Given the current dismal job prospects in tenure-track science academia, it’s no wonder more science PhDs are exploring alternative career options. Although we were groomed to succeed our mentors in the academy, bench life isn’t for everyone. Some of us don’t have the passion for conducting the same meticulous experiments day after day or the wherewithal to generate the endless grant writing required for PI survival. We are tired of spending nights and weekends in the lab, sacrificing sleep and social life to experiment-based timetables. But what non-bench career options are available that utilize our doctoral experience?
As postdocs, we are responsible for staying current with research in our field. However, sometimes that field is so narrow that we find ourselves unable to converse with other scientists about our work, much less attempt to explain it to our family and friends. We are intelligent detail-lovers, but we can also be generalists. A broad understanding of contemporary science is essential in order to produce high impact research, which is typically a by-product of collaboration. But inter-disciplinary collaboration produces more than prominent publications; it enhances our ability to communicate science across other fields. Some scientists are gifted communicators with a knack for relating research to anyone. And for those who can put research into a social and political perspective to engage and enlighten a non-technical audience, science writing may be the perfect career path.
Science writing encompasses a variety of career prospects, from technical writers who prepare users manuals for biotechnology companies to science journalists who work for media outlets. Science journalists don’t always write for lay audiences, though. Some write for professional audiences in institutional or society newsletters, alumni magazines and in-house publications. For science PhDs interested in public relations, there are a myriad of public information positions available at universities, non-profit organizations, government agencies and private research foundations. These organizations seek spokespeople as conduits through which research can be articulated to the public.
For example, public information officers write press releases that are distributed to the media and serve as liaisons between reporters and institutional staff.
Trading pipette for pen is a daunting transition, but postdocs would be surprised at how they already fulfill the job requirements. Science writers are expected to attend scientific meetings, read journals, and maintain contact with scientists in their field of interest in order to stay current on advances in the area. Depending on the size of their organization, science writers may be responsible for covering a wide range of science or they may have a narrow range of interest such as biotechnology or neuroscience. Science writers, like postdocs, spend their professional life continually learning. Each article challenges them to master a new vocabulary and become familiar with new concepts. All science writers share a common responsibility: to monitor research developments and translate information of interest to their audience. The advent of social media has many science writers producing more than print journalism. Podcasts and videocasts are becoming popular, and prospective science writers need not only an in-depth understanding of their topic, but also the ability to accurately and clearly communicate research to a broad audience.
So how do you know if science writing is right for you? Dr. Sue Ambrose, science writer for The Dallas Morning News, offers advice for aspiring science writers in Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower, a book I recommend for any science PhD who is considering non-traditional career options outside academia. As Dr. Ambrose puts it, good science writers “would rather learn a little about many areas of science than spend the rest of [their] career focused on a single, narrow field.” If you savor the sense of accomplishment that comes with publication, loathe writing in the context of academic prose, and would be relieved to never have to run another experiment again, then science writing is a career to consider. If the prospect of returning to the classroom isn’t appealing, there are other ways to launch a career in scientific journalism that don’t necessitate financial investment in formal coursework. Several awards, fellowships, and grants are available to aspiring science writers; a listing of these opportunities is maintained by the National Association of Science Writers. AAAS sponsors an annual Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program that places STEM graduate and post-graduate students at media organizations nationwide. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing is also a great resource for the science writing community, and includes a guide to careers in science writing.
As trained scientists, we anticipated a future at the bench. But for many of us, due to the current state of the academic and industry job market, alternative career options represent more tenable choices. And for those who love science but not lab work, science writing may offer the perfect solution.