ask recent alumni about their experiences in the program and afterward. (Again, be sure to speak not only to the ones the program director recommends to you, but also to those you find on your own.) If at all possible, make an in-person visit so you can sit in on classes and go to lunch with current students, who are great sources of unbiased information. After all, they were in your shoes a year ago. Don’t be shy about asking the program director anything that’s on your mind; the best ones practice the transparency they preach. Besides, you might as well get used to asking awkward questions—it’s a core skill for great journalists!
Asking questions is important because grad school is expensive. Depending on the program, your degree could cost $65,000 or more, plus living expenses. All grad programs offer some financial aid that reduces the total cost. Even so, many students end up relying heavily on loans, personal savings, family support, independent scholarships or income from part-time jobs. Debt loads are a serious issue, which is another reason why it’s so important to investigate a program’s post-graduate employment record and to speak directly to alumni.
If you pick an excellent program and work hard there, the odds are good that you won’t regret your choice.
Rob Irion, director of the University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication program:
Graduate programs in science writing differ in their curricula, their internships, and their career outcomes, so prospective students should do some comparison shopping. Take a close look at the credentials of who will teach your classes, as well as the early-career pathways of alumni. If their backgrounds and positions resonate with your own training to date and your professional goals, then you’ll probably find it worthwhile to attend that program.
At UC Santa Cruz, we complete our training in nine months. There are two parallel tracks for our ten graduate students, all of whom have prior degrees in science or engineering. Our classes, which meet two days each week, cover newswriting, social media, feature writing, profiles and essays, policy and investigative reporting, and multimedia (photography, slideshows, podcasts, videos). All courses focus on the key elements of reporting, writing, and editing within each area, and each course is taught by a professional practitioner of that craft. Our internships, which also meet two days each week, place the students at regional newspapers, radio stations, university news services, and national online news services. These placements, required throughout the school year, give the students immediate practice—and a thick portfolio of published work by the time we’re done.
At the end of the academic year, each student completes a full-time national-level internship. These often draw upon connections we develop for the students through our lecturers, our guest speakers and editors, our alumni, and at various national meetings we attend.
It all amounts to a full-immersion boot camp in the practice of science journalism. It’s harder to do that on one’s own, but it’s certainly possible for motivated young writers. We view the benefits as accelerating the start of a new career for our former scientists; equipping them with strong reporting skills; rapidly building up a portfolio and a national reputation; and opening doors through connections with our national colleagues.
The drawback certainly is the cost. We have some fellowships and some philanthropic support to offset a portion of the tuition for each student, and some of our internships carry a modest stipend. Some students earn money by publishing stories from classes as well. There is just one national scholarship for graduate training in science writing, through CASW (four awards per year). A few students have won competitions or arranged support through a foundation privately. It’s an investment, for sure, but our strong track record in jobs and highly productive freelance careers suggests that it pays off.
Ann Finkbeiner, director of the Johns Hopkins Science Writing Master’s program:
I’m going to take these in reverse order because the last questions are easier. I’m also going to answer only for the Hopkins program, since that’s the only one I know about with any confidence.
Crippling Levels of Debt
The least financial aid the Hopkins program gives its grad students is an 80 percent tuition remission, that is, you pay only 20 percent of the tuition. Which is still a lot of money. But we’re a very small program and we do have several one-semester teaching assistantships and between the stipend and the tuition remission, students with the assistantships can come out of the program with little or no debt. I think.
You spend a good nine months of your life, you generally relocate, you’re possibly quitting or taking leave from a job, you’re not making money, your life in general goes on hold.
Main Elements of Curriculum
The Hopkins program is unusually short, a one-year terminal masters running from late August to early May. We’re not a journalism program, and any journalistic practice is taught as it comes up. We focus on finding and structuring stories and writing them. The program is fairly intense—you put your head down and just write and rewrite and write and rewrite. For specifics, see the website (which I’m having trouble getting updated).
Benefits/What One Learns
Maybe the best, most believable answers to this would come from the graduates. Certainly one benefit is that you become part of the network of program graduates and your teachers’ colleagues. The network not only introduces you to people who will hire and/or pay you, it also gives you access to a community of advisers who are doing the sort of thing you want to do.
I think, however, that the biggest benefit is the prolonged period of doing little but writing and editing other peoples’ writing. Writing isn’t the kind of skill that’s picked up quickly and once-and-for-all. It’s the kind that gets overhauled and refined and redirected and polished over decades. A writing program gives you a head start on the process by giving you a close reading and careful response you’ll never get again—no editor has this kind of time.
Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-director, Boston University Center for Science & Medical Journalism:
Whether to enroll in graduate school–any graduate school in any discipline–is a weighty decision. The job market for any but a handful of professions is very tough these days, and journalism is, of course, among the toughest. So when candidates call to discuss their prospects, we generally respond with great care. But also with qualified optimism.
