I am often asked by young science students how they too can get into a career of science communication or journalism… so here is a quick FAQ that might be of help.
How did you get into this?
I was an undergrad in chemistry and oceanography at UBC, and for my thesis project I was sent out to sea to try and catch some methane clathrate. (That’s frozen chunks of natural gas found under the seafloor in some areas, which might be minable, and the melting of which might be responsible for everything from rapid climate change to sinking ships in the Bermuda triangle.) It was an amazing experience. In the middle of one night the crew hauled up a load of frozen methane, and scientists were running around like excited kids holding chunks of it and, just for kicks, lighting the methane-melting snowballs on fire with lighters. My job, however, was to take collected water samples back to the lab and hit the same button on a gas chromatograph over and over again. This was not so thrilling. There had been a TV journalist on board our ship, and I envied his job – he got to watch the exciting part of our expedition, and then join someone else for their ‘exciting part’, and on and on and on. So I decided to switch career paths.
It is often said that people like me are protoscientists who had attention deficit disorder. As a journalist you end up learning a very little about an awful lot; scientists do the opposite.
I took the Masters of Journalism course at UBC, where I learned many tricks of the trade and had time to think about the larger ethical and legal issues of journalism. I did an internship with Time Canada in New York, and then with New Scientist in London (made easier by my dual British and Canadian citizenship). That changed to a full-time job with New Scientist, and then with Nature. In 2008 I moved back to Canada for personal reasons, where I now freelance.
Why learn more about science communication?
Everyone benefits. Taxpayers deserve to know what their money is being spent on and should be encouraged to feel good about science spending; policymakers need to understand research results in order to apply them to the real world and to understand the importance of funding further research; scientists become better researchers when they take time to consider and express why they are doing what they’re doing and what it means to the wider world.
What’s the difference between science communication and journalism?
Science communicators are educators; they seek to spread the good word of science by explaining technical or difficult work to a wider public. There are lots of jobs available in this arena, such as writing press releases or other outreach content for universities or companies.
Journalists are truth-seekers; their job is to make sure the public finds out what’s new, controversial, exciting or scandalous in the world of science. While a good article may teach readers something about science, they are not educators per se. Well-paid staff jobs in this area are few and far between in Canada, but there are lots of creative new options for writing and distributing content, from blogs to podcasts, to get your foot in the door.
Why do this as a job?
It’s the best job in the world. I get to call up amazing people who are top in their field and get private tutorials, and sometimes follow them into the field (I have swum in an exploding lake in Africa, watched a stunt pilot try to catch a falling spacecraft, participated in astronaut training, and dug through fossils in the Burgess Shale). And I love to write. You won’t get rich, but who cares?
I want to get into science communication. What should I do?
Start writing a blog; tweet about your science; follow conferences on science communication; apply for PR jobs.
At UBC, you may be interested in the work of David Ng, Eric Jandciu, or the public relations team.
I want to get into science journalism. What should I do?
Start writing (there's a theme here), either for your own blog or, better, for a local newspaper – anyone who will take your work and let you learn on the job. You may be doing this for free initially, but it will give you a glimpse of the career and let you see if you have a talent and passion for it.
Once you have some ‘clips’ to show off your skills, you can either apply for a journalism course (for example at UBC, Santa Cruz, UCL) or go straight to applying for internships. In my experience, a journalism degree is a great way to ramp up your learning and be sure that you have considered all the ethical, legal, and professional standards that you might only learn haphazardly on the job. In the past, most hiring editors cared exclusively about your ability to spot, report and write a good story for their audience, rather than about your background or training. But as more people seek higher education in this field, I think that is changing.
At UBC, speak to Candis Callison or Peter Klein in the School of Journalism. Margaret Munro is probably the most senior staff science journalist in Vancouver.
Who could I work for?
Here are some traditional media to consider, but obviously there’s a lot more out there. Note that almost all magazine jobs are in the UK or US, so work visas might be an issue.
Nature or Science