There’s no shortage of scientists who reach a certain stage in their research career and go, “PLEASE! NO MORE PIPETTES! NO MORE! I WANT OUT!” before burning their lab coats, severing all ties with lab work colleagues, and rushing from the building yelling, “FREEEEEDOM!”. Or, you know, something to that effect. Whatever the trigger, they want out of the lab. Maybe they’re PhD students, maybe they’re PIs. Whatever stage they’re at, they’ve come to the decision they quite like writing – some extreme types even enjoyed writing their theses!
So, if you’ve got a desire to do science, just not at the bench, a penchant for the words and a longing to sit in the coffee shop with your mac, announcing to everybody that “Yeah, I’m a writer”, then you’re probably wondering how I get into this? What are my options? Is there any cash? Do I need a mac? Well, sit back, grab a coffee, and I’ll run you through some of the options in the world of science writing.
The holy grail for many. Romping around the globe, interviewing scientists, hobnobbing at conferences, and jotting down juicy deets for your front page feature. You’ve probably set your sights on something like New Scientist, Scientific American – maybe even Nature.
Pros: you write about a variety of subjects – but might specialize – and get to talk to a whole load of scientists. You probably work your own hours and from wherever you want to most of the time. You also have the opportunity to really communicate the wonders of science to the world. You’re a hero.
Cons: everyone wants to do this. As a result, journalist jobs are few and far between. Also, deadlines can be quite tight and your article is in the hands of the editor at the end of the day. Oh, and you have to make the effort to phone, meet, and actually talk to a lot of people, which is daunting for many.
What can I do? Send your feature articles to places you want to write for. They might not pay you. Then again they might. They might just publish your work. They might throw themselves at your feet in adulation for your work. Or their curmudgeonly editor might send you scathing feedback that brings a little tear to your eye. In any event, focus on getting your work out there and your name known to some publications.
This is where a lot of aspiring writers start off because the adverts are so abundant and working in “medcomms” does seems rather sexy. Medical writers work at agencies who write for people like Pharma. It goes a little something like this: Pharma runs a clinical trial and generates a clinical study report (CSR). They need to turn this into peer-reviewed articles, talks, and marketing material. That’s your job as the medical writing agency.
Pros: you’re always looking at a lot of real scientific data from a range of clinical studies. Like, proper detailed science brimming with data and stats. The subject area will be varied over a career but you’re likely to only be working on maybe two or three drugs at any one time. You’ll learn a lot about medical topics and get a go at writing medical papers.
Cons: the hours can be long and occasionally erratic as clients can be quite demanding. Late nights and weekend work are not uncommon. You also almost never get properly acknowledged for any of your work. In peer-reviewed stuff, where you’re not allowed to ghostwrite, they have to say something like “We acknowledge BH for his medical writing assistance.” But outside of that, you’re a behind-the-science writer. And of course, you always have to be nice to clients, even when the client is sometimes wrong always right.
What can I do? Literally just start applying for medical writing jobs. Go to LinkedIn first and you’ll be pounced upon by recruiters in no time.
This is pretty much all marketing and adverting stuff. You might be in an agency or you might be in-house (ie you work at the company making the products you write about). You write the ads (copywriting), the articles for the web (content), emails, social, and anything else where words and science are needed! Or just words in the case of UX and UI copy you get pulled into.
Pros: the subjects can be incredibly varied at an agency – less so in-house. You always get to work over a huge range of media: this covers video, blogs, infographics, print ads, press releases, and loads more things I can’t can’t think of right now. As a result, you get to practice a plethora of writing styles and interact with a lot of people. Stress is quite low, but it can be higher in agencies as you have clients to appease (although some people love this aspect. Because they’re masochists or something like that).
Cons: it’s quite far removed from proper science. Dipping your toe into the science pool might whet your appetite but is unlikely to sate you. You are always writing about a product with the intention to sell something. If that doesn’t sit well with you, this isn’t going to work out.
What can I do? For copywriting jobs, apply directly to the agency if you can find one. Check out their portfolio and see if you like the sort of stuff they work with. For content writing in-house, these jobs are quite rare so do what you can to get in touch with writers already employed at companies you like.
No, not working for free, but working at a charity or a society. Maybe it’s a medical charity, a society (like the Royal Society), or a conservation group. These groups all need to communicate their work to the public and to investors. And hey, that’s just where you come in!
Pros: if you worry that medical writing might blacken your soul, charity work will probably give you that warm fuzzy feeling inside. You can sleep well at night knowing that whatever you’re writing about, is for the greater good. The greater good. The greater good.
Cons: these jobs can still be quite stressful and are usually on the lower end of the pay bracket. They don’t have much money and the need to make it so that can keep doing their work – and keep paying you! The content you write about is usually has a very narrow focused as it has to match your charity’s goals. You may also actually have to work for free at first.
What can I do? Keep an eye on the charity/society websites for new jobs. These don’t often get pushed out through recruitment agencies so you’ll need to stay on your digital toes. Send prospective CVs and express your interest. Again, just get yourself known.
Bonus: Full-time blogger
I’m just throwing this in for completeness. If somehow you get to work on something mind-blowingly awesome, like Tipbox, and get paid, then this is the actual dream.
Pros: do whatever you like, whenever you like. Seriously, what more do you want?
Cons: monetizing a blog can be an almost impossible task and requires luck more than anything.
What can I do? Write a blog. Publicize it everywhere. If you figure out how to make this successful, let me know!
Okay, so there you go. A few broad categories to consider. My advice would be the try out a several to see what takes your fancy. If you want to start communicating science, why not take to Instagram, use the #scientistswhoselfie tag and share your experiences?! Loads of brilliant young scientists are doing this now and the #scicomm community is really supportive.