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So You Want to Be a Science Writer (For Science Grad Students)
By Anna Funk
Well, hello there! I see you’ve come seeking answers to a question, like the many before you who have heard the tale of the absolutely miserable graduate student who somehow weaseled her way into an assistant editor position at a national science magazine within 6 months of her defense. How did she do it?
Well, I have bad news for you: She got really, really lucky. I mean, talk about the stars aligning for me. I jumped ship by route of the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship (more on that in a sec). Since it’s a summer program for science grad students, and my research revolved around summer field seasons, I couldn’t apply till I was done with my fieldwork. So I really only had one summer (right after my defense) that it was even an option for me. And I got it. Lucky me!
Then, I got placed at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, despite my ranking it as my last choice (no joke! I didn’t know any better) on my application. And it turned out, the Discover magazine office is in Waukesha, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee. And it turned out when the magazine moved there in 2012 from NYC, the whole staff quit (lol, Wisconsin haters) and so the replacement staff came from the Milwaukee area’s best and brightest, i.e., lots Journal Sentinel alums. This meant that all summer in the MJS newsroom, everyone couldn’t stop talking about how I needed to talk to their friends at Discover, and especially the editor-in-chief, who once upon a time was a copy editor in the very newsroom in which I now sat.
Then one day!!! A beloved reporter-friend comes by my desk and says to me, “You know who you should talk to?” Yes, I do. I have this conversation daily. “Well, I don’t mean to be presumptuous — I don’t know what your plans are after this internship is over, or if you want to stay in science writing…” Reader: I had no plans. I wanted to stay in science writing. “… but I just got off the phone with the editor-in-chief of Discover. I talked you up. And she’s hiring. She’s expecting to hear from you if you’re interested.”
Fast forward a few weeks, and I had the first permanent position of my whole life.
Why am I telling you this impossible story? So that you know it’s an impossible story. Sorry about it. But, I can still give you my advice, from a science writer to science grad students, on what might be helpful.
Apply for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship
I can’t stress this enough. If you are able, apply. Apply early in your grad career so if you don’t get it, you can apply again.
The program is specifically geared for grad students, in the sciences, who are not journalists. You do not need media experience (I didn’t) to get this. AAAS puts together a brilliant crash course on how journalism works and then drops you in a newsroom for some real-life experience that you really couldn’t hope to get so easily any other way. The work you do that summer — your “clips” with your byline, at the outlet you’re placed at — are your foot in the door for whatever you might want to do next. This is the fast-track.
Write often, for practice. Write often, because you like it. Don’t you?
Sometimes people ask me about science writing as a career, but I think they’re just curious about non-academic-research career options in general. Sometimes I ask in reply, what kinds of things do you write? And if they haven’t written a bunch of random blog posts just for fun, I’m skeptical that writing is their passion.
Blogs are everywhere. I don’t know who reads them, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Some journals have them these days. Lots of programs and departments and institutes and biological stations have them. When I was a grad student, I’d get a lot of calls for writers in my inbox: “grad students, please write a blog post for us, so we can highlight your work for our donors/alums/taxpayers/whomever!” Do them the favor, and get the practice.
Have you thought about starting your own blog? Even if nobody reads it, a blog is great practice for finding your voice. Besides, practice makes perfect. Whether you’re just musing about whatever, or writing about your own work, or straight up practicing writing news articles where you interview your friends about their work … anything is better than nothing, no? And if this sounds like too much work, and not the most funnest superfun way to procrastinate ever (like how much fun I’m having right now, writing this fun post!!!), maybe you don’t actually love writing. That’s fine, there are other options for you.
Know you’ll have to work your way up
Any schmuck with an email address can send a note to an editor of any news outlet (that hires freelancers) and pitch their story idea. (Schmucks who may be reading this: Please don’t, though, as editors’ inboxes are full enough as it is.) But to actually get commissioned is another story.
Science editors at major outlets are looking for clips, and clips that are relevant. (Again, clips are your articles that you’ve gotten published.) They’re looking for clips at other major science news outlets (or general outlets, but stories that are about science).
