Guest Blog Post: So you want to be a science writer?

Abby Olena
January 12, 2015

While moving away from the bench toward a science-writing career can feel daunting, it is possible (and as this collection of science writer origin stories shows, lots of folks have done it). When you’re interested in any career, whether it’s one at the bench or not, the best way to eventually get the job that you want is to demonstrate interest.

For science writing, demonstrating interest means that you have to do some kind of writing. You could start a blog (wordpress.com and blogger.com are resources that allow anyone to create a blog for free) or volunteer for your university news office. Every time you have a chance to write something, do it. You could write the public-friendly summary for your paper that was just accepted or help update the content on the department website.

Along with the chance to write, seek opportunities to have your work edited. Most first drafts are at least a little bit rough, and learning to take criticism gracefully is a skill that will serve you well in any career, but especially science writing. If you practice accepting edits now, professional editors will appreciate working with you when you land your first science writing gig. Plus, edited pieces will be more polished when you send them out into the world with your name on them. If you have a friend who is also interested in writing, trade blog posts with each other and get feedback before you click publish.

Don’t be afraid to seek more formal training. There are graduate programs in science communication available, which you could absolutely check out (offerings at UCSC, MIT, and NYU are consistently on top), but further training doesn’t even have to be that formal. When I was at Vanderbilt, I audited a “Science Communication Tools & Techniques” course taught by Nashville-based science writer Steve Ornes. I also attended the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, which happens every May and is open to students. In the class and workshop, I learned the basics and lingo of science writing for the public, which gave me enough background to be able to write clips for my blog, which I also used to apply for internships.

Speaking of internships and fellowships, they are probably your best ticket into the science writing world. As a scientist, you already have an advantage over many journalists: with a little work, you can probably understand a lot of scientific papers. But you also have disadvantages: you likely have little formal journalism training, you’ve been spending your time in the lab or writing scientific papers (not for public consumption), and you might have grown your science network, but likely not a writing network.

Internships offer training in journalism, experience packaging science stories for the public, and help growing your writing network. Perhaps the most well-known opportunity for scientists interested in transitioning into journalism is the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellowship. The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship is specifically for students in the sciences (you can apply during school, or up to one year after graduation), who are placed in a mass media outlet (Slate, National Geographic, Wired, etc.) as writers for 10 weeks during the summer. The application requires writing samples, short essay responses to questions, reference letters, a résumé (which BRET Career Services can definitely help you with), and a transcript and are due January 15 of each year.

There many are writing internships and fellowships beyond the AAAS one, too. A quick web search for “science writing internships” gives thousands of results, and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) hosts an internship fair at the AAAS annual meeting.

NASW–the professional organization for science writers in the U.S.–is another great resource for walking the path toward a science writing career. You can join as a student and the fees are cheap, but you get access to the entire NASW network, discussion boards, and blog posts. You can be a student member for two years, after which point you must have published writing clips and the support of full members in order to join as a professional, but you can do a lot in your two years. If you join, consider using the database to locate science writers in your area that you might be able to meet with for informational interviews or virtual coffee, and read through the great wealth of information on the discussion boards to educate yourself.

Finally, join Twitter and start following science writers and scientists doing science communication online. This suggestion is free and won’t take up much of your time (unless you let it), but the benefits have the potential to be enormous. The science communication community is hugely active online (check out #scicomm and #sciox to get started), and you never know when a connection you make online could help you in real life.

Abby Olena is a postdoc in Science & Society at Duke University, where she focuses on getting scientists the tools they need to communicate their work. Previously, she was a 2013 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at The Chicago Tribune and a science writer for The Scientist. You can follow her on Twitter @abbyolena.