Unsolicited Advice: Becoming a Science Communicator

Everyone who does science inevitably has “communicating” as part of their job description, even if they’re only communicating with their students and professional colleagues. But many people start down a trajectory of becoming a research scientist, only to discover that it’s the communicating that they are most passionate about. And some of those people might want to take the dramatic step of earning a living doing such communication, whether it’s traditional journalism or something more new-media focused.

So: how does one make the transition from researcher to professional science communicator? Heck if I know. I do a lot of communicating, but it’s not my primary job. You’d be better off looking at this thread from Ed Yong, where he coaxed an impressive number of science writers into telling their origin stories. But lack of expertise has never stopped me from offering advice!

First piece of advice: don’t make the tragic mistake of looking at science communication as a comfortable safety net if academia doesn’t work out. Not only is it an extremely demanding career, but it’s one that is at least as hard as research in terms of actually finding reliable employment — and the career trajectories are far more chancy and unpredictable. There is no tenure for science communicators, and there’s not even a structured path of the form student → postdoc → faculty. Academia’s “up or out” system can be soul-crushing, but so can the “not today, but who knows? Maybe tomorrow!” path to success of the professional writer. It’s great to aspire to being Neil deGrasse Tyson or Mary Roach, but most science communicators don’t reach that level of success, just as most scientists don’t become Marie Curie or Albert Einstein.

Having said all that, here are some tips that might be worth sharing.

First: there’s no need to wait. If you think/wonder/suspect that science communication might be for you, then start communicating! Dive into the ecosystem that already exists online, and start participating in the conversation. The good news is, the internet revolution has greatly multiplied the ways one can be a working “science communicator.” The bad news is, it has greatly the diminished the number of traditional science-journalist staff jobs at newspapers and magazines and TV/radio outlets. But, you know, chaos is a ladder. Find the intersection of your passions and your talents with what people might somehow pay you to do, and get cracking.

At the very least, you need a Twitter account, and you should start following (and responding to, and retweeting) some scientists/communicators you think are interesting. And of course adding your own voice! It can be overwhelming, but here are some lists of folks on Twitter (of course with my obvious physics bias):

And there’s a whole “Social Networking for Scientists” wiki. One simple tip: don’t just read, participate. Leave comments on blogs, respond to people on Twitter, make your presence felt. That will make other people much more likely to notice and link to your stuff once it starts appearing. And if that’s too much to take in, look at my lovely wife Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant), who does Twitter as well as anyone.

Next step up in commitment: start a blog. I pay for my own web host (which is great, since you can use it for multiple purposes), but it’s easy to start up a blog for free in a matter of minutes:

Start typing away. Read other blogs (you can subscribe via a reader like Feedly, and find links to new blogs on Twitter). A few of my favorites, with widely-varying styles:

Write about what you’re passionate about or momentarily think is interesting. If nothing else, blogging is a great writing laboratory: you can figure out your own style, as well as what kind of things you are interested in. If anyone actually reads your blog, that’s a bonus!

It might, of course, turn out that you try Twitter or blogging and find it’s just not for you. In that case, it’s possible (certainly not definite) that science communication isn’t for you, either. To make a living off of this stuff, you have to be pretty charged up by the idea of constantly thinking and talking about science.

But perhaps writing just isn’t your bag, and your more of an audio/visual person. It’s much easier to dive into that these days than it used to be, by starting a podcast or YouTube series. By now you are out of my area of pretend-expertise, so my advice is worth even less. But you can be educated by looking at good examples. Here are a couple of audio podcasts I have recently appeared on,

There are also video chats, which are easy to produce via something like Google Hangouts. Another couple I’ve done recently:

If video is really your bailiwick, you can get plenty of inspirations from these YouTube channels:

Then at some point you might want to start writing articles for magazines or websites. The rules here are much murkier, and I’m not really an expert — no false modesty there. (My modesty is essentially never false.) But the basic idea is that you come up with a killer story concept, and then go pitch it to whatever outlet seems most appropriate. (Don’t, in other words, wait for an invitation, or think that being a staff writer is the only way to get published.) Here’s some useful resources in that direction:

If you are passionate about writing but feel like the structured environment and mentoring provided by an academic program is more your style than diving in headfirst without a paddle, consider getting a Masters degree:

or applying for a media fellowship:

At some point, if it all works out, you might want to join a trade organization for science writers:

And hey, maybe someday you will get a book or TV contract! That’s beyond the scope of the current post, but if you get that far — don’t forget the little people who offered unsolicited advice on your way to the top.

