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):
- Particle Physicists and Cosmologists on Twitter
- Twenty-First Century Science Writers
- Physicists on Twitter (Lucretius 21c.)
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:
- Matt Strassler
- Scott Aaronson
- Sabine Hossenfelder
- John Johnson
- Quantum Frontiers
- The Mermaid’s Tale
- Aatish Bhatia
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:
- The Open Notebook, and in particular their pitch database
- A Note to Beginning Science Writers (Carl Zimmer)
- CASW: How to Get Started in Science Writing
- NASW: Articles for New Science Writers
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.