Payal Bhatia shares how she became interested in science communication, and how she has started carving out a career for herself in the field.
Guest contributor Payal Bhatia
If I was ever going to leave the lab, it would be to become a full-time science communicator. My first formal piece of science writing was a book chapter I wrote as a PhD. I enjoyed this experience so much that I ended up taking courses at the University of Zurich to improve my writing. This overlapped with a chance meeting Isabel Arnold, editor of the EMBO Journal at the time, who introduced me to the field of science journalism. With my science background, exposure to scientific editing and my passion for writing, I quickly learned that science writing was the career I would love. However, I knew I did not have enough experience to start right away. Employers were looking for candidates with a few years of experience in writing and communication, and when looking at job descriptions, I realized that I was missing a few skills. This gave me an indication on where I could develop and get a foot in the door.
I did some self-reflection and made a plan— a simple outline of what I enjoy writing about, what skills I already have, what resources I can use to gain additional skills and most importantly, if I know someone in the field.
I’m now a couple of months into my plan, and have spent time thinking about all of these things. I’ve learned that I am good at simplifying complex scientific information, but I need to work on writing in different styles and structures, to be able to reach out to a broader audience.
By developing my strategy, it’s made my job search and skill development process a lot easier, and so here I share my tips on how to make it work for you.
As a scientist I know that I am able to plan, prioritize and develop a strategy. For science communication in particular, I know that I will need to write for different audiences, to write in different styles, and write a variety of pieces (reviews, editorials, lay summaries and so on). To improve my knowledge in these areas, I’ve used online educational tools. I also found a very useful tool, which helped me make a personalized development plan based on my skills and interests.
Practice makes perfect
Whatever field you’re looking to go into, find out what skills are needed and spend time developing them. For me, I learned that the only way to write well is to write more. I now actively participate in science writing competitions that have different scopes and audiences. To learn about different styles of writing, I follow blogs from my favourite science writers, editors and journals, and consistently read different style articles.
It’s not just about what you know, it’s also about who you know. Finding a community to network in when you’re new to the field is difficult. I send informational e-mails to people in the field. Many don’t reply, but occasionally some kindly agree to an informal chat or simply sharing valuable advice. I contact bloggers to check if I can write guest blogs, and connect with scientific communicators via LinkedIn and Twitter. I use conferences to meet journal editors, and follow up by sending short e-mails. Career fairs are also perfect for networking; I try to make meeting appointments beforehand, as these are mostly one-day events. I’ve found the American Society for Cell biology (ASCB) a great platform for networking with fellow scientists with similar career interests in science communication.
Showcasing your skills is as important as acquiring them, and therefore, the CV and cover letter are the key documents to work on. I highlight relevant work experiences, how I use networking to create more writing opportunities and any ‘out of the box’ efforts that I make to improve myself for the given role. Before sending out any CVs, I ask colleagues and friends for review and to let them know I am interested in scientific communication.
A combination of the above has led me to writing features for online science magazines and has led to an opportunity to assist two professionals who are developing a scientific writing course (I’ve signed up for courses to improve my own writing too). I am now working on my own blog, and my next step is to find an editorial job!
I know that transitioning into a different career path is challenging and scary, but as you start exploring, you will be pleasantly surprised with how much is available out there. Start early, prepare yourself every day, and stay focused.
Payal is a runner up in the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition. She is also exploring the role of kinases and phosphatases in fission yeast cell division as a postdoc at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. When not at the bench, she likes to cook, learn French and work on her newly born blog, Randomly scientific.