If You Want to Become a Science Writer, Then You Have to Write
As a Senior Science Writer for a Harvard chemistry research group, a big part of my day job consists of reading primary articles, discussing research projects with group members, and writing and editing manuscript drafts. In other words: I get to nerd out on science and then help students write about that science clearly.
This job is perfect for me. From the outside it may appear that I serendipitously stumbled upon just the right job at just the right time. Looking back, though, I can see that this was no accident. I brought myself here through a series of small, but purposeful, choices.
I gave myself permission to nerd out on all the things in college.
As an undergraduate college student, I knew that I was interested in both science and in the humanities. So I majored in neuroscience and minored in the humanities (granted, I chose the Medical and Scientific Humanities track). I absolutely loved it. In a typical week, I spent the morning learning about how brains form and prune synaptic connections and in the afternoons, I analyzed the many themes and lessons of Charles Dickens' Bleak House or debated the ethical issues surrounding medical and scientific research with my peers. "I didn't force myself down a single path. Rather, I gave myself permission to nerd out as hard as I wanted to in both disciplines.
As my college graduation date rolled nearer though, I started to feel the pressure to plan my next steps. What profession would possibly allow me to combine my love for science and for writing into one? Having explored both disciplines as an undergraduate, I realized that I valued both of them equally. Retrospectively, the answer seems obvious: become a science writer. But it wasn't quite that simple for me because I wanted to actually train as a researcher before attempting to write about it. This desire to train as a scientist is ultimately why I personally decided against Masters in Science Writing programs (these are absolutely the right choice for some people, but it wasn't for me). I figured that the best case scenario for me would be to train as a scientist and then learn to communicate and write about that science effectively after I felt sufficiently comfortable with the science itself.
There's no way I could have known that over a decade later I would be working full time as the Senior Science Writer for a research group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
I didn't immediately jump into a graduate training program.
After I graduated with my bachelor's degree in neuroscience, I decided to take some time to work at the bench to gain some more research experience (and also to give myself some more time to thoughtfully reflect on my career path before committing to a multi-year graduate or medical training program). I packed my bags and flew to Bethesda, Maryland for a job as a post-baccalaureate behavioral biologist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
I was surrounded by other young professionals at a similarly transient stage of their professional lives. I gave myself the time and space I needed to explore my interests more fully without committing to anything I wasn't whole-heartedly ready for. Instead, I embraced temporary career uncertainty in favor of getting to know myself, my mind and my interests a bit better.
And boy, did I get to know myself. The longer I worked in the lab, the clearer it became that I was more interested in the why and how of science (research) and less interested in the direct (clinical) application of our research findings. As a plus, I learned about "altac" careers; I learned that a PhD could be used for more than academic research. I met individuals who had PhDs and were working as consultants, writers and analysts. This built-in flexibility put me at ease. Ultimately, I chose to pursue my scientific interests and committed to graduate school, knowing that I wasn't shoehorning myself into any particular career by choosing this path.
I started building a writing portfolio, early on.
While at the NIH, I made time to volunteer as a writer for science organizations and publications, wherever and whenever possible. I didn't do this because I knew for sure that I wanted to do science writing (I didn't) but because I knew I was still potentially interested in exploring this path. And I knew one thing: those who are interested in making writing a full time career must. write. as much. as possible.
At first, I did a whole lot of volunteer (unpaid) writing. I worked as a volunteer writer for the Washington Wire - the digital publication for the Association of Women in Science and I worked as a volunteer correspondent at the NIH Radio. By the time I started my graduate studies in neuroscience at the University of California Davis, I already had a small but notable science communications portfolio to speak of. Volunteer writing isn't the only way to build a portfolio. If you're looking to start or add to your portfolio, I strongly encourage pitching to publications and connecting with companies who hire freelance talent.
I wrote even when it wasn't required of me.
While graduate school provided me with a somewhat fixed path to follow (develop a project, collect data, write, graduate), my forays into science writing were more unstructured. I didn't have a program to follow. I just did my best to write whenever I could, even when it wasn't mandatory. For instance, I wrote this post about a lecture I attended at the Behavioral Health Centers of Excellence (BHCOE) at UC Davis. My main goal in writing this post was to simply practice my science writing skills and revive my blog. I was pleasantly surprised when the BHCOE team took notice of my post and requested that I cover future events for them. I ended up hosting a Twitter chat for their daylong Science Informing Policy Symposia. Key stakeholders will be tuning in, they impressed upon me - including the director of NIMH himself. Had I not committed to simply writing more, this opportunity would have never presented itself to me. It was an early and valuable lesson in the importance of putting yourself out there as a writer. Then Society for Neuroscience (SfN) 2015 happened. I met with the founder of Maze Engineers at the vendor booths and introduced myself in person after we'd connected online. "So you write?" he asked, "it's about time someone paid you for writing." He was right. This was a turning point in my freelance science writing career. For a good year or so, I wrote for the Maze Engineers blog about rodent mazes, behavioral apparatuses and animal research. I did this while wrapping up my graduate studies. At the same time, I continued to blog on my own personal account.
I blogged about the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Presidential Lecture by Nobel-prize winning scientist, May-Britt Moser. The blog post wasn't quite the New Yorker level caliber I wanted it to be - but it didn't matter. At that point, I was focused on simply writing more and more and more. A couple weeks later, May-Britt Moser emailed me (!!) to say that she had read and enjoyed my blog post. She then offered me the opportunity to write about their institute's research for the annual report (for pay!). Writing annual reports for the Kavli Institute of Systems Neuroscience was one of the most rewarding science writing experiences I've had to date. And it would have never happened if I had not taken the time to write and publish on my blog. If I hadn't forced myself to write and hit publish, I would have missed out on one of the most formative science writing experiences of my career.
I never stopped learning from other experts.
Last, but certainly not least, I have always made sure to take every single opportunity to learn from the experts. I've sat in on writing classes, workshops and training events every possible chance I got. Joining the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has been a great way for me to connect with veterans in the industry across all sectors (ppst, they also have a jobs board for members). If you're curious about science writing as a career and/or simply want to improve your skills as a science communicator, I highly recommend the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and the Alan Alda Communication trainings (and I would be happy to chat with you about either of these if you have any questions).
I was ready to jump.
A little over a year into my post-doc and nine months after my twins were born, I took a good long hard look at my professional goals. Rather than deciding to continue doing research at the bench and engaging with science writing on the side, I decided I was finally ready to jump into science writing as a full-time career. And I was equipped to do so. I had the experience, the writing samples, and the demonstrated drive and capabilities. When it comes to setting yourself up for a writing career, there's no way around it: you have to write. Often. I didn't end up in my current job as a science writer by accident. I ended up here because I practiced my skills consistently, over time, and had something to show for it. If you are thinking about writing in the future whether part-time or full-time, freelance or in-house there is only one thing you HAVE to do: write. as much. as possible.
I thought about writing this blog piece like one of those quizzes that used to be on the back pages of Seventeen and Cosmo where each question would offer several answers of varying point levels and you'd pick one answer per question, tally up your points at the end, and match your score to one of several possible results.
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