How I broke into science writing

Every month or so, I get an email from someone, usually a very polite graduate student, asking if I’d be willing to chat about how I got into science writing and any advice I have for breaking into the field. I always say yes. Because I’m a recovering people pleaser but really it’s because so many kind science writers shared their time with me when I was a graduate student looking to do anything but stay in academia.

If you add them up over the past 7ish years since I started getting paid to write about science, that’s a lot of chats. And while the audience always changes, my story, which is very windy, remains the same. Except that each year it gets a little less relevant to how one might actually go about becoming a science writer. This becomes instantly clear to people when I try to explain that having a blog, at one point in time, could legitimately lead to a real writing job.

So, in the interest of having more time to learn about what you’re interested in, here is my science writer origin story:

I started looking in earnest for a career outside of research my third year of grad school. This is the probably the most common year for people to start seriously thinking about bailing. It’s the inflection point when you’re finally finished with classes and have nothing ahead of you but research, which may (or may not!) inspire a deep, soul-crushing dread.

My first thought was that I might like something in scientific editing. My labmates would praise my edits on their manuscripts and it was close to writing without actually having to write. I loved writing as a kid but never seriously entertained it as a career because who would voluntarily subject themselves to pain everyday? (Writers as it turns out.) To test this theory, I got a low-paying part-time job at a contract editing company editing manuscripts for non-native English speakers. Then a slightly less low-paying part-time job as a copy editor for a humanities journal. It only took a few months to realize that editing was boring for me personally (no shade to editors), and that, against my better judgement, I wanted to write.

The big turning point for me was meeting a science journalist who happened to be covering my research for a story. Over lunch, which she bought (my first clue that she’d be a great mentor), she gave me three excellent pieces of advice that I ran with:

1) Start a blog. Mine was called MustLoveScience (this here site) and I posted every-ish Sunday. The blog taught me how to sit down and just write one word after another, essentially training me to write a shitty first draft instead of being paralyzed by the need for perfection, but really, approval. It also introduced me to an active and welcoming community of chemistry bloggers, which led to invitations to write guest posts on blog networks that now only exist in the minds of, at this point, old-ish people.

2) Get on Twitter. This bit remains unfortunately relevant as most journalists, and more importantly, editors are on Twitter. I’ve come across many job opportunities, writing gigs, and people in the field who become acquaintances that have actually led to paying assignments on that otherwise hellish site.

3) Take a journalism class. I audited one master’s level journalism course and it was crucial. I learned the basic structure of a news story but more importantly I learned the basic ethics around journalism. I also had the opportunity to have my writing edited and came out with writing clips. I knew that once I graduated, I would need three good clips to apply for writing jobs, which in my mind meant I needed at least double that amount of clips so that I had some to choose from. For me, this meant a lot straight-up asking for writing opportunities.

The easiest place to start is where you are, which is what I did. I wrote for my university research magazine (I showed up to an open editorial meeting and asked if I could write a story) and the university press office (after cold emailing and having an informational coffee meeting with someone from the press office, I asked if I could write a press release for them). I also walked up to a journal’s expo booth at a scientific conference I was attending and asked if they needed student writers. Like, what? Just walking up to people? This wasn’t even the 80s. But it turns out they did need writers! Six months later I was writing regular blog posts for this journal for free. All of this writing was for free. I don’t recommend anyone write for free unless you, like past me, have literally no writing clips to your name and want the practice. But even then, nowadays there are places like Massive Science that help grad students start writing and that pay you for your time, which is really how it should be.

Also around this same time, I started making science videos. I entered two video scicomm contests geared at graduate students and would highly recommend contests in general. For one, it gives you a deadline, which forces you to find time (a precious commodity in grad school) to create something. Two, these contests are typically judged by professional scicomm folks and even if you don’t win, it’s valuable just to have them watch your work and vaguely know who you are. Scicomm/sci journalism as fields are relatively niche and you will absolutely cross paths with many of the same people over the years.

