Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting a PhD but don't want to be a PI? Try scientific journal editing or writing...

For science Ph.D. students contemplating potential career paths after graduation, the choices have traditionally been either being a post-doc en-route to becoming a professor versus finding a job in industry.  Now, it seems that there are more choices out there, such as the options discussed in the prior post regarding the Alternative Careers in Science Panel.  Another career path that was not explored is being an editor or writer for scientific journals.  For science Ph.D. students, there are many questions surrounding this type of job, such as whether journalism experience is required, what kind of training is preferred, and what types of positions are available in this field.  To provide insight into these questions for anyone contemplating or are curious about this career, I've researched job requirements and descriptions for two types of journals: 1. those that report research articles and target an audience with advanced scientific knowledge and 2. publications with informative and fun science articles for the general public.

The Nature titles, produced by Nature Publishing Group (NPG), are examples of journals that publish research articles for scientists.  Here, being a research editor and contributing as a freelance writer are avenues that Ph.D. students could explore after graduation.  The NPG website helpfully describes the job responsibilities.  For research editors, these include selecting the articles that the journals publish as well as writing editorials.  Freelance writers contribute news stories, either by pitching a story idea to the editors or being commissioned to write something specific.  Maxine Clarke, editor at Nature, in an "Ask the Nature Editor" forum gives advice on the requirements for obtaining an editor position.  Editors who handle manuscripts need to have a Ph.D. and a good publishing record.  Some have post-doctoral research experience, but this is by no means a requirement.  For aspiring freelance writers, an established body of work is necessary.  Writing a science blog, entering in writing competitions, or publishing in school newspapers or popular science magazines are all creative ways to do this.  Looking around at other journals reveals similar requirements for writing jobs.  For instance, Cancer Discovery, produced by the American Association for Cancer Research, is a journal with peer-reviewed articles for a science audience.  In fact, it is currently looking for a science writer to write and edit content, and for this position a bachelor's degree in life sciences, science writing, or journalism is required as well as experience in writing science-related articles. 

There are also opportunities at science magazines geared towards the general public.  Science News is an example of such a magazine, and it offers internships for those wishing to learn more about the field and gain hands-on experience.  Working as a writer here entails researching as well as writing news articles and longer feature stories.  People who have an advanced degree in journalism with an emphasis on science writing and those who have an advanced degree in science and good writing skills are both eligible.  Discover, another general audience science magazine, also has internships focused on researching and writing stories for the print magazine.  Additionally, it offers positions where interns write blog and feature articles for the website, an excellent way to gain experience with online science journalism, an in-demand field if the current expansion of online content seen for newspapers and science journals is any indication.  Regarding qualifications for the job, the Discover contact person states that a student who has just received a Ph.D. in science and has no formal training in journalism but has demonstrated interest in writing – such as keeping a blog – would certainly be considered for the position.  Other magazines such as Scientific American, a leading source of science and technology information for the general audience, offer comparable positions involving researching and fact-checking articles as well as writing stories.  However, this one has a stronger emphasis on candidates having a journalism background, requiring graduate studies or work experience in journalism.  Thus, job descriptions should be read carefully to ascertain which opportunities would be better for science Ph.D. students who desire to have a job communicating science to the public.

Besides becoming more familiar with the requirements for science writing or editing positions, it is also imperative to know how our resumes can stand out and allow us to actually be hired by science journals.  I spoke with Gaia Remerowski of The Genome Institute at Washington University, whose impressive career in science journalism, including being a Senior Researcher at NOVA, has given her insight into how people interested in the field can break into it and find a job.  Her advice is to demonstrate an interest in writing science.  Since all job candidates say they're interested, the only way to be a top candidate is to have evidence of it and build a portfolio of writing samples.  Even having a free blog at WordPress is a great way to do this.  Gaia mentions that having a science Ph.D. may be viewed as a disadvantage; the many years spent researching a very specific and narrow topic may give journals or magazines pause when they want to hire an editor who can assess manuscripts about vastly different fields or a writer who can write stories about a myriad of scientific topics.  Should we encounter difficulties in getting hired, Gaia advises us to use the Web as our way in.  For instance, we can take initiative and offer to start a blog or podcasts on topics studied during graduate school to enhance our resumes and market our talents to journals or magazines that have traditional roots in print but desire to expand online.  Finally, Gaia suggests that aspiring science editors and writers join a professional society to take advantage of resources it might offer.  The National Association of Science Writers – applicable for both writers as well as editors since they would need writing experience to be able to assess articles – conducts workshops great for networking opportunities, has a jobs mailing list, and offers free hosting of members' websites. 

It is exciting to realize that there are many options out there for science Ph.D. students, including becoming an editor or writer at a scientific journal.  There are of course requirements for obtaining these positions, including demonstrating an ability to write well in academic papers and pursuing writing opportunities such as starting a blog.  However, for those who have a passion for learning about various scientific topics, a desire to communicate scientific ideas to the general public or scientific community, and an appreciation for grammatically correct sentences and well-constructed paragraphs in a story, these efforts are definitely worth it.  

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