Just Write! - Farewell Post
When I initially started graduate school I aimed to be a researcher, but about halfway through my coursework, I felt the call of science communication. I found more joy in the stories behind the research rather than the research itself. I found how these stories can inspire others and allow those who are outside of academia and research to understand who scientists are and what they do. I want to have a career telling these stories and communicating about new discoveries, but I never received clear advice on how to go about that. So, what does it take to be a science communicator?
One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers. As pithy as it may be, it is unhelpful advice for early career science communicators. Purely writing without direction, platform, or audience in mind can lead to burnout and even career stagnation. Establishing a career requires a focused effort and dedicated steps, but for those outside the field, what steps to take can be obscure and unclear. While I certainly am no expert in this field, I thought it might be helpful for someone early in their career to share what they know and their perspective on their next career steps.
First and foremost, if you are interested in being a science communicator, then you should create a portfolio. For those who are unaware, a portfolio is similar to an academic CV, it is a collection of your work, in particular, publications in magazines, blogs, or anywhere else you can get your writing out there. To begin building a portfolio, you will need articles and pieces that you have worked on, which can feel overwhelming to those without very many, or any, pieces. This feeling can be compounded when comparing yourself to more established writers. Some folks even go to portfolio school to get themselves established. So, how does one go about creating the pieces necessary for a portfolio?
I’m kidding. Kind of.
It’s a lot harder than just that.
To get publications for your portfolio, there are many steps to go through. First, you need to consider what kind of science communication you want to do. This is because, at the end of the day, the most important part of your portfolio is the pieces that can get you the kind of work you want to do. For example, if you want to do news articles covering the latest scientific discoveries, then you need to write pieces on recent scientific publications. The pieces that you include in your portfolio should be pieces that you are proud of and are examples of your best work. However, when you’re just starting out you should include all the work that you have regardless of quality. Of course, that begs the question: how do you get these works published?
In terms of places to publish your work before you have experience or a portfolio, you have a few options. Either, you can create your own blog or contribute to a pre-existing, collaborative blog (such as the Undercurrent@EOS!). However, each option has its own quirks. Creating your own blog requires a dedicated amount of time and a considerable amount of effort that relies entirely on you. If you don’t put effort into your blog, then the pieces that you publish there may not come off as professional enough to warrant being added to your portfolio. Taking the time and effort to polish your blog in the early days of your science communication career is well worth it. The benefit to this approach is that you control and have oversight over everything that you publish.
If you take the alternative route of publishing with a collaborative blog, then the creation and upkeep of the blog are already done for you! Of course, you have to do the necessary work of finding a collaborative blog that has similar goals and audiences to the ones that you want. The tradeoff is that your work will likely undergo editing and revision from a collaborator. Additionally, there is the possibility that the blog editors may reject the article idea that you pitch for any number of reasons. Thus, you won’t have the control over your work that you would if you published it on your own. However, publishing with a collaborative blog can bring you a considerably larger audience, and, depending on the blog, you could get paid for your writing.
Naturally, my alternatives suppose that you’re primarily interested in science communication writing, but the general dichotomy of self-publishing vs. small platform publishing applies to many mediums such as podcasts or video clips. The bottom line is that if you decide to self-publish, then be aware of how much work it will take to create and maintain your platform vs. you decide to publish on another platform, then be sure to do the research about the platform and its policies on publishing. I will include some options beyond just the Undercurrent@EOS for collaborative publishing blogs at the end of my post.
Lastly, once you have a portfolio, then where do you go from there? Well, with the major hurdle of creating a portfolio out of the way, you have a wellspring of options. You can apply to entry-level positions, apply for internships/fellowships, or start as a freelance writer. Each is a starting point for launching a science communication career, but each comes with its own considerations.
Applying for entry-level positions requires knowing where to look and what to look for. Generally speaking, most entry-level positions that you’re going to see while job searching aren’t explicitly going to be labeled as “science communicator” but rather as positions like “content writer” or “content strategy associate.” Additionally, many of these positions are not located at bastions of science communication such as national history museums or major zoos/aquariums. Not to say that these institutions don’t have such positions, but rather that it is rare to find these positions open since those who are incumbent are incredibly unlikely to leave. If that’s the case, then where are the entry-level science communicator jobs? One option is to find governmental agencies at the state or federal levels, such as the National Estuarine Research Reserve, who are seeking science writers to help them with social media outreach and other mediums. Another option is in agencies, organizations/companies that are hired to create communication materials for other organizations, typically corporations. Agencies are currently the largest employers of science writers and are typically actively seeking new talent so this is a good place to start. But what about the details of the job posting itself? As our younger readers might know, the bane of those seeking employment is the dreaded “required experience” section of job postings. How can it be entry-level when you require 5 years of experience? The good news is that if you have a portfolio with around 5-10 pieces, then you should feel free to apply to any postings that list 3 years or less as a requirement. This is because generally, employers are willing to overlook a lack of experience in favor of proven, polished work. However, there is a caveat to this. If you are applying to a large-scale company such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, then it is possible that they’re using algorithms or AI to scan applications, which will remove your application if you don’t meet their standards.
Next, applying for internships/fellowships is an excellent way to kickstart a science communication career. Of course, many internships and fellowships require student or recent graduate (typically within a year) status. They can be very competitive, but absolutely career-changing. Often these opportunities will require that applicants have some body of work when applying, but typically the portfolios are not expected to be as large as when applying to jobs. These internships/fellowships connect you to juggernauts of science communication, like NPR and AAAS, and can help get your work on their platforms.
Lastly, starting to work as a freelance writer is a good place to begin a career. Working as a freelance writer can be a nice way to build a portfolio further and establish networks. But how do you find these coveted freelance gigs? There are services such as Catalant or the Freelance Writers Den where you can create a profile and pitch your skills to employers. However, it should be noted that many freelance platforms require a fee to join and that can be prohibitive for many people. These freelance gigs can be approached at nearly any commitment or skill level, but it will require considerable searching. Doing freelancing work can be compatible with those finishing up graduate school or relying on seasonal work to make a living.
Bottom line, there is so much more that goes into starting a science communication career than “just write.” It requires self-reflection, dedication, and hard work. As an early career science communicator, I found all of this advice overwhelming, but invaluable. Without a mentor well-versed in the field or the process of starting a career in this field, I felt lost and directionless. Fortunately, science communication is a small, but friendly field. Many of the folks on hiring committees offered advice and help in order to encourage me, an early-career science communicator. Mentors and guidance can come from even the most unexpected places.
But for those that need a distilled version of the advice that I have, here it is:
Begin creating a portfolio of your work, particularly with pieces similar to what you want to do for a career.
Apply to entry-level jobs, internship/fellowship, or begin freelancing.
After all of this, there’s only one thing left to do.
P.S. This is my final post on the Undercurrent@EOS. It is such a bittersweet moment to see how far this project, that I thought of way back in 2019, has come. I never could have foreseen how many people would contribute to this blog or what impact these articles would have. I'm so proud of what the Undercurrent@EOS has become and hopefully what it will continue to be!
None of this would have been possible without the help of my collaborators, Catie Thow and Allison Adams. Their insight and advice have been invaluable. I will miss working with them and helping others prepare their articles. I will always look back on my time with the Underrcurrent@EOS fondly and hope that it will go on to even greater heights!