Working in science communication

Part of my job over the last year has involved giving careers advice to people thinking about working full-time in science communication.

Every case is an individual, but there are some tips I have found myself repeating, so I thought I’d list them here. I also hoped other people might chip in to the comments with anything I’m missing.

So, you want to work in science communication?

  • Are you sure?
  • Really?
  • You’re not under the impression it’s an easy alternative to a research job, without leaving your comfort zone of science? Good, because it isn’t.
  • You want to write? Get a blog.
  • You want to run events? Set one up then.
  • Maybe audio or film is more your thing? You probably have access to basic film or at least audio equipment through your desktop computer, if not your phone. Have a play. Make something.
  • Find others like you to do these things with, or at very least act as an editor and give feedback on your work (and let you edit them – you’ll learn loads from this experience).
  • Student? Join in student media.
  • Researcher? Run a project with your group.
  • Seriously, you’ll learn by doing. Do. Make something.
  • Don’t just produce though, you will also need to become an avid and critical consumer of the sorts of science communication you want to work in. Listen. Read. Watch. Have a look around the NCCPE site. How else can you tell you’re going to contribute something original if you don’t know what’s already occupying the field?
  • Learn the jargon. Make sure you learn what these terms mean and why they are used (i.e. don’t just learn them off to decorate your vocabulary). The amount of jargon in the field can be really annoying, but it will help unlock ideas as well as professional networks.
  • Appreciate the history of work in science communication, including the history of thinking about the issues surrounding it (this post might help, and this reading list). Just because you see problems as yet unsolved, doesn’t mean people haven’t been trying for decades. Their failure to fix things isn’t necessarily because these people are rubbish, it’s hard work that takes a long time. It’s also often that they’ve decided that the real problems aren’t the obvious ones, so have been dealing with other things instead
  • If you’ve worked in science for a while, this may well be useful, but you will need to learn to think outside the little community of your old research field. You will have to starting thinking not only about a range of different areas of science, but a range of different perspectives on it, some of which may well be critical of some areas of science.
  • Read Ed Yong’s collection of ‘origin stories’ for science writers.
  • Brits: have a look through Jo Brodie’s Science Communication jobs site – it’ll give you an idea of the sorts of jobs available in the field and what they are looking for, even if you’re not quite on the job market yourself yet.
  • Look around for small courses run by your university/ funder. These vary a lot, but can be excellent. At the very least, they provide some time to reflect on science communication issues and you should meet other people who are interested in the area, who you can learn from.
  • If you are a UK researcher, you should think about applying for the British Science Association Media Fellowship. If you aren’t a UK researcher, look around for other similar opportunities.
  • Think about one of the MSc courses in the field (for example). You really don’t need one to work in the field (I don’t have one), but it helps. A good one will provide a network of contacts in the field, some chance to reflect on what science communication is and means to society, and where in this world you feel most at home. It will also challenge you to push your thinking and technical skills further than most people can on their own.
  • Join professional groups like the ABSW or STEMPRA and try to attend local meetups (look out for science tweetups in your area, they tend to be full of science communication people).
  • Ask yourself: Are you sure?
  • Really? Ok. Good luck!

13 thoughts on “Working in science communication

  1. kevinorrmanrossiter

    Thanks for the post, I appreciate all your points and will e trying to put them all into practice!

    Reply
  2. notbadscience

    Thanks for the post. As Ed Yong has said, everyone’s road to being a science writer is different. Personally, I didn’t find the course I went on for science writing particularly useful beyond getting me psyched to start writing. It was a good course- I just think starting writing, and learning by reading other’s writing is the best way to get started.

    Reply
  3. Jeanne Garbarino

    Hi Alice:
    Thanks for this post. As a researcher that is looking to make the transition from the bench to scicomm, I have been asking myself these very questions. I actually enlisted the help of those on Twitter and was able to compile a number of resources for those of us in the states (have a look: http://www.science3point0.com/themothergeek/2011/07/23/writing-resources-for-scientists/).

    Also, I’d like to add that it is all hard – whether you want to go into academic research, industry, or science communications. As long as you are determined and are doing it for the right reasons, then success (by some measure) should eventually come. Perseverance is key.

    Thanks!
    Jeanne

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Twitted by kendrasnyder

  5. Hassaan

    Nice post Alice.

    Several years ago, I made the transition from behind a lab bench to science communicator. After a few very intense years as a researcher (arthropod mating systems/evolutionary bio), I attended a molecular biology conference, and while all the talks at the conference were carefully scripted and quite articulate, I had trouble understanding anything beyond the word ‘protein’! Here I was, a biologist, completely lost amongst my peers, albeit mostly cell smashers! That was my epiphany of sorts, one that landed me at Queens University Belfast for a M.Sc. in Science Communication. I have never looked back since. That degree is now offered by Dublin City University – when I took it, Queens and DCU were co-hosts, which was fantastic. http://www.dcu.ie/prospective/deginfo.php?classname=MSC&originating_school=60

    Science Communication is a rich field but one that requires some patience – it is still very much a niche field, although more main stream now compared to a decade ago.

    Reply
  6. firstpharmajob (@firstpharmajob)

    Thanks for a really interesting post. I think it’s important for graduate students to get exposed to alternative careers early and often, especially these days when the academic job market seems to be tightening up. Too often we come to the end of a PhD wondering “what’s next” and are utterly unprepared for the challenges of finding a rewarding career outside the academy. You’ve done a great job here of helping people think through what’s really required to succeed in this field.

    Reply
  7. jobrodie

    Hello – the Science Communications Jobs site now lives at http://scicommjobs.wordpress.com – I moved it when Posterous shut down, everything’s still pinged to Twitter though, at @ScicommJobs. There’s another Twitter feed that’s useful though I’ve no idea who’s behind it, called @CommsJobs

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Setting Sail Toward a Science Communications Career

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