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Science Writing – Career Perspective

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Who Needs Science Writers?

Lots of groups do. Science writers can be found almost anywhere science is done, and quite a few places where it's not. From my own unscientific observations, it seems that the most jobs are in a field known as public relations or public information. Virtually every university, medical center, hospital, or institution that does research has its own staff of reporters that keeps tabs on the happenings at the institution. Public information officers, or PIOs for short, write press releases that are distributed to the media, contribute to in-house publications and alumni magazines, and serve as a liaison between reporters and the institution's staff. They also monitor local and national media trends so they know which staff members might have something valuable to say to reporters about the latest hot issue.

Government research institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Energy also have PIOs, as do many companies with science-related products. And sometimes independent public relations firms represent these types of institutions.

Museums or aquariums are another option for science writers. These institutions need writers to publicize research and exhibits, as well as to help design and write signs for the exhibits themselves.

Other outlets include magazines and newspapers. There are several popular science magazines-Discover, Science News, New Scientist, Bio-Science, and Popular Science, to name a few. Journals such as Science and Nature have their own reporters, and a lot of general news magazines such as Time and Newsweek also have specialized science writers. Health and trade magazines need writers with a technical background as well.

Some universities, such as Harvard, publish newsletters that summarize the latest advances and trends in a variety of medical specialties. And I've seen more and more jobs advertised lately for World Wide Web publications. Some of my colleagues have written for children's science books and TV shows. Writers who have been around for a while doing smaller pieces often venture into book writing. One science writer I know uses his writing skills to write speeches and memos for company executives. Another has helped edit an undergraduate biology textbook.

Many people have asked me about freelancing. This is an attractive option for someone who doesn't want to be tied down to a staff position. A word of caution, though. Most freelancers don't rely on freelance dollars as their sole source of income. Many have part-time jobs or a spouse who helps pay the bills. However, if you get some really good clients, it's possible to survive this way.

So to sum up, there are a lot of different types of a job for a writer who knows science. But first, you'll probably need a little training.

How Do I Become A Science Writer?

After finishing my Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis, I enrolled in a 9-month science writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In that short time, I learned to write news stories, features, and essays. I got practice reporting and interviewing and did two 10-week internships at The Californian, a small paper in Salinas, Calif. I covered everything from community social programs to murders.

While not all science writers have formal training in journalism, I think it helps. Through the program at Santa Cruz, I met many professional writers and editors who gave me a good sense of the field. And I was able to get those invaluable "clips"-printed newspaper and newsletter articles that served as part of my portfolio when I applied for an internship at the Morning News.

There are several programs across the country that train science writers. There will be more about how to find these at the end of the chapter. If you can spare the time and the money, I would recommend applying. The American Association for the Advancement of Science also offers Mass Media internships every summer. The contacts you'll make and the clips you'll accumulate will help you get your foot in the door. But if taking one of these programs isn't an option, I offer a couple of tips.

First, do whatever it takes to get an article published! Even one clip can get you your next assignment. If you have to write an article for a small newspaper or a newsletter for free, do it! If nothing else, it will give you a flavor for the job. My first clip was a short article that was printed in one of the free community newspapers in St. Louis. I'm forever grateful to that paper's editor, because my modest clip helped me get into the writing program in Santa Cruz.

Second, read an introductory undergraduate journalism textbook. This type of book will introduce you to the basics. Even if you don't want to write for a newspaper, the advice in the book should help you get away from academic-style prose and move you toward a writing style that is more easily understood by lay people. Whatever type of writing is your goal, practicing the newspaper style will teach you to organize your thoughts, to write in a conversational style, and to cut out unnecessary words.

If you do attend a journalism or writing program, be prepared to work hard, and also to learn a whole new way of thinking. I learned more in my 9 months at Santa Cruz than I did in almost any 9-month stretch working on my dissertation.

Can I Make Money Doing This?

Yes! How much you make depends on where you work. I'll give some general salary ranges; these are estimates based on job advertisements and information from friends.

Newspapers: Generally the bigger the paper, the higher the salary. Small papers (circulation from 25,000 to 40,000) might pay $25,000; experienced reporters at the largest papers might make $70,000 to $80,000 or more in certain cities. Everyone else falls somewhere in between. (Note: small newspapers generally don't have the resources to devote a reporter exclusively to science, so you'll probably find yourself covering other beats as well.)

Public Information: Starting salaries can be from $30,000 to $40,000. With more experience and a promotion or two, you might earn $60,000 or more. Large, private institutions or companies are likely to pay more than public institutions.

Magazines: Depending on your experience and ability, starting salaries might be in the $30,000s. Big-time magazine writers probably make in the $70,000 to $80,000 range.

Freelancers: Fees will depend on the publication. Most freelancers are paid by the word-with word count assigned by the editor. Fees can range anywhere from $0.25 to $2.00 a word, and will also vary depending on the publication and the writer's experience. Freelancing is hard work-to earn a steady income, writers need to have several stories going at once and they need to constantly generate new ideas.

Other jobs: Salaries will vary according to institution and the writer's experience. But in general, science writers can certainly expect to earn at least as much as academic scientists, and often more.

How Do I Find A Job?

I see a lot of job advertisements for science writers, so there definitely are jobs to be had. How easy it is to get one obviously depends on your writing and reporting ability, as well as your own demands. There are more jobs in the cities, and if you are committed to a particular region, your options will be more limited. Job advertisements are posted through the standard institutional channels, and members of the National Association of Science Writers can check their Web site for openings. More about NASW later.

What Are My Opportunities For Advancement?

Once you have a job as a science writer, there are several courses your career can take. As you gain experience as a writer, you should be able to get more challenging assignments and to receive promotions and raises. Some writers transfer to more prominent publications when they feel it's time to move on. Others become editors. Lastly, if you find you really like writing and don't feel compelled to write about science exclusively, you'll have a lot of options. So many people have phobias about writing that they'll gladly hire someone who can do it without too much effort.
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