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The Black Hole

So, you want to be a science writer when you grow up…

BY DAVID KENT | JUL 15 2010

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Exciting news from the fight for global access to medicines and health technology development – a new organization called Mind the Health Gap is working to bring researchers, developers, and advocates together to tackle the problems of technology development, effective delivery, and funding.  No small goal for sure, but an exciting workshop is taking place this September and more information on the group can be found here.

In chatting with Beth over the last few months about future topics for the Black Hole site, we identified a need to push out some information that might begin to alleviate some of the stresses on the science trainee environment in Canada.  The low hanging fruit in this category seems to be one that affects most current and prospective PhD holders and is underscored in past entries here and here.

We thought we could help fill the career guidance gap left by many trainee programs by launching a series of entries entitled “So you want to be a blank when you grow up”, the first of which is below…

So, you want to be a Science Writer when you grow up…
Throughout the course of my own training, I have encountered a number of fellow trainees that have a passion for science writing and they live amongst a sea of those that do not.  For those considering a career shift toward this passion, I think the first critical step is to figure out what kind of science writing you are interested in…  loosely I’ve broken it up into three categories:

Popular
Feeding the brains of the public

Technical
Accurately explaining scientific protocols and/or information

Editorial
Consolidating or shifting a scientific field, making policy, designing programs, lobbying for change

I would guess that all forms of writing are not equally appealing to everyone, but also that the wonderful heterogeneity in our population produces people that have a passion for all three types.  Trying your hand at these styles of writing should not wait until you’re two months before graduation and in panic mode about “what do I do next?” and it really is up to you to figure out what type of career you might want to pursue.  Some advice on how to test out these different styles while still in your degree program is below:
Popular:

Technical:

  • Write up a protocol for a book chapter (i.e.: current protocols)
  • Write up protocols for internal lab databases and get feedback from lab members
  • Read and improve Wikipedia entries around techniques or machines that you utilise every day

Editorial:

  • Write a review on a topic in your field (this doubles as a great start on your thesis introduction)
  • Write a letter to the editor or freelance article on a science based issue of public concern
  • Start a journal club in your institute to identify key experiments that are missing from research papers and how the papers do or do not move the field forward (i.e.: start thinking like a journal editor)

Once you have figured out the type of writing you like, it’s time to consider the types of jobs that are out there for such styles of writing.  I’ve listed a few examples below, but they are here as a guide so you can get a sense of the type of thing to look for:
Popular

  1. Science Journalism (Newspapers, Magazines, Television, Radio, etc)
    1. Print based, online, or backroom script writing/research for radio/tv
    2. Extra training (i.e.: journalism programs) might be considered and a great resource is J-Source.ca which appears to have a pretty comprehensive list of options
  2. Non-Profits/Charities/Societies
    1. Making science exciting for particular groups (kids, patient groups, etc)
    2. Examples: Let’s Talk Science and Hospital for Sick Children

Technical

  1. Industry brochures, manuals, etc (Job Example 1, 2, and 3)

Editorial

  1. Science Journal Editor – remember that all editors are not specifically for reading/reviewing research articles.  Examples include here, here.
  2. Policy Analyst for organizations like the Suzuki Foundation or Fraser Institute
  3. Report writing for organizations like the Council of Canadian Academies or Health Canada


If you’re really serious about science writing, I would suggest a look at the following resources as well:
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association
Get in while you’re still a student – $35/yr vs. $75!

The Science Media Centre of Canada
Keep apprised of the latest with what promises to be a critical tool for science journalists in Canada

Association of British Science Writers
A little more transparent than the CSWA with its job listings and quite a lot of great ideas and information

Final Words
The last piece of advice that I can think of is for you to start as soon as possible with building a portfolio.  Nobody will ever hire you on the basis of “everyone has always said I can write well” or “I had the best grades in my English class”.  Many of these portfolio items need not be completely unrelated to your field (e.g.: book chapters, reviews, press releases, protocols, etc) so be creative with how you get your writing experience.  Also, many universities have very active and engaging extra-curricular programs that might be worth exploring so don’t be afraid to start writing articles for these groups or to develop your writing skills at professional development workshops.

And last but certainly not least – I’m not a proper science writer and don’t have the wealth of experience that many proper science writers do, so don’t be afraid to ask questions to such people or even request information interviews if you’re very interested in what they do.  If any such writers are reading this, please offer up more suggestions as well in the comment box below!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. […] for other ‘writery’ things, Dave at The Black Hole offers advice, links and practical information for people who want to become science writers, Throughout the course of my own training, I have […]

  2. Maryse de la Giroday / July 23, 2010 at 17:17

    Hi Dave! Sorry I didn’t get around to posting this sooner. This posting has really good advice for anybody who wants to become a science writer (although they will experience challenges a science trainee is not likely to encounter). One organization I’d like to suggest for your list (Society for Technical Communication). They provide lots of good info. and have chapters in Canada, the US, Europe and (I think) elsewhere too.

  3. How do I get a job writing about science / August 19, 2011 at 01:35

    […] So, how does one go about developing a career as a science popularizer? Whether you want to be the next Carl Sagan — or Bill Nye — the ask.metafilter discussion provides a lot of great ideas and links.  A user named ChuraChura posted a link to a blog called “Through the Looking Glass“, which features an excellent post on the realities of a job in science communications and some thoughts on getting started. The “Black Hole” blog, which is focused on issues affecting science training in Canada, also has a great post on the topic entitled “So, you want to be a Science Writer when you grow up…“. […]

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