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Science Communications Careers

Written by: Alaina G. Levine
Published on: Oct 28, 2016

So you like writing, doing outreach, and speaking about science? Then consider a career in science communications! The field of science communications encompasses many different types of jobs, from journalism and content development, to public and media relations, to book writing and editing, to museum exhibition design to curriculum development, and even working in Hollywood as a science consultant. No two science communications careers are the same.

As a freelance science communications professional, I do many types of projects, including science journalism where I write articles for magazines and websites, private client science writing where I write for organizations, universities, and government agencies, professional speaking on science career development, and communications coaching and training for STEM professionals. I have also written a book and even do corporate comedy associated with the humor of STEM. I also have experience in public relations, outreach, and program management.

So I am a jack (or jill) of many trades. I mention this up front in this article because I want you, dear reader, to be aware of the diversity of projects you can pursue as a science communicator, especially as a freelancer where you can delve into many of them at the same time. This is one of the reasons why I love my profession so much; I never have chance to get bored because my mind is constantly being challenged by tasks requiring different skills and problem-solving approaches.

This diversity is but one of the reasons that scientists are attracted to a career path in communications. There are many others, some of which I discussed in a recent webinar Q & A, organized by the AGU Career Center. AGU has lots and lots and lots of opportunities for you to launch your science communications career by developing skills, gaining insight into job fields and career paths, networking with leaders, and producing exciting and meaningful content, and the AGU Career Center is a great place to start and find numerous career resources.

Now, to your questions!

Do you have any specific advice or resources for people interested in multi-media-focused communication careers?

Yes! First of all, it seems really clear that more and more science journalism jobs are focusing on multi-disciplinary and story-telling skills. For example, I see ads that ask for candidates to be able to demonstrate their ability to not only write articles, but to also present stories via slide shows, infographics, podcasts, video, and other media. Sometimes, their task is to use multiple media to tell the same story, such as an article accompanied by several infographics, a podcast with background info on the source and a slide show showing the history of the subject. So the more you can fortify your knowledge of multi-media story-telling techniques as well as the technology behind them, the better your chances are in the job market. My advice right now is to make sure that you start developing these skills early so that when you are presented with an opportunity, either in the form of an advertised job or a jobs that is potentially created for you through networking, you will be able to present yourself as a triple, quadruple or even quintuple threat of multiple talents, making you invaluable to your employer and collaborators.

There are many places to gain these skills. The National Association of Science Writers (NASW), offers a pre-conference workshop before its annual meeting this fall on how to make an awesome science video. A recent check of Mediabistro, a subscription-based service for journalists covering all beats, reveals a number of online courses in relevant areas such as digital journalism fundamentals, podcasting, and infographics or other Visual Data. Other journalism and science communications organizations and programs at universities occasionally offer workshops or webinars on multi-media topics, as well as in depth courses.

My question for you is regarding posting blogs on LinkedIn. Is it worth it or would it be better to spend time trying to get into places such as Scientific American?

This is a great question because it actually touches on a few issues which I would like to address. For new writers, or early career science communicators who wish to forge a living out from their love of this subject, one of the most important things you need to demonstrate to a potential client, publication, and editor is your experience wiring and telling stories. So not surprisingly, you have to have experience. But it is a little like a Catch 22 – you need experience to get a job but you seemingly can’t get a job without experience…or can you?

Blogging has actually opened the door to employment for many newbie science communicators because it is a means to sharpen your writing skills, build your brand, style and voice, gain valuable interviewing experience, story structure and organization, and communication with a science-enthusiast audience who are not necessarily scientists themselves. You don’t need to have someone publish it because you can publish it yourself. Writing a blog is a wonderful and very efficient way of gaining the clips you need to pitch major outlets.

LinkedIn recently started allowing its members to post blogs on its site. I have used this as my own blogging platform because it is a very useful and an easy mechanism to stay connected with people in my network (meaning my connections on LinkedIn, as well as the people who follow me on the site). Because LinkedIn is very supportive of sharing posts, anyone who reads my blog can quickly repost it. I then can track who has looked at my profile. I notice that every time I write a new post, the number of people viewing my profile increases, which to me is a good return on my investment (ROI) of blogging here.

That is not to say that if I posted a blog on Scientific American’s blog network that I would not get an excellent ROI; quite the contrary, the Scientific American network is global and a blog certainly increases your visibility and establishes your credibility. I have written a few blogs for Scientific American, which have led to assignments with the online magazine.

So now to your question: if you have not written articles or blogs before, I would start with a few posts on LinkedIn to get comfortable communicating science to non-technical experts and to get used to writing in a style that is similar to what you might find in blogs on the Scientific American site. When you have written a few here, then I suggest pitching a blog or two to Scientific American. This way, you have your clips and you have your experience, your blog featured on Scientific American will be even more amazing.    

Do you think it's important to have a personal website to sell your beat and brand?

I absolutely do! As a science communications professional, you are running a business and as such you have to act like a professional communicating your brand (your promise of value) to your client (the publication or organization for which you are producing content). A website is an absolute necessity to demonstrate your seriousness to both your craft of communicating as well as your business. If you are not sure what to put on your website, you can start by launching a LinkedIn profile. A very basic communications business website has pages devoted to your background, examples of your writing, and your contact information. You can also have sections pertaining to your different beats, media in which you have been featured, and your multimedia skills (with examples of content demonstrating these skills).

Any advice on/information about science radio (e.g. NPR)?

Admittedly, this is one area of science communications that I have not worked in. But, if I wanted to do so the way I would get started would be to listen to the radio shows that I really enjoy and take note of their similarities and what makes a good radio program. Then, I would start reaching out to radio journalists, whom I could find via LinkedIn, on the websites of the professional organizations like NASW or the Society for Environmental Journalists, and the websites of the radio stations and programs, like NPR. I would ask these communicators for a short, informal conversation or informational interview so I can learn more about the field and profession. I would also read articles about the subject of pursuing a career in radio journalism. Finally, I would see if I could leverage opportunities near me, such as perhaps visiting the campus radio station if I am at a university and making a coffee appointment with the staff there, or even volunteering at the local public radio in my town so I could get the feel of the ecosystem.