Journalism, as we all know, is not what it once was. The internet has undone the link between production and payment–many writers–and scientists–produce content for little more than the privilege of sharing their thoughts with what they hope is a wide, engaged audience. Prolific essayist Samuel Johnson famously opined “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” but Johnson was born over 300 years ago. Today, plenty of very smart people are writing for free, and this puts the “job” of the “science writer” in an entirely new light. The question becomes, how can the professional science writer “add value” above that provided for free by the amateur?
This is where a graduate program in science journalism can be quite helpful.
Our graduate program, one of the nation’s oldest, has changed to accommodate today’s realities in a way we think pays off handsomely for our graduates. We offer instruction not only in writing, editing and production–for all platforms–but also encourage students to step back from the daily rush to think deeply about scientific issues that matter. Our goal is to put science into perspective and in context with historical, political, sociological, and economic norms, and to help our students understand and approach their work with empathy, clarity and poise. And, not incidentally, with courage.
So is graduate school absolutely necessary to succeed in this business? Of course not! But given the current journalistic climate–fewer paid outlets, ever more harried editors–we believe it is extremely helpful, a first step on the road toward a pursuing an endeavor that is ever changing, ever challenging, and for many of us, endlessly engaging.
Julie Rehmeyer, freelance science writer and UC-Santa Cruz graduate:
I went to the UCSC science writing program, and I found it really valuable. It felt to me like a turbocharged injection into the culture. The instructors were top-notch, and a huge part of the value was just in imbibing the way they looked at the world, how they thought about their lives, how they’d structured their careers.
Of course, one also learns a bunch of skills, and it’s a whole lot less stressful to learn them in the context where you’ve got a bunch of people who are focused on helping you rather than an editor who needs top-notch copy now. It was an incredible thrill and luxury to have all these smart, savvy, knowledgeable journalists working to make me better! I’m not sure whether I learned anything that I wouldn’t have picked up on my own eventually otherwise, but I sure did learn a whole lot, fast.
Another huge part of the value was the connections. I got an internship that would have been really hard to get without the degree, and I felt immediately embraced by the UCSC alums, who have by now spread pretty far and wide. It greased the wheels hugely.
The first quarter at UCSC focuses on news writing, the second on feature writing, and the third on multimedia stuff and profiles. I think that’s probably pretty similar to most programs. You do an internship each quarter, which is hugely valuable. And I’m envious of the multimedia stuff that current students do—I’d love to have been exposed to all that.
The only significant drawback that I see is the money. There’s some money available for financial aid, though my impression is that that’s been getting scarcer with time.
Ferris Jabr, associate editor at Scientific American and NYU SHERP program graduate:
I completed New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP). Before beginning the program, I had worked on my high school and college newspapers and interned with Psychology Today and NOVA, so science communication and journalism were not completely new to me. But I had tons to learn. I did not know what a ‘lede’ or ‘nut graf’ was. I didn’t even know feature stories were called feature stories. SHERP gave me a solid grounding in professional journalism and flung me into New York’s science journalism circles. It was basically 16 straight months of reporting and writing with feedback from talented veteran journalists. We learned how to analyze and translate research papers, how to spot questionable statistics, how to interview scientists, how to write various kinds of articles – a news story, a trend piece, a narrative feature, among others – as well as the particular challenges of writing about health and the environment. We also learned to produce short videos, some very basic coding skills and how to manage an online science magazine (Scienceline). We talked about the ethics of reporting the biggest science stories at the time. In an elective class, I crafted a mock book proposal and presented it to a panel of editors and publishers. Some of my classmates took an optional radio class. We also all completed internships in New York. I should note here that I graduated SHERP in December 2010 and my understanding is that the program now includes more focus on data visualization. SHERP is always evolving; its curriculum changes every year based on student reviews.
I think the main benefits of any science writing master’s program are relationships: friendships with your classmates and professors, collaborations with other journalists and writers you meet, professional relationships with editors and producers. While at NYU, I met so many different writers and editors so quickly. A master’s program confers more than a degree and a set of skills – it also gives you access to a community of peers that you will know and work with for life. I think the main drawbacks of a master’s program are time and money. Many master’s programs offer financial aid based on merit and need; in most cases such assistance will only make a welcome but small dent in the total tuition. And then there’s cost of living on top of it all. Some people would rather break into journalism by freelancing and interning without paying for a master’s. I think that is an equally viable path. It all depends on what you already know, on your circumstances and resources and your instincts. A master’s in science writing is not a prerequisite to good science writing; it’s not essential to career success. Plenty of people have found ways to support themselves as journalists without ever stepping foot in J-school. Shortly after NYU accepted me, NOVA tentatively offered me the opportunity to stay in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and take a paid contract position as a production assistant on an upcoming documentary. I knew that I wanted to pursue writing, not TV production, but it was difficult to pass up even the potential of a paying gig at such an amazing organization. Ultimately, I decided to pass on that opportunity and go straight to NYU. My reasoning was that the time and expense of a master’s program would be worth it if it got me closer to where I really wanted to be. For me, that was the right choice.
