Young scientists wanting a closer connection with the public can turn to science writing.
Ari Shapiro thought he was going to become a scientist. Currently, he is writing up his PhD thesis in biological oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But he feels he hasn’t done what he wants to do in life.
“I like research, but I also like to tell stories, listen to others and then interact,” says Shapiro. “I also love learning about all sorts of science.” To Shapiro, academic research is very focused compared to the range of fields he could delve into as a journalist, so he’s decided to try his hand at science journalism.
The field of science writing has come into its own in the past few decades as the public and the media have become more interested in the latest developments in science, medicine, and technology. Scientists and funding agencies are also realizing the importance of communicating the latest research findings to the public. This opens up career opportunities for young scientists who enjoy writing and learning about other fields.
Newspapers, magazines, websites, broadcast outlets, universities, foundations, museums, industry, government, and other research institutions all hire science writers to communicate research, free of jargon, to a general audience. Having a science background and experience in the lab can help, but being curious, asking thoughtful questions, and writing in a clear, concise, and compelling way while meeting deadlines are key to success in this career.
A writer’s life
Science writing involves identifying newsworthy and timely topics of interest to a broad group of people, reading the scientific literature and attending science events, interviewing scientists and other experts, and interpreting and distilling that information into language that’s understandable to nonexperts. Deadlines depend on the publication, ranging from a single day for a short news story to a few weeks for a longer magazine piece.
Many writers work for universities or other research organizations as public information officers, writing press releases and other material and interacting with the media. Salaries start at $40,000 a year and go as high as $100,000.
A large number of writers are self-employed, writing for a variety of clients, from magazines and news websites to research centers. They typically are paid less than salaried writers; their income depends on the rate each client pays per word or per article and on how prolific the writer is.
A smaller number of writers are employed by newspapers, magazines, and the broadcast media. Starting salaries range from around $20,000 at smaller newspapers to $30,000 or higher at larger ones, and experienced science writers and editors at major newspapers can make $60,000 or more, according to the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Magazine staff writers may make more, ranging from $40,000 to $100,000 or more. Web salaries start at around $35,000, while those in radio and television start at $20,000 and can go up to $100,000 or more for experienced writers.
Making your move
Before switching into a writing career, it’s important to experience the job first-hand through internships, fellowships, writing courses, or freelance writing. Arriving at a job interview with a stack of published stories, or “clips,” in hand is a must. Ari Shapiro plans to apply for a National Public Radio internship and for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program.
Before leaving her PhD studies in ecology and evolution, Jenny Cutraro, a freelance science writer in Somerville, MA, took a science-writing course at Purdue University and interned at the university’s news office. “I realized in grad school that I’m a big-picture person, and science writing fit better,” says Cutraro. Her first press release was picked up by The New York Times for a news story, which boosted her nascent career.
Cutraro stopped her PhD work at Purdue and later entered the science journalism program at Boston University. After the first semester, she quit when she was offered a job at Houghton Mifflin, a publishing company in Boston, to work on a middle-school biology book.
While it isn’t necessary to return to school to become a science writer, learning the methodology of reporting and writing and making contacts can make the career transition easier. There are 46 science communication programs and courses in the United States, two of which are in Boston: the three-semester program at Boston University and a one-year program at MIT.
What it takes
A good science writer needs to read broadly and write regularly, says Douglas Starr, co-director of the BU program. Many scientists-cum-writers might feel compelled to write in diaries or blogs or for school newspapers while doing their research, while others may find themselves talking to their colleagues about what their work means.
One of the most important skills is the ability to sense what kind of story would appeal the most to non-scientists, says Boyce Rensberger, a faculty member with the MIT program, who studied to be a marine biologist before working as a reporter and editor at The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Both Starr and Rensberger acknowledge the field of science journalism is in transition. Traditional science sections in newspapers are shrinking or disappearing and seasoned journalists are leaving. “I tell students that some news organizations are getting rid of older, more expensive people and replacing them with younger, cheaper people,” Rensberger says. “And there’s a fair bit of hiring by Web organizations.”
For young scientists who’ve made the jump, science writing can yield rewards. “I haven’t looked back,” says Cutraro. “I have an insatiable curiosity, and I’m learning something new every day.”
Further information about science writing
Lori Valigra is a graduate of the Boston University science journalism program and has been awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT for mid-career journalists, among others. NNB editor Corie Lok is also a graduate of the Boston University science journalism program and was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow.
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