Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Young scientists ask: Is there room out there for one more science communicator?

(Editor's note: When I train scientists in public communications skills, many of them are Ph.D. candidates who wonder whether they might rather be a science communicator instead. While I can speak to that new-to-them profession, I can't advise them on what it would mean to leave their research, not being a scientist myself. So I turned to Becky Ham, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist by training and a science writer by choice, to help share advice straight from the source. Here's her take.)

What to tell a wavering scientist?

As a science writer, I often interview young researchers who have just finished or nearly finished their Ph.D. degrees. They’re enthusiastic and intelligent speakers, eager to explain what they’ve been doing with themselves for the past 4-10 years. And when I’ve run out of questions for them, sometimes they have one for me: “So…I was wondering how you got your job?”

I usually give them the short version, about how I got my own Ph.D. and then promptly stopped being a scientist. And then we’re on the phone for another half-hour, as they explain to me that they’re having second thoughts about getting a job in their field, and wondering if there’s room out there for one more science communicator.

I think about two things when I hear this: what should I tell them, and why does this question keep coming up?

Let’s take the second question first. There are some signs that science Ph.D. candidates aren’t exactly happy with the career choices they’re facing. This month, a study in PLoS ONE concluded that academic jobs become less attractive to scientists as they move through their Ph.D. training. Some scientists in the final stages of their degree are concerned that the research jobs they want won’t be there when they’ve finished their degree. Some, as the study gingerly points out, might have seen quite enough of the academic world to wonder if it’s really for them. Science has never been a nine-to-five job, but it’s hard to know whether that’s an exciting or exhausting thing until you’ve experienced it
And then there’s always Ph.D. fatigue, which I recognize. In the last days of my dissertation, I was upping the ante on my carpal tunnel by playing video games and ruining what was left of my sleep by going to the movies all the time. I was desperate to stop thinking about my research, and I bet these scientists feel the same way.

But I’m worried that there’s more to their stories. Here’s something else intriguing from the PLoS study. When they asked the Ph.D. candidates about other non-research careers they found “extremely attractive,” science communicator/writer topped the list.

Why does science writing sound so good? I think it’s because most scientists want to share their research. And new scientists haven’t given up on the idea that they’re allowed to talk to everyone—not just their peers—about what they’re doing.

So back to the first question. What do I tell a scientist who wants to be a science communicator?
  • Tell yourself the truth. It sounds corny, but you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself. Do you like to do science? If your honest answer is no, it’s time for something new. It might be science communication, it might not be. But you need to get the “am I a scientist?” question resolved before anything else.
  • There’s no need to choose. If you want to be a scientist and also a science communicator, I urge you to take that Ph.D. and then tell us all about it! Communication is no longer an optional part of a scientist’s job, and you can be part of the vanguard of researchers to fully embrace this idea. Instead of shying away from your desire to communicate, make it a living part of your career. 
  • Either way, you’re going to have to practice. If you want to write, you have to write, by starting your own science blog or tweeting your field’s breaking news. If you want to work in museum interpretation, you have to make a visit to the volunteer office of your local science center. Your academic life was probably rife with “tryout” opportunities like these, and it’s the same on this side of things. There’s no simpler way to find out if you can be a science communicator than to be a science communicator. 
  • ...And practice. I was trained to talk like a scientist, to other scientists. That doesn’t work in public science communication, as you might have guessed. But don’t despair. One thing that helps is to push back into the dark ages, and remember why you wanted to become a scientist in the first place. What were the questions, the mysteries, the excitement that you wanted from your career? Remember how you talked about it then, and you’ll find a path toward how to talk about it now.
Go on. We’re listening.

(Denise here, again. If you've got a group of scientists who want to communicate better with public audiences, I'd love to talk to you about the training options I offer for communicating scientists. And now the more important stuff: Becky Ham is a freelance science writer who writes about every discipline of science, a rare talent. She contributes posts about research on public speaking in many scientific disciplines for my blog The Eloquent Woman.)


Sarah Brady said...

Thanks for the link to the PLoS article, that was a very interesting read. I think the hardest part about deciding to pursue an "alternative career" is balancing the time I want to spend in lab with the time I want to spend practicing communicating or learning about science policy. I believe that is one huge benefit of a science PhD though, regardless of what your career turns out to be, is that you are very well trained in time management and critical thinking which will always be incredibly useful.

Christopher Crockett said...

Such a timely post. Thank you! I finished my Ph.D. (astrophysics) last fall and have been eager to get out of research ever since. I've known since before I finished grad school, actually, that I enjoy talking about astronomy a lot more than I like doing astronomy. I'm starting to get published (on blogs) and maintain a blog of my own, so I'm taking the first steps! My eventual goal is full-time freelance science writer. It's always very inspiring to find someone with a similar background who has made the leap. It reminds me that what I want to do *can* actually be done.


Denise Graveline said...

Christopher and others interested in making the leap will find useful these resources for those new to science writing, on the National Association of Science Writers website. NASW asked members to share thoughts with newcomers a few years ago, and I'm glad to see this post is now among the accumulated wisdom.

Becky Ham said...

Sarah, I thought that PLoS article was a good one too. Eye-opening to me to see that even those staying in academics don't want to mimic their advisors' careers. It's good to make room for all the things you love about being a scientist--not just doing the science!

Christopher, sounds like you're well on your way to figuring that out! Good luck, and Denise is right that NASW can lend tons of help along the way.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. As a scientist who moved in to the possibly more dreaded field of science policy, I identified with a lot of what you wrote. In addition to all of those things, I'd also note the shame and even shunning that can be associated with leaving the research community. I found (find) that extremely hard to get past, but when I see my work influence policy, even in a small way as it most often is, I remember why I wanted to leave research to make a difference that is more immediate, more tangible, and ultimately one I didn't see many people willing to do. Young scientists, please share your stories. We get it beat out of us, but we are all born storytellers- that's the way humanity conveyed knowledge for thousands of years, before the PDF and PowerPoint.

Denise Graveline said...

Thank you for attesting to the shunning--as a communicator, it has always been an aspect of the sciences that amazed and saddened me. One need not be turned out of the profession to be a great storyteller, nor do scientists need to protect their turf by denigrating those who wish to do so--in my view!

T. M. Crone said...

I received my PhD in molecular biology in 1994. In 2000 I decided to stop research and stay home with my children, as juggling science and life at home was becoming a nightmare. In 2009 I started teaching as an adjunct professor at various colleges in my area with the hopes that a full time faculty position would become available to me. The reality was that I was bypassed for a position numerous times and the job was given to someone with little or no teaching experience, no post-doc and 20 years my junior.

The transition back into science has been a rocky one, which I never anticipated. I have been writing speculative fiction for many years now and would like to make the transition into science writing. I came across your blog during my search for information and I have one question for you. I have never taken a journalism course, and was wondering if you could recommend an online course of study that would boost my credentials? I do not live near a large city so taking courses at a university is not an option. The smaller colleges in my area do not specialize in such courses.

Please respond via email with any advice you may give me. tmcrone@yahoo.com


Denise Graveline said...

I always point beginning science writers to the National Association of Science Writers' FAQ for beginners, here: https://www.nasw.org/articles/new-science-writing

I can't recommend specific online courses, however, but hope you will keep trying.