Finally, after about two years of constant side hustles, upon graduating I landed a job as a science writer for a university (I think I applied for like a dozen university writing jobs and only got one interview) and also a six-month fellowship with The Open Notebook, the best website ever on the craft and business of science writing, seriously check it out.

Side note on science writing masters programs: I never considered going. I couldn’t imagine another two years of school after graduate school and I didn’t want to go into debt to pay the tuition (it’s something like ~$70k, apparently less after financial aid). I hear it’s great for people who want that formal training in journalism and also multimedia. It also gives you a huge leg up on networking and internships, and many people from these programs end up in staff science writing jobs.

Anyways, if all that stuff I did leading up to a real job sounds exhausting, that’s because it was. Here’s where I want to add a word of caution. I burned out hard about six months after leaving graduate school which is not that surprising. Grad school was hard. Actively trying to leave academia was also hard although exciting. I’ll just say if you’re in the midst of your own overwhelming transition into writing, take care of yourself as best as you can. Like me, you’ll probably be tempted to work yourself into the ground because grad school generally doesn’t teach healthy work boundaries, but I don’t really know that it was necessary just to get into science writing.

I’ll condense what happened next. For the next several years, I worked for the university for ~60%-100% time while slowly starting to pitch and write freelance stories and video scripts for places like TED-Ed, New Scientist, Mental Floss, SciAm and ViceNews. After three years of this, I was planning to freelance full-time but then a staff reporting job at C&EN opened up so I jumped at the chance to work in a newsroom. After almost two years there, I left to freelance full-time because I wanted to see where my curiosity would take me. Along the way, I wrote a lot of stories, made more videos and even learned how to edit them (thanks YouTube!).

I know I glossed over a lot in that last paragraph. But it really does get easier once you break into the field and as you make more connections. Professional societies are great for networking and providing resources to sharpen your skills–I’ve gotten a lot of professional relationships and leads for work through NASW, AAJA and now DCSWA. I’m also part of several freelance science writers groups. These small (8-12 people) email/slack groups were formed organically–just thoughtful people you can vent to, ponder career decisions, share negotiation tactics/pay rate/editor contacts–and they’ve provided invaluable community over the years.

Ultimately, I think transitioning from scientist to science writer takes initiative, sustained effort, and a willingness to learn new skills. And it’s totally doable if that’s what you want. If that’s you, good luck! And I’ll leave you with a few things that I’ve learned and am still learning:

  • What you want in a career will change over time and that’s OK.
  • Editors are not always right. It can be hard to speak up, especially at the beginning for me, but it’s your job to work with editors and together figure out the best way to tell the story.
  • Your worth as a person does not at all depend on your professional achievements.
  • It’s always worth it to be kind. In the words of the great Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Why I should blog (again):

An eternal (okay, more like for the past few months) internal conversation about why I should return to blogging:

  • I can regularly log a word count that might make me feel better about myself as a writer. On the other hand, the actual words might make me feel worse about myself as a writer.
  • It’ll let me direct my creative energy into something productive. Or I’ll waste my creative energy on a non-paying, non-career advancing and time-consuming side project.
  • Because it’ll be fun! You know, the agonizing kind of writing fun.
  • To connect with cool, like-minded people on the Internet (because that happens, right?). May have to dodge the stray sexist, annoying comment (annoying=best case scenario in this realm), but hey, don’t rule out the chance that the writing is so mundane and of so little consequence that every person on the planet refuses to acknowledge its existence.
  • It could lead to more writing opportunities. Even though the year is 2016 and not 2006, really, who can tell the future?

Well, in the way that most things are decided, arbitrarily and against my best interest, it’s been decided! I’m going to start blogging again. Or at least tell my friends I’m going to and then feel guilty after more than a week passes from this post and I have nothing in the works. It’s fine, I feel guilty all the time already, what’s one more thing? This is going to be fun.*

*See #3