From the lab to the newsroom: How to start a career in science writing
Written by Giorgia Guglielmi
When it comes to jobs in science, I don’t like the word “alternative” career. It suggests there’s only one standard path – academia – but the reality is different. A recent study tracking the journey of PhD holders in the United Kingdom showed that only 30% of those with full- or part-time jobs ended up in academia.
Most of the time, however, PhD students and postdocs are so immersed in the academic environment that they don’t realize their skills can be applied to a number of different careers that make scientific research possible: take those who make laws about it, who finance it, or who – like me – communicate it to the public. I transitioned from scientific research to science communication two years ago, and I was thrilled to be able to talk about it at the Neuroscience Graduates’ Colloquium.
As a kid, I loved to explore the word around me: observing natural phenomena, making hypotheses, and testing them seemed great fun. So, I decided to study biology and then join the De Renzis group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) to figure out how embryos get their shape.
During my PhD I’ve enjoyed the challenges of developing a new tool to study fruit fly development, but I’ve also struggled with the desire to write about science for a broader audience. Science writing deals with DNA, neurons, and black holes, but – as one of my mentors puts it – “always with grace and style.” I thought doing experiments and writing an engaging article about science were two different worlds: was I stuck with the wrong career?
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so concerned. Researchers and science writers have a lot in common: they collect information, strive for accuracy, draw conclusions from facts. And my PhD equipped me with most of the skills I needed to be a science writer.
So, soon after graduating, I enrolled in a science writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I’ve learned about journalism and covered all aspects of science – from exoplanet hunters to portable drug-makers that could save lives in remote areas.
Then I went on to intern with the news team of Nature and Science magazine. There, I met many talented writers and editors with whom I still work today as a freelance science journalist.
People often ask me if a master’s in journalism is necessary to become a science writer. I think it’s useful, especially for those who come from a scientific background and are used to write in “sciences” – lots of jargon, adverbs, passive voice, etc. A master’s also allows fledgling writers to network with more experienced professionals and get internships at magazines or in communication offices at universities, research institutions, or even government agencies.
An alternative to a master’s is to start a science blog or volunteer to work with the communication department at one’s university. During my PhD, I’ve contributed a few stories to the EMBL’s communication office and got involved in several other outreach activities. That’s how I met people working in the field, who have always supported me in my (sometimes difficult) journey from the lab to the newsroom. Now I’d like to give back, so if you’re thinking about a career in science communication, feel free to get in touch at giorgia.g.guglielmi[at]gmail.com. Then, go out and see with your own eyes that there’s life outside academia.
Written by Giorgia Guglielmi. Featured Image: NGC/Design.
Note: Giorgia Guglielmi is a freelance science journalist based in Cambridge, MA. She has written and edited pieces for publications including Science, Nature, and NOVA Next. She received a PhD in Biology from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and a Master’s in Science Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When not writing, she can be found running along the Charles River or on a bike somewhere in Massachusetts. Sometimes she’s also on Twitter: @GiorgiaWithAnI