  1. For geoscientists starting out, we have a really active community both on Twitter and on blogs. Although it’s mostly currently on hiatus, coming up with a topic and offering to host an Accretionary Wedge blog carnival is a great way to collaborate with other bloggers. You can also ask for your blog to be added to the All-Geo RSS feed & Twitter ‘bot, advertising new articles to anyone who subscribes. Don’t be shy about starting a conversation with other geotweeters — it’s a great way to collaborate, and the ones with larger follower-counts will frequently introduce you as a new geotweeter getting started.

    For space science, the Twitter community seems to be a bit less cohesive, but they’ve got a similar rotating blog carnival to give new writers exposure. This one is called the Carnival of Space and is a bit more awkward to break into, but they’re friendly once you do get access to the communal calendar document.

    io9 (and really, the whole Gawker network) uses its commentor base as a farming system for new writers. If you like their style, create yourself a kinja account, learn the rules for posting articles to the community subsite (for io9’s Observation Deck, that’s tagging a post “observationdeck” or “odeck”). If you write high-quality, interesting, original pieces, you’ll likely get shared to the main io9 page, gaining exposure. It’s an unpaid gig, but can help you develop your style or write recreationally with a built-in audience. (If it’s Earth, planetary, or space-science related, don’t be shy about advertising it to me for a potential Space-subsite splice) If you get really lucky, you may be given a chance as a Recruit: assigned a subsite, and given 90 days to prove your stuff. It’s a very sink-or-swim approach, but can be highly rewarding. (I went through the Recruit process for (Earth &) Space, which I totally love writing.)

  2. “First piece of advice: don’t make the tragic mistake of looking at science communication as a comfortable safety net if academia doesn’t work out. Not only is it an extremely demanding career, but it’s one that is at least as hard as research in terms of actually finding reliable employment — and the career trajectories are far more chancy and unpredictable.”

    I agree in general, but I do know several people who make a reasonably good living as science journalists when “academia didn’t work out”. Yes, there is no tenure, but then again some people work in academia with no tenure until retirement age (or beyond). On the other hand, it is easier to work from home, one doesn’t have to move house, the only pressure is the pressure to earn enough money (fame and glory are secondary).

    If one leaves academia because one “isn’t good enough” then, yes, a career in communications might be risky (especially since a significant part of academic success is due to communications in some form). On the other hand, there are people who leave for other reasons: better pay, less pressure on the family (and oneself) etc.

    Isaac Asimov was probably a big inspiration to many readers of this blog. He essentially quit his academic job (associate professor, with tenure, IIRC) when he started making more money from writing than his academic salary. We gained probably the best science communicator ever and lost someone who, by his own admission, was not a very good researcher (though he was the best lecturer).

    Carl Sagan managed to have a successful academic career and be a good popular communicator at the same time, but he was a rarity.

  3. Dan Kahan has been doing a lot of work in the area of science communication on politically hot-button issues like global warming, vaccination, genetically engineered crops, evolution, etc. His conclusions are that when a science communicator adopts an “us-vs.-them” point of view on these subjects, they are “polluting” the science communication environment, lessening the ability of anyone on one side or the other, or the middle, from being able to access and process the facts. See for example:
    .
    http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2014/11/4/how-cognitive-adaptation-relates-to-mitigating-a-polluted-sc.html

  4. Hello! I’ve been doing science-y films for a while now, about 5 years. I started out with doing timelapse of the Milky Way on the Outer Banks.. got featured on Gizmodo and Bad Astronomer and I just kept going from there.

    Films in the last 2 years have included trips to La Palma in the Canary islands (home of ESO telescopes) and a recent trip to Iceland to capture as much aurora as possible.

