A Guide to Alternative STEM Careers: Science Communication
The phrase “not all scientists wear lab coats” has never been truer. In years past, scientists would graduate and almost all would head into a laboratory career, be it in academia or industry. Some would head into more commercial roles, such as business development, sales, or recruitment, and a few would leave science altogether. Whilst science graduates do still go into all these roles, there has been a significant emergence of scientists departing the lab for a career in science communication—and this extends to both graduates and experienced lab scientists.
Now, science communication is the general term for those who end up in writing, marketing and editing roles—all of which have a focus on communicating science to an audience. Now, depending on the type of role, this audience can range from other scientists (industry or academia), to companies looking to purchase a certain piece of equipment, students, and the general public who have no idea about science. It is a very varied field. So, here, I’m going to go through a few of the many areas that scientists can go into once they have graduated in science.
It should be noted, that this article focuses more on the written word of communication, but science communication can, and does, include infographics, videos, and anything that is used to get the scientific message across—and many of these resources can be utilised in the below science communication roles (alongside the obvious writing and editing). It should also be noted, that this is not an exhaustive list, but it details the most common science communication roles.
Disclaimer: not all areas of science communication will need a degree—especially if someone established their scientific career a while ago (before degrees became mandatory for a scientific job)—but prior scientific knowledge is required in many roles and a degree significantly helps with this alone.
Writing about the latest scientific advancements is at the core of science communication. But there are many paths to writing news that one could go down if so wished. The most obvious to many is newspapers (and their subsequent online platforms) but many will have to fight this space with those who have graduated in journalism. For the scientist who wants to communicate science news to a more scientific audience, there are a whole host of independent news sites and magazines out there covering almost every branch of science.
However, there are other options for writing news. Companies often employ people to write news (although this filters into marketing which is described below), as do associations/societies, and universities have their own communication departments (sometimes for the whole university, sometimes department or science college specific) that put out news about discoveries in recent publications from researchers at the university. So, there are a lot of options when it comes to news writing, and there are also many freelancers who do news writing for multiple news sites (see about freelancing later). A degree is only required (usually) for this type of role, but higher qualifications are beneficial.
Depending on the branch of marketing, people from both scientific and marketing backgrounds go into these roles. Whilst those from a marketing background focus more on the SEO and ‘traditional marketing aspects’ that make the company get seen in both Google searches and social media, the job of the scientist is often to create scientifically accurate content that is designed to be informative to any readers, purchasers within companies, and other scientists when reading it. This type of content is a bridge between sales writing and informative content, that makes a reader come back and buy something (be it equipment, instrumentation, chemicals, assays, or otherwise).
Most content is done in-house by the company’s own staff, but smaller companies (SMEs) will sometimes obtain freelance help. The other way that someone can get into these roles, without being limited to producing content for one company, is through a communications, marketing or PR agency. These are specialist agencies who work with multiple clients, and produce marketing pieces for their own company site, marketing/informative pieces in trade journals and press releases that go out to media companies. So, the first route enables someone to become an expert in a specific area, whereas the second provides a varied workload (in terms of scientific topic). A degree is only required (usually) for this type of role, but higher qualifications are again beneficial.
Medical writing is an area that I’ve not dealt with too much myself, but an area I still know a bit about. Whilst chemical scientists can go into it, it is an area that is more suited to biologists, biomed scientists, pharmaceutical scientists, biochemists and biotechnologists. But it is an area that bridges medicine, disease and pharmaceutical therapies, which is why many different types of scientists can fit the bill.
Unlike many other areas, a PhD is required by many companies, but some will accept those with a master’s level qualification. However, the educational standard is higher overall, and for those looking to do a varied in-house role tackling reports, clinical trial data, educational content and marketing across a range of therapeutic areas, then it may be job for you. Medical writing is also one of the few in-house roles that lets their senior (3-5 years + experience) writers work from home—mostly part-time, but full-time in some cases.
For those who want to educate, and this type of writing is open to science teachers as well, there is educational writing. This can take the form of producing courses and resources ranging all the way from high school to A-level. But, whilst there is a lot on the UK curriculum, most companies outside of the UK (which is more relevant if you’re looking to freelance) focus on the American K-12 curriculum. But there are companies in the UK, such as CGP, who focus on the UK curriculum and they offer a graduate scheme each year for graduates looking to get into this area and want to move to Cumbria (which is a nice part of the country)—and it is an area that only requires a degree. There are also multiple smaller publishers who do online courses and resources rather than printed books.
