By Chandrika Nair, contributor
At the Naturejobs Career Expo in London last week, I joined in on the session on science communication, which promised to give delegates insider advice on what the jobs involve and tips on how to break into the industry.
On the panel were Jenny Gimpel, senior press officer at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Alok Jha, science correspondent at The Guardian, Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and Chris Tyler, director of the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). Each panelist recounted their journey into science communication and provided expert advice to those wishing to follow in their footsteps.
As a final-year PhD student seriously considering leaving the bench for good, I took great interest in the discussion. Here are my thoughts on the matter.
Hard-working postdocs are let down by academia in its current state. There are too many PhDs and too few permanent academic jobs. The competitive “publish or perish” environment selects for boasters and encourages scientific misconduct. If like me you feel strongly about these issues, or have any other complaints relating to the way science is carried out or portrayed, why not do something about it?
What it takes
Scientific training equips us with many of the tools needed to influence change. Writing papers, drafting grants, presenting posters and giving talks are just a handful of the activities which hone our written and verbal communication skills. We’re also good at researching topics, reviewing evidence, and performing complex analyses to obtain sound conclusions. However, we stereotypically fall short in one important aspect: interpersonal skills.
In order to get a message across, such as our passion for science, we need to connect with others, and crucially, to enjoy this interaction. “Although I love science, what I love to do is speak to people,” says Kukula. We also have to be firm in our communication. Tyler warns that scientists wanting to get into science policy should not “hedge their bets” or be afraid to be hold strong opinions. After all, no matter how good or evidence-based your advice is, it will simply fall on deaf ears if you are unable to influence the people who matter, those who make the final decisions. Empathy is also crucial according to Jha. Science journalists absolutely must have an interest in people if they want to influence public opinion towards science. They should reflect on why, as scientists, they think the way they do – and then attempt to place themselves in the mind-set of their audience.
A career in science communication also involves a lot of hard work, and isn’t as glamorous as you might think, says Kukula: “You have to be prepared to muck in in.” There are numerous tasks that take place behind the scenes, from organising events and inviting speakers, to stacking chairs and checking the microphones. Basically, “making things happen.” Gimpel also warns that those interested in becoming press officers should be prepared to be on call during unsociable hours. In her experience, this can mean giving up your Sunday night and rushing in at midnight to avert a press disaster.
Jha made the point that often people who end up in science communication jobs have already self-selected themselves by seeking out opportunities in their spare time.
So if you feel passionate about science and would like to find opportunities to engage with an audience, why not volunteer at local or national outreach events, engage with schools, write for your university newspaper, or start a blog? Or demonstrate your skills by entering science writing competitions, the Naturejobs columnist competition, and other contests. Or get an internship in science journalism for first hand experience (plenty of tips here).
If your PhD is funded by a research council, you could also check if they run a policy-placement scheme.
For postdocs, the Royal Society organises an MP-pairing scheme and the British Science Association offers media fellowships.
Twitter users can also keep up with the latest news and opportunities by following #scicomm and #scipol.
Chandrika Nair is in the final year of her PhD at Imperial College London, and is one of the winners of the Nature careers columnist competition. Keep an eye out for Chandrika’s work here on the blog and in the Careers pages of Nature magazine.