Writing and communicating are key skills for a scientist. But what does it take to cross from the lab to the newsroom?
“Don’t go into science journalism! Become a hedge fund manager instead!” advises Roger Highfield, science editor at The Daily Telegraph. “A friend working for a fund bought himself a private jet,” he laments.
Until recently, Highfield’s news desk also sat in the clouds, at 1 Canada Square in Canary Wharf. “Now, we’ve moved to ‘The Hub’, a two-storey cave that houses the Telegraph’s new offices overlooking platform 15 at Victoria station in central London.” I begin to sympathise with his enthusiasm for hedge fund management.
_The Daily Telegraph’s newsroom in Victoria. Photo by Matt Brown _
According to the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), starting pay in science journalism can be as low as £9000–14,000, rising to £25,000–40,000 with experience. Clearly, it is a vocation one does for the love of it, a fact not wasted on some publishers who squeeze pay in real terms each year.
So why do it? The satisfaction of reaching large audiences, interrogating Nobel laureates, the intellectual thrill of tackling Mars rovers one day and genetic breakthroughs the next – there’s nothing quite like the buzz of the fast-paced news world.
But it is also one of the hardest scientific trades to break into. Highfield studied neutron scattering off soap bubbles to earn his PhD in physical chemistry at Oxford. “At the end of my doctorate,” he remembers, “I was faced with the grim choice of limping from postdoc to postdoc, so I decided to try science journalism instead”. After gaining experience through student journalism, he landed a job with Pulse, a doctors’ newspaper. “That’s a good way in because you rub shoulders with national science and medical journalists, and Fleet Street is always poaching people from other magazines.” But, he warns, journalism is not a meritocracy and nepotism is rife.
Everyone has a different tale about how they landed their first job. According to Nicholas Russell, who runs an MSc course in science communication at Imperial College, “There isn’t a prescribed way of getting in. But one way is through a postgraduate course, especially if you are not the most confident person or the luckiest in getting work experience.”
Given the uncertain outcomes and expense of taking the postgraduate journalism route (exceeding £4000 for a masters), consider your aims carefully. If you’re after a reporter’s job, then Highfield argues, “You’ll impress people more if you do a classic vocational journalism course at Cardiff or City University”. He has little time for scicom courses that cram social studies into their curriculum. He suggests that practical courses offered at universities like City, Westminster or the London College of Communication, say about you: ‘I can be a general reporter, but actually, I also have a science background’.
The London College of Communication offers a professionally accredited 15-week postgraduate certificate in periodical journalism. “Our students will have already worked in other disciplines, and often come from scientific and medical backgrounds,” says course director Sue Dawson. “They are looking for a career change or to develop a second career.” At around £1000, the course doesn’t shackle you irrevocably to journalism, and is sharply focused. “The course is hard-headed commercial training in practical areas like reporting, interviewing, feature writing, design, and media law,” she says. “We don’t take romantics.”
Writing vs. writing
All good scientists must be voracious readers, pathologically curious, resourceful, marshal facts and deploy evidence judiciously – skills that journalists use all the time. Scientists also write, but it doesn’t mean they’ll make good reporters. Writing for a large audience is a skill altogether different from writing for other scientists. Catching and retaining the attention of readers is a constant challenge for journalists.
According to Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Guardian and alumnus of Imperial College, “Stories have to be explained in a very short time span. Brevity makes things exciting. With protracted explanation and detail, you bleed readers with every paragraph. And unlike scientific papers, news stories are written back-to-front, starting with the conclusions first.”