Breaking in

Hi, science writer Robin Smith here. My thoughts are for the busy grad student or postdoc who wants to break into science writing, but can’t find the time. I can relate. I was a PhD biologist struggling to get my foot in the door. I now work in the news office at Duke University, where I cover the latest research on everything from cancer to climate change. Breaking into a new field can be daunting, especially when your PI expects you to be in the lab 60 hours a week. If you love writing about science, there are ways to break into science writing while still slaving away at the lab bench.

Here’s how:

You still have to eat. Don’t eat alone. Use meal times to network with other science writers. You don’t even have to leave campus. Find faculty who’ve written popular books or started blogs and invite them for coffee. Figure out who covers science in your university news office and ask them to join you for lunch. Call the editor at your university research magazine and bribe them with beer. Many of these people are seasoned former journalists. Ask them what they do and how they got where they are. One of these writers may become a mentor.

You still have to go to talks and conferences. That means you have something most writers would kill for:  access to the newest science. Use departmental seminars and conference talks to find sources and story ideas that no one else has covered. Play reporter. Buy a cheap digital voice recorder or take notes. Invite your favorite speakers for a follow-up chat, and ask if you can write about their research. Translate the most interesting stories into engaging prose and pitch them to your university research magazine or institutional news office. The news editor you had lunch with last week may well be willing to publish your work, or give you pointers for next time.

You still have to call home, and generally talk to people outside your lab. Use those moments to practice telling your newfound science stories in plain English. If your cousin doesn’t get it, or your little sister doesn’t think it’s cool, you’re not quite there yet.

You still have to do lab work. And let’s face it, in lab work there’s a lot of down time. Use the time while your gel is running or your DNA is thawing to write a guest post for your favorite blog, or to polish that piece you pitched to your university research magazine. Remember the book, “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day”? Other kinds of writing projects can get done that way too.

You still have to publish. If the journal editor asks you if you’d also like to write and submit a lay-friendly press release to go with your article — and more and more journals do — say yes. Use it as evidence that you can write for broader audiences.

You still have to find a postdoc, or otherwise support yourself post-PhD. Consider applying for a nontraditional postdoc teaching undergraduate writing. There are a number of university writing programs across the country that recruit newly-minted PhDs from across the sciences and humanities to design and teach writing courses in their field. I got my start in the freelancing world while teaching writing through Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program, but UPenn’s Critical Writing Program and the Princeton Writing Program offer similar fellowships. If you’ve never taught writing before (which I hadn’t), keep in mind that teaching is the best way to learn. What better way to see if you can make science accessible and interesting to a general audience than by convincing a group of 18 year-olds that science―and writing―are interesting at 8:30 a.m.?

Another option is to take the summer before your next gig to work as a science reporter. Graduate students and postdocs in the sciences and engineering are eligible to apply for 10-week summer fellowships though the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program. The deadline for the AAAS Mass Media fellowship is Jan. 15 each year.

Happy writing.