Many universities now offer master’s programmes in science-related subjects. These can be a great springboard to a new career.
Guest contributor Simon Hazelwood-Smith
There have never been more ways to be employed in science. Today, science is communicated, critiqued, shaped, applied and incorporated into political decisions by a multitude of people who rarely – if ever – set foot in a laboratory. For the organisations that work in these areas, there are tangible benefits to have employees with scientific experience. However, knowing how, when, and if to make the move into these areas is often a challenge for many young scientists.
One way of taking the first step out of the lab is through enrolling in a relevant master’s programme. Increasingly universities are offering courses in subjects such as science policy, science communication and philosophy of science that can provide the skills, knowledge and networks to make the transition smoother.
“Increasingly we have policy engagement and communications roles aimed at candidates with training in science policy or communications,” says Jessica Bland, principal futures researcher at Nesta. “These types of degrees can also be helpful in job areas such as futures and technology policy and challenge prize research.”
This is for good reason. While knowledge of the scientific method and science in general is a good start, these roles require understanding of political processes and effective public communication methods. Science – on its own – is not enough.
Olivier Usher graduated with a master’s degree in history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine at The University of Cambridge, UK, and now works at Nesta’s centre for challenge prizes on the prize funding mechanism, which is an alternative method to stimulate innovation and research by offering prize money to whoever first, or best, meets a defined challenge. The course helped him to look at the big picture of science. “These jobs are about how, why and in what context science is done, not about the details of what’s being discovered.”
This high level perspective on the intersection of science and society can allow graduates to enter a wide variety of positions. James Hynard, a master’s graduate of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University, UK, and now a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust, has seen this first hand: “Friends from my master’s have gone into careers in journalism, museum curation, science policy, and other sectors, as well as onto PhDs or medical degrees.”
I graduated from a science policy MSc 2 months ago, and am now working at Science Practice, a science design company. As part of a team that helps develop scientific products and services, from new ways of visualising genetic or protein data to designing challenge prizes for unsolved scientific or social problems, I get to apply my passion for science in a team with a design-led perspective.
A master’s degree alone may not be enough to make you stand out from other candidates. Adam Smith, a former senior reporter at the science policy magazine Research Fortnight, and now at the Economist, points out that employees often look for further evidence of a committed candidate. “Just the degree is never enough, of course: you’ll also need other proof that you’ve thought about this career option.”
The daily reality of working in these areas involves skills developed outside of master’s programmes. “I know people who work in science policy who know lots about the history of science or science policy, but on a day-to-day basis their education is mostly useful background trivia. On the other hand, having an academic understanding of, say, how past governments have treated science is always useful when looking at the present-day situation.” says Smith.
It can be demanding to gain the credibility that employers are looking for. Without the career structure of traditional science, there has to be other ways of demonstrating capability. “Make sure you do internships, shadowing, short contracts, freelance work – anything that lets you prove yourself,” says Olivier.
I found writing – either in blogs or magazines – about the science policy topics I care about a useful way to get my thoughts in order and to add to my CV. Attending discussions and debates wherever possible made it easy to keep up with current events, and to engage with people working in my area.
The biggest boost, though, was my MSc course. It introduced ways of looking at science and innovation that I had never considered before, and gave me the space to discover the aspects that really inspire me. It gave James Hynard an understanding of the issues that employers in this sector are deeply engaged with, such as diversity in science and open-access publishing.
For those considering applying, Olivier’s opinion is to “Go for it! They’re interesting, varied and intellectually stimulating courses, and good preparation for the jobs that pop up in these areas.”
Simon is a Researcher at Science Practice. He has an MSc in science and technology policy from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. His background is in genetics, having previously worked as a research assistant in the Division of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at King’s College London.