    Science communicators, want to share these videos? Go ahead, you have my permission, and permission to re-use any of my blog content. If you want more from me, photos or text, please email me.

    Films can be found on my website at http://starmountainmedia.com

    I’ve also donated footage to STEM before, if you need a night sky sequence, please ask!

  5. As someone who has a Master’s degree in “Scientific Communication” I find this interpretation to be quite interesting. The field exists as a formal career path in Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia (and other markets as well), but it’s new in North America–where I’ve been trying to introduce the concept ever since I completed graduate school in 2000. At that time I naively believed that “Science Communication” was a ‘thing’ EVERYWHERE… and then I moved to the US and learned I was sorely mistaken. The fact that SciComm is a foreign concept here, a nation with more science and technology to talk about than any other, while institutions and organizations in many other parts of the world have entire “science communication” departments employing formally trained science communicators, has always baffled me. People here also confuse Sci Comm with outreach, and the question I’m asked more than any other is, “so what’s the difference between outreach and science communication?” Let me make it clear: I DON’T do outreach.

    Tweeting science tidbits here and there is not something I care to do (I hate the concept of tweeting in principle). And it occurs to me that that’s a tool specifically designed to satiate the typical American attention span, especially when the topic is “science”. I can see that there could be some benefit to tweeting–fun facts, little gems of “cool” science that people can share with others. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I do worry that tweets devalue the genuine effort that goes into generating any finding “worthy” of tweeting and can create a populace thirsty for ‘fun facts’ and ‘science snacks’ to share in 30 words or less rather than understanding the monumental human effort behind every research finding. Or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon…

    In my career as a science communication professional I like to delve a little deeper so I’ve opted to be a liaison between the scientific community and ‘non-expert audiences’ (a phrase I coined). I prefer working directly with scientists and engineers who, while it is important they know how to communicate effectively, have bigger fish to fry with their research, so they have me to step in and help them with their communication efforts.

    It took me more than 14 years of searching and consulting (i.e., self-employment) to finally land a full-time job that at least resembles true “science communication”. This would not have happened if I’d chosen to live in Europe or Australia–I would’ve been gainfully employed for all that time. But perhaps in my new role I’ll have more influence and more opportunities to educate individuals and organizations here about the field. I’m sad that I could not become the pioneer I envisioned myself to be, but as long as I’m helping the researchers in my organization share their work with the world, I’ll be happy.

  6. Academics interested in science communication may want to try working with The Conversation, which is now in Australia, the UK and USA. Academics write articles with the assistance of journalists/editors, and academics must sign off on articles prior to publication (a nice alternative to the mangled press release).

    I’ve found The Conversation provides a very hands-on experience of what journalists need, and readership numbers provide some feedback on what does/doesn’t work. A good fraction of Conversation articles are reprinted by other sites (e.g., IFLS), increasing their audience. This is all valuable experience for working with mainstream media.

  7. As a former member of the mainstream media who’s done a fair bit of reporting on the economics of “new media,” I would go much further than Sean, and say that you should only consider getting involved in science communications if you love doing it, because your chance of actually making a living at it is essentially zero.

  8. I have always wanted to become a research scientist. I thought I had a great idea for a new invention that could change the world. Then after reading a bit about quantum physics, I learned that no one actually understands it. Then I figured that it would be incredibly difficult to get in a job as a research scientist, so I figured I would become an electronics technician instead. I got a two year degree. Then I could create my invention, and then just tell everyone, “here it is, and it works; just learn to deal with it”. Then I found that no employers really had the time or money to spend on training someone with no experience, even though I didn’t feel like that should be an issue.

    I seem to be back at the drawing board, and I am getting another degree in education with an emphasis in mathematics. I figured I would probably have to get some experience teaching high school first. Then if I didn’t end up getting stuck in that job, I could end up teaching at a university that does science research. Then I figured that teaching grade school could be a job to fall back on if it doesn’t work out. Does this like the right path that I should be taking?

  9. @John Barrett – I would say get the teaching job, and then teach yourself what you need to know in your spare time. There are plenty of on-line sources. Save up some money and then go for it.

