I was several years into graduate school when I discovered that I could pursue a career in “Science Writing.” I had always enjoyed writing, and wrote a lot both as an undergraduate and during my PhD. Once I realized there was a way to combine my interests in both science and writing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve been working successfully as a science writer for the past few years, and I thought I would share some tips on figuring out whether this field is for you, and how to get into the field.
First, I should mention that science writing is a competitive field, and getting good internships and staff positions can be quite challenging. Getting started in the field can often take a certain amount of patience, hard work and persistence. Also, writing professionally isn’t the same as writing for fun or as a hobby. You have to really like the writing process, and be committed to meeting deadlines and working on edits and revisions until your piece is published. That said, there always seem to be enough opportunities for new science writers, and if it’s what you’re interested in, I think there’s nothing quite like it.
The nice thing about the field is the wide variety of writing and communication opportunities that exist, from writing for very general audiences to very specialized or scientific ones, so you can usually find a niche that fits you. Depending on your audience and the type of writing, you may or may not need to have an advanced degree in science. The field is quite broad, with people working for everything from newspapers and magazines, to scientific journals, non-profits, government agencies, and biotech or consulting companies. And it’s not just about writing. There are many opportunities for using multimedia, including videos or podcasts, to communicate science.
In terms of how to get started, I’ve found the vast majority of science writers to be incredibly helpful with their time and advice. I would recommend talking to lots of science writers, particularly those doing jobs that seem interesting to you. Not only can you get helpful tips about breaking into the field and find out more about the kinds of jobs that are available and what they involve, but it might also help you find out about openings and opportunities when they arise.
You can usually find science writers to contact by asking friends, colleagues, and family, or by joining various science writing organizations. I would highly recommend joining the National Association of Science Writers (http://www.nasw.org/). The NASW website has useful resources and tips for new science writers, and their mailing list is invaluable for finding jobs and internships.
Several regions also have local science writing organizations, such as the Northern California Science Writers Association (http://ncswa.org/) in the Bay Area, the DC Science Writers Association (http://www.dcswa.org/), and Science Writers in New York (http://www.swiny.org/). They organize events where you get to meet many different science writers, and I would also suggest subscribing to their mailing lists, as many jobs/internships will be advertised there.
The other major advice I have if you’re considering a career in science writing is to write as much as you can and to try to get published (even if initially it might mean writing for free). Start a blog/website, and get some practice writing there. Also include your resume and published writing samples (called ‘clips’) on your website, as it makes it easier for editors to look you up. You can try to find websites and blogs that look like they might need freelance writers, and email them asking if you can write for them. Student newspapers/magazines, alumni magazines, and university/institutional press offices are also great places to contact to try to get writing experience or internships.
If you’re still a student and graduating soon, I recommend applying to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, which is an excellent way to get started in the field. Various internships also provide a great way to get more experience and contacts, and if you subscribe to the NASW mailing list you can find out about many of the major ones. The AAAS annual meeting (http://meetings.aaas.org/) also has a yearly internship fair where you can apply for various internships.
For anyone who’s sure they want to pursue a career in science writing after they graduate, I also recommend the Science Communication program at UC Santa Cruz (http://scicom.ucsc.edu/, email: [email protected]), which is where I went after my PhD. It’s very highly regarded in the field and is a great way to get a ton of training, writing/internship experience, and published clips. There are several other good science writing/journalism programs as well (NYU, MIT, and Boston University are other notable ones) and, while I don’t think a degree in science writing is essential, it can certainly make the transition into the field quicker and easier.
I hope this is helpful, do feel free to contact me ([email protected], @sandeeprtweets) with any questions about getting into science writing. If you’re interested in both science and writing/communication, I certainly think it’s a great field to be in!