Sadly, your experience as a scientist doesn’t matter (though it can be a bonus.) This means you can’t pitch a story about some neuroscience finding and say “I’m a grad student in neuroscience, so I’m a good person to write this.” Sadly, knowing neuroscience does not make you a good writer or a good journalist. You’ve gotta prove you’re the latter to get hired as a journalist.
Of course, this creates the well-known “You have to have experience to get hired to do this thing. But you can’t get experience because no one will hire you because you don’t have experience” problem. What to do?
What to do is to work your way up. There are a lot of outlets out there. Your first published story ever probably won’t be in National Geographic. Go ahead, get some clips in some crappy outlet that you’ve never heard of! Then use those clips to get a story in a slightly bigger and better one. Then your next story can be in a bigger and better one. And so on, and so forth. Think of it as parallel to the scientific journal hierarchy — your first paper won’t be in Science, and that’s OK. Gotta start somewhere.
Read, a lot
The best way to get familiar with science writing is to read a lot of good science writing.
Did anybody ever really teach you to write a scientific paper, or did you just read 1,000 of them and then had to write one one day? That’s what I thought. Read, read, read.
Get familiar with the structure and tone of different types of articles. Know your favorite writers and favorite outlets. Know the difference between the New Yorker and New York Times, and Washington Post and Huffington Post. Know the media landscape.
Don’t quit your day job
Let’s assume for a second you don’t get the AAAS MMF and you haven’t landed some other internship that’ll get your foot in the door in the media realm. Can you just … start pitching stories to outlets (i.e. become a freelancer)? Technically, yes. Practically, no.
If you’re seriously going to teach yourself how-to-journalism, that’s not going to happen overnight. Read some books, talk to some people. Read every single thing on The Open Notebook. Take some journalism classes at your grad school if you can (bonus points if you can find some on science journalism specifically).
Unless you’re independently wealthy or have a rich partner willing to support you, I’d recommend easing into things. Work on getting those first few clips under your belt (the hardest part) and really internalizing how little money you made from them (sorry) before you give up your steady paycheck.
Honestly, I’m not the best person to comment on this, since I was lucky enough to get my start without freelancing. But, I know how important clips are for getting assignments, and I know how hard it is to get clips without getting assignments, so it just makes sense.
Don’t quit grad school (or do)
I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me if you should quit grad school, but here we are! It’s a highly personal question, and I think the answer has no relevance to your potential future career as a science writer. My questions for you are: How miserable are you, how far along are you, and how will you support yourself financially if you quit?
I can tell you that having a Ph.D. won’t earn you any extra money as a science writer. I can tell you that you won’t have “Dr.” on your byline. You can put it in your email signature and in your Twitter profile if you want, but that’s about all it gets you.
I’m glad I have my Ph.D., because I learned a lot, and honestly, I think I’d be mad at myself for quitting. But you gotta do what’s best for you.
Don’t (necessarily) quit your science program and start a journalism program
This is purely my personal opinion, of course. But I think it’s way easier to pick up journalism as a scientist, than vice-versa. I am likely biased since I think I have some combination of a natural talent for writing (ew, sorry I just said that) and background from a really solid public school district and undergrad institution that both taught writing really, really well (this particular run-on sentence notwithstanding.)
That said, if you’re struggling to get started, a journalism program might really help. You’ll get mentors who know what they’re talking about and are invested in teaching you and giving your feedback on your writing. I think if you’re not lucky enough to be blessed with an MMF slot, and if you’re not much for self-guided learning and lots of struggle (hm, sounds like science grad school), maybe a master’s in science writing (or a related field) is a solid choice.
BUT! Unlike your science program which, I hope, is paying you, enrolling in a master’s in science journalism program is likely going to cost you big tuition bucks. It’s a different grad school setup. So even if you do decide it’s worth the investment, be aware it’s an expensive investment.
Anna Funk is a freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City. After earning a Ph.D. in prairie ecology, she started her journalism career as a AAAS Mass Media fellow at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, followed by 2 years as editor at Discover magazine. She now covers health, science, and the environment for local and national outlets, does freelance marketing and communications work, and has too much fun writing her email newsletter about her garden, The Funkyard. Follow her on Twitter @DrAnnaFunk or get in touch at itsdrfunk.com.