  10. It is quite apparent that science needs to reach out to the public, especially in the US. Not all scientists are good communicators, but there is a subset who have the skills and interest to make a difference if they are given support. People don’t have to leave their careers to become science communicators. It should be part of every university department’s mission to ensure that people understand what they are doing and why it’s important. We need more outreach programs, for every discipline, that go online and into school classrooms, especially teacher training colleges. People who are skilled in explaining science concepts can serve as interpreters between the scientist, the public, science teachers, and politicians. This builds science communication from the ground up.

    Some who are good at it may write books and articles. But most should be employed by universities and foundations. We need an army of them. They now have the opportunity to use web based learning with computer graphics, video, classroom activities, and other techniques. Science communication needs to be rolled into everything science is doing. It’s an exciting time, and people everywhere should share in it. And now more than ever we need to drown out these medieval anti-science voices that threaten our society, especially those in government.

  11. First thing which comes to my mind after reading the trigger words “science” and “communication” is Michio Kaku. How I hate this guy. 99% of what he says is not even wrong, it is dumb, and still he is loved by the media, by the public. On the other hand Witten communicates rarely, the public doesn’t know him.

    Being a good scientist and good communicator are obviously completely unrelated traits. Rarely one can be both – such was the case with Feynam

  12. @Shoggoth

    I think you would be surprised about how many theoretical physicist actually have a lot of the same opinions as Michio Kaku. So you realize, I think you actually just said that you hate theoretical physicist. Remember he is a professor of theoretical physics. The only thing I have against Michio Kaku is that he believes that dark matter is actually matter that would have some physical properties. Then I have come to find out that Sean Carroll also believes that dark matter is actually some kind of exotic particle, yet to be discovered. Kind of disappointing actually…

  13. Phillip Helbig, you sound like “leaving academia because one isn’t good enough” is some kind of disaster. In my oppinion it is stupid to stay in academia under conditions such as these
    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/20134119156459616.html
    https://alexandreafonso.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/how-academia-resembles-a-drug-gang/
    http://crypto.junod.info/2013/09/09/an-aspiring-scientists-frustration-with-modern-day-academia-a-resignation/

    I am still in academia (in Europe), but I am starting to get sick of it. The whole system is rotten. Low pay as a postdoc, no real job security, the constant unrelenting pressure to publish or perish which leads to publishing quantity over quality, the abuse of the Ph.D. students as cheap slave labor, the constant begging for money at some grant agencies, a lot of narcissists in academia… etc.

    It is simply better to have a normal job, normal family life, free time for yourself. You can have a happier life. But for some people like yourself, it is obviously a heresy to leave academia, although there are no jobs in it. It is a cult mentality.

  14. John Barrett,
    “Then I have come to find out that Sean Carroll also believes that dark matter is actually some kind of exotic particle, yet to be discovered”

    Yes, most physicists believe this. The best candidate were the supersymmetric particles, WIMPs etc. But unfortunately LHC found no evidence of susy sofar.
    I find dark energy more interesting, because it lies at the intersection of quantum field theory and cosmology.
    http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/398/1/cosconstant.pdf
    The prediction of vacuum energy from QFT and the actual measured vacuum energy (the cosmological constant) are a couple orders of magnitude off 🙂 Again the most common approach to solve the problem is susy (the contributions from susy particles cancel the contributions from normal particles)

    But this whole particle physics, qft, string theory etc. is mess full of complicated mathematics. I prefere ordinary quantum mechanics such as the GHZ experiment.

    BTW, I do not believe that Kaku is that loved or agreed with among the top physicists. He is selling wild speculations which is imho dishonest and not very scientific.

  15. “I am still in academia (in Europe), but I am starting to get sick of it.”

    Then leave. Not just for yourself, but to open up a place for someone who wants it more than you do.

    “The whole system is rotten. Low pay as a postdoc, no real job security, the constant unrelenting pressure to publish or perish which leads to publishing quantity over quality, the abuse of the Ph.D. students as cheap slave labor, the constant begging for money at some grant agencies, a lot of narcissists in academia… etc.”

    This is true in many cases.

