Things to consider if you’re thinking about working in the field of science communication.
Contributor Samuel Brod
“A full house”, someone muttered as a besieged looking member of staff rushed out extra chairs for the hundreds of researchers filtering their way into the auditorium. Sci-comm, as it’s often termed, seemed a hot topic this year. A panel at the London Naturejobs Career Expo on September 19th, 2014 asked the question: What is science communication? The panelists were Steve Palmer, Cancer Research UK; Jonathan Sanderson, StoryCog; Greg Foot, BBC; Celeste Biever, Chief news editor for Nature. Chair: Julie Gould, Naturejobs.
The talk began with the panelists describing their current jobs and how they’d found them, followed by a more general discussion around pursuing a career in science communication. On stage, the panel was at ease and their comments often induced laughter from the crowd, not out of politeness but genuine amusement. Within the audience, there was a definite sense of expectation–it seemed that they were waiting for answers.
Ultimately, many may have left that day with more questions than answers on the topic of science communication. (“It was good. I think,” said the person next to me at the session’s end, frowning slightly. “I need to think about it a bit more.”) Perhaps the panelists were most clear in describing what science-communication — as a career and a concept — definitely was not:
‘Science communicator’ is not a well-defined job
The panel consisted of a television presenter, film director, news editor, press officer and a blogger — very different roles, yet all science communicators. Communication, of course, has many different purposes and audiences. To find a place in this complex job landscape, the panel suggested that you must define your own niche. As Gould put it, “You’ve got to understand what you’re like as a person and what drives you. That will help you decide what career is suitable for you and where you will excel.”
Science communication has no set career path
“I drifted into it.” “I fell into it”. “I stumbled into it”.
None of the panelists began their careers knowing that they would end up as science communicators. Unlike academia, with its established progression from PhD to post-doc and beyond (if you’re lucky), positions in science communication seem highly fluid. Each person described obtaining their jobs through a combination of providence, networking and a persistent passion for explaining science to others.
Science Communication is not an easy career…
I’ve met several scientists who regard science communication as a soft option, the easy alternative for those who can’t hack the daily grind of research. Palmer quashed this idea, describing his role as head of press at Cancer Research UK as “a 365 days a year job. If someone calls me on Christmas day, then I’m on the phone and we’re talking about cancer… Its live, it’s constant and you have to deal with that pressure all the time”.
Sanderson emphasized that “not everybody is a natural communicator. It’s good to acknowledge that — and every single person has to work on it. It’s a craft. It’s a skill you need to learn.”
…Or a stable one
Foot’s discussion on his life as a freelance science presenter made working in academia seem comparatively secure. “I have no idea where I’m going to be in five years’ time…it’s a challenge for any science communicator. How much stability do you want? Do you know your career path or are you happy to go whichever way the wind takes you?”
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the future of the news industry is still highly uncertain. With increasingly fewer jobs available for beat journalists, specialist science writers in this industry are in precarious situations in terms of job security.
If the uncertainties don’t put you off, the panel agreed there’s a lot of opportunity out there. The key tips I gleaned were:
Find your place. Science-communication encompasses a dizzying array of jobs . It’s up to you to find (or create) what you’re best suited to. Science Writer Carl Zimmer (not present at the talk) has some excellent tips on this subject.
Hone your skills. This could be as simple as starting a blog or you could take the plunge with formal training in Sci-Com. The panel agreed that such a qualification “isn’t necessary but it certainly helps”. Sanderson pointed to programmes run by Imperial College London, the University of West England and Northumbria University but also advised thinking carefully about the qualification that best matches your own interests “Look very closely at journo courses. Look also at teaching qualifications and think why they may or may not suit you.”
Network.In a field as diffuse as science communications, building a solid group of contacts is vital. Each speaker stressed the importance of good networking, with Foot suggesting to “keep a little black book of contacts, see where people go, and touch base with them in the future.”
Just do it! – Greg Foot put it best: “Science communication is so open, you can just go do it. If you’re interested in it, start now, blog some bits, make a little film. There’s so many things you can do. Just give it a go, chuck it out there”.