Sally Adee, technology features editor at New Scientist and graduate of the Johns Hopkins Science Writing Masters’ Program:
A science writing masters program teaches you to write about science. More to the point, it teaches you how not to write about science. If you’re a scientist transitioning into science writing, you might think you have an easy path. The opposite is true. Good science writing is about putting research in context for people who are completely unfamiliar with the discipline, but only telling them what they need to know. That’s art, not science. However, if you’re a writer coming to science writing, your path is no easier. You have to understand the science behind the story. To do that, you have to interview many intimidating scientists and ask them the same question in ten different ways until you understand what they are telling you. You also need to learn how to hone your cycnism. If you’re not a scientist by training, you might be too credulous about reported results or misinterpret findings.
In a good masters’ program, your instructors will teach you how to suss out good stories in science, look across different fields to spot trends in research and explain to lay readers what it all means. They will both inspire you by pointing you to amazingly well-crafted articles and hose you down with a Silkwood shower of reality about your own abilities.
You’ll learn how to find good stories, write them well, and pitch them to editors (well, sort of—pitching is a dark art and I don’t think anyone in the world will claim to have nailed it, no matter how long they’ve been a science writer).
The writing part of the curriculum will teach you the different skills necessary for features work and news work, and you’ll probably find out which you’re more suited to—the super fast pace of news or the more contemplative, analytical pace of features.
The science part of the curriculum often does the job of teaching you which discipline you’re most drawn to. Particularly if you’re not going into science writing straight out of a science career, you might not know what discipline is your “niche” when you first come in. A good science writing program will help you find out what interests you, for example whether you’re naturally a physics writer or a neuroscience writer. Not many people are renaissance science writers. At the least, you’ll learn which topic to steer well clear of.
Unless you’re not sure you really want to be a science writer, I don’t see any drawbacks to doing a program. (Well, except the internship fair: most science writing masters students will be put through the horrific February internship fair at AAAS. On the up side, it provides an unforgettable and definitive bonding experience with your fellow science writers. My cohort can still put each other in a cold sweat by bringing it up.)
The other downside is cost.
Most science writing programs are two years. The one I went to, Johns Hopkins University, is only one year. This is ideal if you are dead certain you want to be a science writer—you’re not still at the stage of noodling around trying to find yourself. The program’s intensity and quality will make you ready for any place you work afterwards. Our graduates went to IEEE Spectrum, Radiolab, and Nature, among many others. But one year doesn’t give you any time to screw around, and people who aren’t sure about what they really want to do tend to fall out.
The one year program is also an obvious benefit from the cost perspective. But whether it’s one year or two, you can offset or in some cases cancel out the cost by teaching. I taught a freshman introductory writing class. You have to be very careful here to remember that your work is more important than this class. It might be easy to distract yourself from your own (more difficult) work by getting really wrapped up with your lesson plan, but as long as you always prioritize, that won’t be a problem.
There’s also a substantial chance that the cohort of people you went to school with will end up being your best friends for life. So that’s a plus.
Cynthia Graber, print and broadcast journalist and BU grad:
First, about the financial side of school: I was lucky in two regards. I got a fair amount of financial aid to the BU program, and I was already making a part-time salary over the summer and in my third semester (of a three-semester program). So my debt level wasn’t insanely high, though I did of course have to take out loans.
I went to graduate school after working as a writer for environmental groups for a few years in my early 20s. After that, I knew that I didn’t want to write for nonprofits, that I wanted to write in-depth, complicated stories for a lay audience, that I didn’t just want to write about environmental issues. And I felt like going to graduate school would also help give me some credibility and remove the perceived taint of being an advocate. Plus, I’d be able to take time to focus deeply on my writing, while learning how to write about science.
In that, the degree was an incredibly important step in my career. I did, as I planned, focus nearly exclusively on my writing for a year and a half. I learned how to be a better science reporter, a better writer, a more critical reader, a better editor. I learned radio production, and was quickly, and with great luck, catapulted into a job on a national radio show; I’ve now been working (either full- or part-time) in radio for more than 14 years.
For me, the program was certainly a success. It did exactly what I wanted it to – gave me the opportunity to learn new skills, to focus on my writing, to build up credibility. I can’t say that this type of degree program is for everyone. But in my case, I think it was a crucial tool in helping me achieve the career I have today.