We science writers are so lucky to have a site like The Open Notebook working overtime to make us the best science writers we can be. Yes, it’s extremely important to carefully nurture our craft, so that we can use those skills … in some other line of work. Any other line of work. I mean, I’m just joking. Of course I’m joking. Still, let’s just say a person was not totally 100 percent joking about switching fields. What other work is a science writer suited for?
I asked my friends about their Plan B. Several dream of a second career beyond the computer screen—like mail carrier or Home Depot plant waterer. The retail-oriented suggest a tea shop and a yarn store. (Perhaps the two could go in together?) Then there’s shoveling poop at the zoo, thinker at a think tank, research librarian, novelist and running an environmentally friendly cemetery.
In a twist on The Open Notebook’s more usual fare, I sought out some folks who’ve moved on from science writing (or, in some cases, other branches of journalism) to find out where they’ve landed. I didn’t hear about any mail carriers, but here’s a sampling of what I found. Take inspiration from these pioneers as you think about your own Plan B.
David Glenn had thought about going into nursing before he was hired at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he covered social sciences and faculty life. So it was always in the back of his mind, and after almost a decade getting to know a teeny bit about a lot of fields, he thought he’d like to specialize. “And of course I was also driven to nursing for the usual reasons—wanting to be useful, wanting to be close to people in hours of need,” he writes in an e-mail. The money isn’t as good, but he likes the schedule—three 12-hour shifts per week, which frees up four days for “parenting, reading and writing.”
- Writer skills: Putting people at ease. Taking notes. Organizing information.
- What’s different: “There’s no procrastination in nursing.”
Seven or eight years ago, Alix Wall was getting burned out on journalism. So she turned to a career where the burning is literal: cooking. She went to cooking school and started working as a personal chef, mostly for busy families, people going through cancer treatment, and new parents. “Cooking can be physically exhausting, just being on your feet that long,” she says. After a couple of years cooking full time, she started to miss writing and now splits her time.
- Writer skills: “Gosh … I can’t really think of any.”
- What’s different: The physicality. Plus “It uses totally different parts of my brain.”
Susan Chollar calls teaching chemistry to eighth graders “the most creative job I’ve ever had.” In about 15 years as a freelancer, she did a lot of health and psychology writing for national magazines, but rarely felt like she was part of a bigger project. In 2001, she decided to get her teaching certificate. At Aptos Junior High School in California, she’s part of a team, she says. But she’s also independent, coming up with engaging, creative ways to make science come alive for the kids. “We’re really moving in an interesting direction in our science education right now,” she says—away from facts and toward teaching kids to think like scientists. “It’s an exciting time to be in education, and it’s way overdue.”
- Writer skills: Writing: curriculum, handouts, labs.
- What’s different: Instant feedback from the audience. “In the classroom, you know right away whether they’re getting it or not.”
Pat Barry worked at Science News in Washington before moving to San Francisco, intending to freelance. But soon his “dorky” hobby—developing apps for the iPhone—turned into a freelance gig, then a job, then another job. Now he works for Lumosity, making games that are meant to improve cognitive function. “It’s funny how some of my background doing science journalism has helped me,” he says. “They preferred to hire people who had some sort of an interest in science and neuroscience.”
- Writer skills: Attention to detail and accuracy. Keeping the reader’s—or user’s—point of view in mind.
- What’s different: Programming involves a lot of math—like manipulating matrices and analyzing algorithms.
Health Policy Nerd
In 2006, then-freelancer Anna Gosline cofounded the now-defunct online science magazine Inkling. In 2010, looking to go deeper into the health issues she was covering, she started a master’s in public health. Now she works for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, trying to figure out how to make healthcare more affordable. Like when she was a science writer, she has to get her head around complex issues and figure out how to communicate them. “I spend a lot of time with the actuaries now, which is awesome because they’re like the scientists,” Gosline says. “I feel like I’m a journalist again.”
- Writer skills: “At my grad school, everyone was so excited because people with communication skills are, like, these rare animals.”
- What’s different: Understanding how things get done in a political world.
In 2009, Pat Curry was a senior editor at a trade magazine and her husband John was a photo editor at a newspaper in Athens, Georgia. Then they both got laid off. She continued as a freelancer; he got another job, and also launched a bit of an internet business based on his hobby, roasting coffee. After his second layoff, he switched to coffee full time. They expanded the business, and last year they opened a coffee and espresso bar. Pat’s still freelancing, while also working at the coffee bar and helping out at events.
- Writer skills: “The people skills necessary to be a journalist have been very helpful,” Pat writes. “You have to be outgoing to run a coffee bar.”
- What’s different: Figuring out how to run a business, although Pat had a head start—she specialized in small business operations as a journalist.
Writer and Researcher
Ask Phil Cohen, formerly of New Scientist and the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, what he’s doing now, and you’re likely to get a long pause. “Everything I do is subject to non-disclosure,” he says. But after half an hour on the phone and a check by e-mail that he hadn’t accidentally told me something too revealing, I can say this: He works for corporate and private clients, including investment banks and biotech companies. He does research on, say, a particular industry or a corporate client, then writes up a white paper or something. How did he find this secret work? “I just answered job ads that looked interesting.”
- Writer skills: “The confidence you have to call up someone and get information from them is useful in every context.”
- What’s different: He does deeper research now, including data analysis—and for a much smaller audience.
Children’s Book Author
After Katy Kelly’s mother mentioned that she’d started filling her dog in about the schedule for the day, Kelly sat down at the computer and typed, “My grandmother thinks her dog can tell time.” That became the book Lucy Rose: Here’s the Thing About Me. Before she went full time writing about kids, Kelly worked at People, USA Today, and U.S. News & World Report. She describes children’s book writing as “the worst get-rich-quick scheme ever” but says, now that she has nine books in print, the royalties are about as much as the salary at her last job.
- Writer skills: Knowing your audience. Working in graceful explanations of new vocabulary.
- What’s different: “There are things that eight-year-olds think are hilarious that most adults do not. Farts, for instance.”
It’s OK. We know you were totally just kidding about quitting science writing. But if the idea of quitting does rear its inconceivable head again, keep this reassuring fact in mind: While it may seem perfectly normal to you to be able to talk to strangers and write coherent sentences, in another field these skills could seem rare, thrilling, and worth paying for.
Also, I hear the postal service is hiring.
Helen Fields is a freelance science writer who lives in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Discover, and many other places. She has no Plan B, so please keep giving her work.