There is another side to educational writing that focuses on higher education, and that is essay ghostwriting companies. Whilst I admit, I did a bit of this in the early days of my freelancing career to get some money in, there are questionable moral and ethical issues associated with writing someone else’s essay, dissertation, or thesis (sometimes up to PhD level) for them. But it is still an area which some people choose to go into. Essentially, this involves them paying you to write their university work for them.
To get into many editing roles, people will often need to have been a writer at some stage. This is not always the case and is especially true for journals who often recruit graduate junior editors. Yet, being a writer first helps many people to eventually get into editing positions as they (often) know how to craft a story, and this helps with editing other people’s work.
Journal editing can be a varied job when it comes to editing roles and there are many skills needed—which is why many big journal publishers will recruit graduates and train them up. Whilst editing the text is obviously important to make sure that it fits the style, an editor’s job also includes formatting the journal (words, diagrams, graphs etc) in certain computer programs, managing the peer-review process, marketing the journals, indexing the journal and liaising with authors over the status of their submission. A degree is only required for the junior positions but given that a lot of knowledge on the subject is required, higher degrees are beneficial, as is applying for editor positions in your immediate scientific field (e.g. chemistry, materials science, biology etc). There are also a lot of big journal publishing houses out there, from Springer, to Elsevier, to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and other scientific societies/associations which have their own journals.
News editors, much like news writers, can work for a range of publications. In many cases, unless recruited by larger (usually newspapers) media companies as a junior editor, most editors will be a seasoned writer first. This helps in knowing what stories to craft, directing what content should be on the site (to fit the audience), and it enables editors to give better feedback to writers. But an editor’s job is not just editing. Other tasks will include writing pieces of their own, formatting the articles before publishing, arranging the images, and in some cases (for smaller sites) making sure that the content is SEO optimised and sharing the published content across social media channels.
The role of a news editor does vary depending on what type of media company that you are working for. So, it is not a ‘one size fits all’ role. The tasks that an editor may undertake can also vary depending on their seniority, and this ranges from junior editors, to senior editors, managing editors, editor-in-chiefs and heads of content. But once you’re in the editing space, it is an area where there can be a lot of progression.
If you’re working for an association or university, rather than a media company, and you are producing news (alongside other content) for that association/university, then it is likely that you would become a communications/science communications officer, rather than an ‘editor’.
Medical editing is not as stringent on the qualification front as medical writing is. Where medical writers need an in-depth knowledge to write cohesively and accurately, it is a medical editor’s job to fit the grammatical and language errors in a manuscript. Obviously, having a scientific background helps, as it enables the editor to spot scientific mistakes and to make the writing clearer and without the unnecessary jargon (and know when to change/edit scientific terms). It is a role that medical writers can go into, but it is also a sidestep role, as there are plenty of progression steps on the writing front, and it is a completely different type of role. Some choose to go this route, whilst others stay on the medical writing path.
If you’re of the more adventurous type, then freelancing may be the way to go, as you get to be your own boss and work with multiple people—be it companies, media sites, associations, communication agencies, or all the above. So, the work is a lot more varied, and in my experience, more fun. Most people who go into freelancing will have a few years within an in-house role before making the leap. I didn’t, I went straight from university, but my route is not conventional. Would I change it? No. Would I deter other people from going that route? No. But it is a hard route, and it is a steep learning curve.
Most people who go from an in-house role into freelancing will already have a portfolio behind them, so many years of experience and contacts. Starting without any of them is a hard, as you need to build all three, as well as learn how to build new business, set rates which won’t leave you working for nothing and construct and send invoices. Perhaps one of the things many people don’t realise about freelancing is the amount of unpaid time that goes on behind the scenes (and therefore, balancing your rate is important to factor in these hours). Unpaid time includes the time spent to pitch to new clients, talk with new and existing clients about work, doing accounts and invoicing, sharing your work to social media, and building relationships, your network and contacts.
Another thing to freelancing is that you can specialise wherever you want, be it writing for media sites, companies, doing technical editing, doing ghostwriting and editing, providing educational content, working with video, or even scientific illustration. You also get to represent yourself at any social gathering, rather than going on a company’s behalf. But it comes with often longer pay times, clients not paying at all, no sick pay and no private pension (unless you put into one yourself). Personally, I think the benefits outweigh the challenges, but I come from a biased position on this.
Overall, it is a rewarding route that can earn more (in the long run, not in the short-term) than an in-house role, provide more varied work, provide a greater degree of published work and a more flexible lifestyle—regardless of the number of years of experience someone has before turning to freelancing. Whether it is right for you, depends on whether you prefer stability (and a stable income) or flexibility (and an income that can peak and trough at any moment).
If anybody wants anymore information on getting into freelancing, then get in touch with me on LinkedIn, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions.