By her senior year as a biology major at Williams College, Laurel Hamers had a revelation. She had been growing disillusioned with research in general, mostly because she didn’t like working with fruit flies—she was sick of the drudgery and the smell—and she was having a hard time choosing a PhD program in biology. In her spare time, she was reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Suddenly she saw a path forward. The moment she finished the book, she ran into her parents’ kitchen and told her mother, “This is it. This is what I want to do with my life. I want to write about science, not do science.”
But where to go from there? “I couldn’t know if science journalism would be a viable career path if I didn’t give it a shot,” Hamers says. She decided it made sense to begin with an internship.
Internships are where many successful science writers learn the craft. Whether your goal is a staff job or a career as a freelance writer, getting to know the nitty-gritty of how publications and institutions work will definitely help you. Through internships, Hamers got a taste for the job and decided that science writing was for her. But first she had to find an internship.
A few key strategies can make the process much easier. You’ll need to know what kinds of internships exist, how to find them, which internship is right for you—and how to convince the editor that you are the intern for them.
So Many, Yet So Different
Science and Nature have long sponsored distinguished internships. Science students and postdocs can apply for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. But there are plenty of internships beyond these well-known options. They’re offered at many magazines and newspapers; at publications run by universities, government offices, and nonprofit organizations; at outlets that specialize in science and at those that do not. Internships generally last from eight weeks to six months. Many organizations offer internships year round.
So how to pick which ones to apply for? It depends on what you want to get out of it. If you want to hone your writing skills, look for an internship that lets interns write a lot of stories. When he was starting out, freelance science journalist Erik Vance was offered an internship at a big-name outlet where interns mostly did fact-checking. He turned it down because what he really wanted to do was to stretch his writing skills on feature stories. So he took an internship at a smaller magazine that would give him that freedom.
“Think really hard about what kinds of stories you want to tell and if the organization is going to be the best fit for your career goals.” ~ Victoria Jaggard, National Geographic
Someone else might want to learn the rigors of fact-checking, and another person might be most interested in the connections to be made at a particular institution or publication. Roberto Molar Candanosa is a native Spanish speaker from Mexico, but by the time he’d finished an undergraduate degree at Texas A&M and done his first year in that university’s Science and Technology Journalism Program, he wasn’t worried about his English skills. Since he’d majored in English, though—not science—he was nervous about doing science writing outside of the classroom. He chose a summer internship at a local cancer center, an experience that would allow him to get familiar with the jargon and the editing process. He struggled a little with the difficult scientific content he had to digest, but, through his internship, he learned not to be intimidated by scientific language.
Like Molar Candanosa, anyone going after an internship should consider what goal an internship can help them accomplish at a particular career stage. “Think really hard about what kinds of stories you want to tell and if the organization is going to be the best fit for your career goals,” says Victoria Jaggard, lead editor of online science news at National Geographic.
Internships can vary widely within one organization. In Jaggard’s department, the interns pitch, report, and write online news on a tight deadline, sometimes publishing as much as a story a day. “It is a faster-paced environment—it gives you a better sense of what a proper, hard-core newsroom is going to be like,” says Jaggard. And, she adds, “It gives you an instant voice and more exposure.”
An intern at the print magazine National Geographic, on the other hand, might mostly work on various aspects of magazine production, including research, reporting, caption writing, and news writing for the website. Jaggard herself interned at the television department of National Geographic when she was an undergraduate student. There, she mostly fact-checked TV scripts. At other news organizations, interns might produce videos or record audio for radio stories.
At Johns Hopkins Medicine, summer interns on the media relations team help cover the activities at the institution’s hospitals and medical school. They might write press releases about new journal articles from the institution’s researchers, identify reporters to pitch, and work on materials that go with the stories, such as tweets, graphics, and videos. The internship can be shaped to the intern’s interests and strengths, says Audrey Huang, director of media relations at Johns Hopkins Medicine. For example, last year’s intern had an interest in international media relations, so she worked on compiling a new list of international reporters.
Surfing between Journalism and Institutional Science Writing Worlds
If your aim is to be a journalist, it’s fine to do an internship in an institution’s news office. Doing so does not affect a budding journalist’s future employability in journalism, says Rob Irion, a freelance journalist and former director of the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Science Communication Program.
On the flip side, institutional news offices also value previous journalistic experience gained through media internships. It has even become common for science writers to work in both spheres at the same time.
Hamers did her first internship in the news office at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a research institution, and her second at the American Institute of Physics, where she also later worked for a year. “I wasn’t really aware, at the time, of the distinction between being a journalist or being a [public information officer], or being something in between,” she says.
Internships Should Pay
Another important point to consider: Not all internships pay, or pay enough to live on. “I was very careful about only applying to paid internships, because I think that even when you don’t have much experience, you are still worth money and you shouldn’t undervalue yourself,” says Hamers.
Internships should be accessible to a wide range of people, and not only for those with certain financial means.
Internships should at least pay enough to cover relocation and living expenses, says Irion. If you’re an undergraduate and at the very beginning of your career, you might be able to accept an unpaid internship if you don’t have to move for it, he says, but “relocating for an unpaid internship is a major money-losing proposition—and it is fundamentally unfair to the student.”
After all, internships should be accessible to a wide range of people, and not only for those with certain financial means, adds Jenny Cutraro, a freelance science and education writer and former coordinator of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) internship fair.
The pay for interns normally ranges from about 10 to 20 dollars per hour. Since most national publications are based in expensive cities like New York or Washington, DC, it can be difficult to make ends meet. (In a less expensive city, lower pay might suffice.) Normally, the pay is not negotiable. But if the internship is extended beyond the original period, it’s acceptable for the intern to ask for a small raise.
Where Are All the Internships Hiding?
Not all internships are widely advertised. “Finding internships is the hardest step,” says Hamers, who approached the task methodically and dug deep to find opportunities. She started by searching in internship lists maintained by graduate programs, such as the Science & Technology Journalism Program at Texas A&M University and the Science Communication Program at UCSC. She then went to the website of each media outlet and organization she was interested in, to find out whether they offered internships. (Most magazines, newspapers, and institutions that offer internships post information about them online, along with contact details for further questions.)
Reaching out to young science writers—even if you don’t know them—is a good way to learn about internship opportunities.
Hamers also found out about internships from friends, from journalists she follows on Twitter, and through science writers’ Facebook groups.
Professional associations can also help. NASW and the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), for instance, include internships in their job listings—although in both cases, these are only available to members. Listservs of these associations can also be a good source of announcements.
Hamers also emailed science writers she admired to ask them about their career experience. Reaching out to young science writers—even if you don’t know them—is a good way to learn about opportunities, since they have done internships more recently and are in tune with internship openings.
Landing an Internship
Most applications require a résumé, cover letter, contact information for references, and writing samples, also known as clips. Irion recommends reading the last six months of stories from any publication where you’re applying for an internship, to understand what kinds of work they publish. “When you write your cover letter or when you do your interview, you need to demonstrate to the editor that you know what he or she is looking for,” he says.
During interviews, be yourself, and be honest about your skills and confident about your abilities.
Clips show what your writing is like. Beginning science writers can get clips by writing for a university newsletter, a local newspaper, an online news site, or their own blog.
Every organization is different, and each looks for specific skills in an intern. Some might only want interns with a strong science background. In the online news department at National Geographic, an intern should have an understanding of the basics of story structure and the nuances of science journalism, Jaggard says. “We want to see that you’ve got the potential to write with a good, clear, strong voice.”
A cover letter is another place to show you can write. This recent blog post from NPR’s education team offers good advice.
During interviews, be yourself, and be honest about your skills and confident about your abilities. “Above all, an intern needs to come in with a willingness to learn, [the] ability to accept constructive criticism when it comes down, and endless curiosity,” says Jaggard. “They may need a little bit more encouragement, but, in a lot of ways, we’re going to treat them like a staff writer.”
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Beyond work skills, internships help build a network that can sustain you throughout your career. As Huang of Johns Hopkins Medicine puts it, “Both interns and mentors can always be assets throughout life, and it’s important to keep those relationships and make sure that you have allies.”
An internship can often be extended, or even become a job, if the organization happens to have an opening at the right time and if you are easy to work with. “If you make yourself indispensable during your few months there, and if everyone really enjoys working with you, the odds are much higher that they’ll ask you to stay,” says Irion. It is always fine to ask recruiters whether a particular internship can lead to a staff position, or to ask where the outlet’s past interns ended up.
Even if an internship extension or permanent job is not possible immediately after your internship ends, keep in touch with your mentors. Huang stays in contact with some of her past interns, and some are in her freelancer pool of contacts. Vance did his first freelance pieces for the outlet he interned for. Also, when organizations have job openings, former interns can be among the top choices—even months or years later—because they are already familiar with the organization’s work and its needs.
Most of the time, an internship does not lead directly to a job, and one client isn’t enough to make a living as a freelancer. A second internship could help expand your network of connections. Joining a local group of science writers is also a good way to meet editors who might be interested in your work. “You have to put yourself out there and be as gregarious as possible,” says Irion.
Good internships open new doors and give access to new opportunities, such as another internship, a job, or even grad school. Hamers’s two internship supervisors wrote her recommendations when she later applied to the UCSC Science Communication Program. She did three more internships during the program and one more, a six-month internship at Science News, afterward. And all her internships paid off; now she works as a staff writer at Science News, which hired her after her internship there ended.
After finishing graduate school at Texas A&M, Molar Candanosa did two different internships at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—and a connection from one of those led to his current job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “I am sure that I wouldn’t be where I am now without my internships,” he says.
Rodrigo Pérez Ortega is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He is a freelance science writer from Mexico City. He’s passionate about neuroscience and health journalism, and has been a contributor at TecReview, Medscape en Español, ¿cómo ves?, and others. His work has been published in English and Spanish, and he works continuously to raise awareness about science and science journalism in Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @.