Science writing is for curious and passionate people. When I started college in the spring of 2016, I was stuck between majoring in English or Biology. I struggled to reconcile my two interests — science and writing — until a professor suggested I look into a combination of both. That’s how I discovered the unique career of science writing and communication, and realized I could turn my love of learning into a legitimate career.
There are basically two types of science writing: journalism and public relations. Science journalists write about new discoveries and developments for the general public. Their writing often combines science with storytelling, and many also write nonfiction books about science and nature. Science journalists can work for a specific news or science-focused outlet such as the New York Times or American Scientist — or they can freelance for multiple outlets.
Science writers can also work in PR for research institutions and universities. These institutions need science writers to generate press releases about their research. Journalists then see these press releases and write stories about the researchers and their work for various news outlets. Some of these science writers are known as public information officers. Both science writers and science journalists interview scientists and researchers for their writing, but a press release and a feature in a newspaper or magazine will have different formats and audiences. Public relations work can also be quite diverse, so don’t feel like you’ll be limited to writing press releases!
Typically, science writers don’t strictly follow a path in just journalism or PR. Some people prefer to have a stable position in PR and will do freelance journalism on the side. Other people may spend a decade in journalism before settling down as a science writer at a university. Whichever you choose to pursue at first, just remember that it’s not uncommon to switch between them.
Now that you know what science writing is and what different types of writers do, how do you begin pursuing it as a career?
First, you should join the National Association of Science Writers.
Joining a professional society dedicated to the field of science writing and communication is the perfect first step if you want to meet real science writers and learn about the career. I joined the association my first semester of college, and it has been the single most beneficial thing I’ve done.
The NASW can connect you to scholarship and fellowship opportunities, jobs, conferences, and mentors. As with any association there can be some drama, but it’s a great way to meet people in the field and learn what the professionals are talking about. I’ve enjoyed staying updated on developments in the field, new books or articles of note, local conferences and updates through their various email newsletters.
The reason I think joining the NASW is so important is because of all their tools and opportunities to learn about the career. After joining, I immediately bought a copy of A Field Guide for Science Writers and The Science Writer’s Handbook. I find myself frequently referring to them when I need guidance or clarity on how to do something as a science writer. I also recommend you familiarize yourself with the latest edition of The Associated Press Stylebook so you know how to write according to current convention.
Next, start searching for fellowships.
If you are an undergraduate student, the NASW has an undergraduate science journalism travel fellowship to the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. I was awarded this fellowship in 2018 and it was one of the most incredible and valuable experiences. In addition to attending and reporting on a world-class scientific conference, the fellowship also involves an internship fair where you can interview with potential future employers!
AAAS has their own fellowship for upper-level undergraduate or graduate students called the Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship. This prestigious fellowship isn’t offered to English or journalism majors, as they are looking for fellows with technical expertise, but they do connect you with an amazing 10-week summer internship at some of the best news outlets in the country.
Additionally, AAAS offers a prestigious Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. This 12-month program offers a substantial stipend as fellows learn about policy and government firsthand, living in Washington D.C. This program requires experience in scientific research and employment history, so you will likely want to have a PhD under your belt before you consider applying.
There are other fellowships out there besides these ones — take the time to research, connect with scientific associations, and attend conferences. This is also a great opportunity to meet other students with similar interests. Science writing is a small field and you’ll want to make friends!
Make an effort to attend conferences when you can.
Attending conferences is the perfect way to network. Unfortunately, they are expensive to attend — look for student discounts, travel scholarships, and stick close to home when you can. The only conferences I’ve ever traveled for were ones I was being paid to attend, or were one-day events close to home. That being said, they are definitely worth your time.
Whatever your scientific field or major, you’ll be able to find a professional organization that hosts conferences for people in that field to connect and present on the latest developments. Try to attend science writing and general science conferences as well — this will help you expand beyond your specific field or major.
Lastly, conferences are a great opportunity to connect with potential employers and seek out job and internship opportunities.
Apply for paid internships (and unpaid, if you can afford it).
Internships are a great way to get job experience, especially while you are still in college. When I did the NASW undergraduate fellowship, I interviewed with a university news service and ended up being offered a summer internship. My housing was covered and the hourly pay was better than the job I left behind for the internship — I would not have been able to accept an unpaid internship as a working student.
Paid internships do exist! They’re competitive, but they’re worth applying for. Take the time to research them, make a list of the ones that seem like the right fit, and set up a schedule with their deadlines so you can apply for each one. If you can, network with the people hiring for the internships at conferences, connect with them on Twitter or LinkedIn, and find some way to build personal connections. It’s worthwhile because it helps your name stand out from the stack of resumes they’ll inevitably receive.
I also recommend talking to people who have previously interned with them — same goes for former fellows. They may be able to give you tips on your application, or save you time if you think the job or fellowship isn’t the right fit. In the beginning, you’ll be desperate for any position, but it’s okay to be picky. For example, the decision I made was to not work for free (or in a city so expensive my entire paycheck would go toward rent).
Some final advice:
Seek opportunities to write about science. It’s hard to get your name out there when you don’t have a portfolio or work or an extensive resume, and sometimes you will need to write for free in order to get a few articles under your belt. I’m not talking about an unpaid internship that works you 25 hours a week; I mean putting in a few hours on the weekends writing for a blog that doesn’t pay, or a post on Medium, or your personal website.
I also recommend signing up for Twitter if you haven’t already. It’s a great place not only to network with science writers and journalists, but to find and read great science writing. You will also frequently find fellowships and awards advertised and shared there. In addition, writers are always sharing their latest work, and you won’t become a good writer unless you read a lot of good writing.
You can also follow scientists and keep an eye on their recent publications for story ideas to pitch to outlets. For more on pitching and the how-to of science writing, check out my favorite resource, The Open Notebook. They also have a fantastic guide to starting out in science writing.
I wish you well on your science writing journey! Feel free to comment with specific questions and I will follow up with answers.
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