How to Seek a Scientific-Communication Career

1. CAREER OPTIONS IN SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION

Some of us in science find the communication aspect so well suited to our interests and abilities that we focus on it in our careers. And increasingly, careers in science communication are being recognized as alternatives to those in research. Opportunities include writing and editing materials for fellow scien­tists and communicating science to general audiences.

Because you know your scientific discipline, its community, and its culture, you can bring much to publications for other scientists. Various niches exist in this realm. At a major journal, you may be an editor determining scientific content, a manuscript editor, or a writer or editor for the news section, if any. At a magazine or newsletter for scientists, you may be a writer or an editor. At a publisher of scientific books, you may be an acquisitions editor, generating topics, recruiting authors, and overseeing evaluation of proposals and manu­scripts. At a corporation focusing on science or technology, you may write or edit. At a university or research institute or on a freelance basis, you may be an author’s editor, working directly with authors to refine writing before submis­sion. Because English is the international language of science, considerable demand exists for author’s editors with strong English-language skills. An article by Kanel and Gastel (2008) summarizes career options in science editing.

Alternatively, you may pursue a career in the popul ar communication of science. For example, you may be a science reporter, writer, or editor for a newspaper, newsletter, magazine, or online publication. Or you may work in the broadcast media. You may write popular science books. You may prepare public-information materials for an organization or government agency con­cerned with science, technology, the environment, or medicine. At a university, you may write news releases, work on a research magazine, or pursue other public-communication activities. Likewise, you may work in media relations or public communication for a corporation. You may help prepare exhibits or other items for science museums. On a freelance basis, you may write about science for various media and institutions. Similarly, you may prepare science- communication materials for various outlets as an employee of a consult­ing firm.

2. AN ADMITTEDLY UNVALIDATED QUIZ

Many from the sciences who choose communication careers seem to share certain traits. Based on this observation, below is an informal quiz. As social scientists might point out, this quiz has not been validated systematically. But the smiles of recognition it evokes seem to suggest, literally, a sort of face validity.

So, is a science communication career for you? To help find out, consider the following 10 items:

  1. Have you enjoyed courses in both science and other fields? Did you con­sider majoring in English or another area of liberal arts? Did you minor in such an area?
  2. Are you an avid reader? Do you find yourself editing what you read? Do topics for writing often occur to you?
  3. Do you like word games? For example, do you enjoy working crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble?
  4. Have teachers or others complimented you on your writing?
  5. In high school or college, did you serve on the school newspaper or another student publication? If not, did you consider doing so?
  6. Do you consider yourself a science generalist? Rather than wanting to focus on a narrow research area, do you like to learn about various aspects of your field or of science in general? Do you find yourself more inter­ested in knowing what other researchers are doing than in doing your own research?
  7. Do you like to view science in its broad context? Are you interested not only in research itself but also in its applications and implications?
  8. In laboratory projects, are you often the team member who writes things up? Do you find this role satisfying?
  9. Do others ask you to edit what they wrote? Do they otherwise approach you for help with their writing?
  10. Does a science communication career sound like fun to you? Is writing or editing something you would look forward to doing each day?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, a career in science commu­nication might well be for you. And if on reading these questions you exclaim, “That’s me!”—let us be the first to welcome you to the field.

3. CAREER PREPARATION

Some people enter scientific-communication positions directly from science. Serving as a peer reviewer and on the editorial board of a journal can lead to such a position. Some formal training, though, seems increasingly common, especially for those wishing to work in the popular communication of science. Such training can be in science journalism, scholarly publishing, technical com­munication, or a related field. It can consist of a degree program, a certificate program, or simply one or more courses. Resources for identifying educational opportunities include the Society of Environmental Journalists list of envi­ronmental journalism programs and courses (www.sej.org/library/education -environmental-journalism-programs-and-courses), which includes some list­ings more generally in science communication; an analogously broad list­ing (www.amwa.org/toolkit_new_med_writers#Related Resources) from the American Medical Writers Association; and the Society for Technical Commu­nication Academic Database (www.stc.org/education/academic-database).

Some organizations offer workshops or other brief instruction that can help one develop professional skills in scientific communication. For example, the Council ofScience Editors precedes its annual meeting with several concurrent short courses on aspects of science editing. Likewise, the annual conference of the American Medical Writers Association includes a wide array of 3-hour workshops, some of which are available as self-study modules (www.amwa.org /amwa_self_study).

Reading on one’s own also can aid in preparing for a career in scientific com­munication. If you wish to enter scholarly scientific communication, works that may be useful include, in addition to the current book, guides to writing papers in specific fields of science (such as Ebel, Bliefert, and Russey 2004; Lang 2010; Sternberg and Sternberg 2010; and Zeiger 2000), style manuals commonly used in the sciences, and The Copyeditor’s Handbook (Einsohn 2011). New editions of the style manuals, and of some of the other books, appear periodically—so be sure to obtain the most recent edition. Works that can assist those hoping to enter popular science communication include A Field Guide for Science Writers (Blum, Knudson, and Henig 2006), Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing (Hancock 2003), Health Writer’s Handbook (Gastel 2005), The Science Writers’ Handbook (Writers of SciLance 2013), and Handbook for Science Public Information Officers (Shipman 2015).

Internships or fellowships in the communication of science can strengthen your skills, increase your visibility to potential employers, and aid in exploring career options. Sites of internship or fellowship programs in the communica­tion of science have included international research centers (such as CERN and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics), U.S. government entities (such as Fermilab and the National Cancer Institute), journals (such as Science and JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association), magazines (such as Science News and The Scientist), and other settings such as the public infor­mation offices of universities and of organizations. Also, since the 1970s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has placed science gra­duate students at media sites each summer through its Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow Program. In addition, sometimes communication offices without formal internship programs are willing to host interns on request; thus, if there is a setting where you might like to do an internship, take the initiative to ask.

4. ENTERING THE FIELD AND KEEPING UP

How can you find job opportunities in scientific communication? Look at position announcements posted on employment websites, published in jour­nals, and disseminated by groups such as the Council of Science Editors, the National Association of Science Writers, and the American Medical Writers Association. Keep informed about job openings through social media. Whether or not job opportunities are announced, make yourself known to potential employers. Network, through organizations and otherwise.

Those in scientific communication, like those in scientific research, need to keep up with new developments. The never-ending graduate school of a science-communication career can aid in staying current with science, and further reading and listening can help fill the gaps. With regard to scientific communication, relevant organi zations can aid in keeping up with trends, technologies, and issues; obtaining practical advice; and establishing or main­taining a network of others doing similar work. Examples of such organizations include those mentioned in the preceding paragraph and the European Asso­ciation of Science Editors, the World Association of Medical Editors, the Associa­tion of Earth Science Editors, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the

Association of Health Care Journalists, and the Society for Technical Commu­nication, as well as associations in more general communication fields. Read the publications of such associations, attend their conferences if you can, and take advantage of their social media engagement. And as your career develops, consider helping with their educational activities. You may one day be helping others from science who are entering scientific-communication careers.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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