    “It is simply better to have a normal job, normal family life, free time for yourself. You can have a happier life. But for some people like yourself, it is obviously a heresy to leave academia, although there are no jobs in it. It is a cult mentality.”

    I used to work in academia, but now it is just a hobby. I have a normal (actually, much better than normal) job, a normal (actually, much, much better than normal) family life, much free time for myself. I have a happy life. Still, I miss my time in academia, even when I lived in a tent for a few months during a very cold winter in order to save money.

    To each his own, of course.

    It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. One could keep the advantages of academia and at the same time vastly improve the situation of those working at the lower levels, which would also increase the overall quality, since one could then keep the best of all people, rather than the best of those who can afford to stay. Search the web for blog comments from me for more on this topic.

  16. Communication: The one vs. the many.

    I find I do great in 1-to-1 written communication. My prose is sprightly and concise. But as my audience grows, so does my verbosity, which kills any attempt at pacing, and also impacts overall clarity.

    Yet there are those who communicate clearly to many, and somehow manage to do so with relatively few words. It seems like magic to me.

    In business and legal communication we have an old saw that’s saved my butt several times: “Do not communicate to be understood. Instead, communicate so that you cannot be misunderstood.”

    I suspect I may not understand when, and to what extent, that maxim may be set aside when communicating with a “general” audience.

  17. @Shoggoth

    I have read a couple of his books, and I have not found that any of his claims are that much different than any other books written by physicist. He does try to make predictions about future technology, but I wouldn’t consider that to even be in the field of physics. He seems to focus on more of the extraordinary aspects of theoretical physics, thinking that would be more interesting. It makes me feel as though you don’t like this aspect of theoretical physics. A specific example would be nice, if you don’t believe that is the case.

    Michio Kaku proved that quantum mechanics and general relativity cannot be unified. If grand unification is possible, then it would imply that one of these theories are incorrect. Quantum mechanics has never been proved incorrect when it comes to experiment, but it also lacks a theory of gravity. Then Newton was able to accurately predict the motion of most of the planets, and all general relativity was able to do more than that was to include Mercury. General relativity doesn’t accurately predict anything on the scale of the galaxy, hence the dark matter problem. I would expect this trend to continue, and a better theory of gravity would move that accuracy outside of our solar system, to the next big step (the galaxy). If history was to be our teacher, it would be the most plausible thing to occur. Then a new theory of gravity could allow for grand unification theories.

  18. “Why evolution is True is also a great resource for aspiring science communicators.”

    I used to comment there occasionally before I got banned because of a comment on this post:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/ditching-the-hijab-in-iran/

    The “offending” comment is still there. To me, it is so obvious that I can’t see how any honest person can disagree with it. Yes, this leads to the conclusion that many people harbour similar sentiments to those they criticize, which differ only in degree, but not in kind. Yes, this is sometimes hard to admit. But thwarting discussion doesn’t seem like a considered response.

    This surprised me, for several reasons. First, as you can read, Ben Goren came to my defense and argued essentially as I would have, yet he was not banned. Second, I have made several comments on other blogs, which have resulted in little, and sometimes no, discussion, and have never got banned because of them (nor anywhere else for any reason). Third, I honestly don’t see any reason for being banned: I wasn’t off-topic, I wasn’t impolite, I didn’t argue ad hominem etc. Finally, it is ironic that Jerry Coyne, such a champion of free speech otherwise, isn’t willing to host an open discussion on his blog. Yes, sometimes there are slightly dissenting opinions, but few well argued ones. I realize that “free speech” doesn’t mean that he can’t decide who gets to comment on his blog, but I still think it strange. My theory is that my comment made him realize that his own behaviour is not completely logical, but he doesn’t want to admit it.

    From emails it is clear that he is not willing to discuss this at all and can be very impolite when he wants to. I also asked him to at least post a comment saying that I had been banned, but he didn’t.

    Why is this relevant to the subject of science communication, in a larger sense and not just because WEIT was mentioned? As this example demonstrates, by determining who is allowed to comment, the blog owner can create the impression that most commentators agree with him and so on, but this is not obvious to the casual reader.

    Sean: Feel free to remove this comment if you deem it inappropriate, but don’t ban me. 🙂