Do you know about “informational interviews”? You should. It’s where an early career (or pre-career) person reaches out to someone that has a job they think they might like, or want to get into, and have questions about. They’re super awesome. I did a bunch when I was in late grad school and didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and people were SO NICE. And helpful.
Three of these experiences stand out in my memory, all from about 2017. One was a person I found on LinkedIn who worked at Science, one was a writer who wrote the coolest article I had ever read (it was about cactuses, in Atlas Obscura).
And one was Ed Yong. LOL. Alas, Ed Yong did not agree to an interview, but he did grace me with an email reply, and linked me to a post he had written about his career path. Here’s Ed’s post, which happens to be on his old Discover magazine blog. It once had an endless comment thread with other people sharing their stories, which has since been lost from the Disco site but lives on at The Open Notebook. Check out the latter for career stories from people much cooler than me!
Fast forward five years and I’m already doing informational interviews from the other side, which feels insane, but here we are. Since they can be SO HELPFUL (and yet, kind of all start the same) I thought I'd write up some of the most common Qs and As I've asked and been asked. Here goes nothing:
Tell me about your path leading up to your current career!
My bachelor’s is in environmental studies, and at graduation from undergrad, I thought I wanted to be an ecologist (or at least, it was the best plan I had). I took a year off and then went to grad school, but that was a real drag (Understatement. It was… traumatic?) It took me years to realize that research was the part I didn’t like and that “scientist” probs wasn’t a good life choice for me. The isolation of the “independent researcher” (both socially and intellectually), the lack of structure, and the super-long project timeframes did NOT suit me.
Meanwhile, I still adored science (I just didn’t want to do it) and found I had a real knack for talking about it. I loved talking about my science, other people’s science, any science. I considered going into teaching, or science policy, or any other science communication field you can think of, and I applied to every fellowship and internship and job I could find (even some non-academic science ones). I got exactly one: The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. Luckily, it was perfect fit, and I’ve been writing ever since.
What did you do in grad school that prepared you for your career?
I never really sought out “career-building” activities per se. But since I really, really liked science communication, I naturally gravitated toward relevant activities. I taught intro biology to non-majors (a gen ed requirement at my school; most students did not want to be there), I started a blog to write about science (which turned mostly into a blog about grad school), I volunteered at career days and science festivals, stuff like that. I didn’t really think of it as “science communication.” It was more like “I will do these things to stay afloat while my research attempts to destroy my soul.”
What do you wish you’d done differently in grad school to better prepare for your career?
Honestly, I think I did pretty well for myself, given how things turned out. I always felt pressure to do more #scicomm, in particular to do more outreach about my own work, especially on social media. Like, aren’t I supposed to be growing my Twitter following with threads of fun facts and pictures about prairies (my research subject)? And talking to schoolchildren about milkweed or something? I didn’t have the energy for that, and it turned out, it was fine to not do. If you’re forcing something as a grad student and not enjoying it, you probably don’t want to end up with that as your career, anyway.
Are you glad you finished grad school once you knew you wouldn’t stay in research?
Ah, yes. This used to be a question I asked myself regularly — I think, at the time, I mostly finished out of stubbornness and inertia and spite. I had already put so much time in, I only had so much left, I’d said I’d do it, I suspected I’d regret not finishing, etc etc. Some days I leaned toward no, I wasn’t glad I stuck it out (especially toward the end). But looking back, yes, I’m glad I finished what I started.
That said, if you’re an unhappy science grad student, you need to do what’s right for you. Don’t sacrifice your health, for instance, for a diploma. (Quick aside: If your health is indeed getting dragged down, tell your doctor, they may be able to help. I should’ve, would’ve, could’ve gone on anti-anxiety, anti-depressants years earlier, but I thought my symptoms would magically disappear after I defended. They did not.)
Are you glad you went to grad school at all?
Yes, actually! I am very, very thankful that I have such a strong science background to hold up my science communication efforts. Personally, I think it’d be way, way harder to “pick up” science after working as a writer and/or journalist and/or marketing professional than it is the other way around. Perhaps this isn’t generalizable to others — it’s possible I have a bit of “natural” writing ability (eye roll, sorry) but it took me years to fully grasp science. Maybe for other people it’s the other way around?
Not to mention all the connections I made in grad school, both professionally and socially. I met my husband. I met best best lifelong friends. I got to live in a new state for a few years. My time in grad school changed my life in many ways, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Do you feel like you’re “using your degree”?
Yes, I do. Am I using my explicit knowledge about the community assembly of native and non-native plants in restored prairies? Very rarely, but I get a lot of joy when I can contribute to those conversations (and my very kind advisor and colleagues still include me on papers, which is much more fun now that I’m not a sad student)!
Much more valuable has been my general understanding of how science works — the process, the grants, the labs, the publications, how to read a paper critically, and more. What makes scientists tick. I think you could pick this up with enough exposure, but I lived it. I think it makes me a way, way, way better science communicator.
Do you recommend journalism school? I see some schools have Masters in Science Journalism programs.
That really depends. For some people, these programs are really valuable. But I think I wouldn’t recommend journalism school as a Plan A for someone leaving science (especially science grad school) for journalism. I would get your feet wet with general blogging or other writing opportunities, and try to just jump in first — apply to fellowships like the AAAS MMF I already mentioned, internships, or any other entry-level opportunities. J school, as the insiders call it, costs money, and I hate for anyone to spend thousands on tuition for something not needed.
That said, journalism school can be a game-changer if you feel like you need help breaking into the field. Especially if it’s possible your writing needs work and could benefit from some serious, consistent feedback from mentors who are paid to teach you how to write. A degree program can also get you a load of new connections, so if you’re not snagging the fellowships or internships that might get your foot in doors, school can be another solid route.
Your first gig after grad school was your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship where you were stationed at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. What was that fellowship and newspaper like?
Dude, it was amazing. AAAS taught me EVERYTHING about journalism in like 36 hours of orientation (OK certainly not everything, but everything they could’ve possibly crammed into 36 hours). It was incredible. When I applied to the fellowship, I had hoped to get assigned to a Big Name™ outlet, like NPR or National Geographic, and admittedly I was a little sad to get “stuck with” a local paper. That is, until I had my interview — most sites don’t even do interviews — with my soon-to-be editor. It was incredible, and the MJS picked me, and I loved them with my whole heart. I would’ve stayed on after my fellowship was over if they had had a spot for a science writer (alas, they did not). Milwaukee is an incredible place and felt very much like home (I’m from Chicago), and working in that newsroom was a dream.
What was your job there?
The MJS lovingly called me the “science intern” (“AAAS mass media fellow” just didn’t fit). I had both an assigned editor and a “mentor” (another reporter) who kept me on track. It was pretty open-ended, I was welcome to pitch as many ideas as I wanted and they’d pick out the good ones, and they’d assign me plenty of ideas of their own. I just wrote as fast as I could, honestly, writing one story after the other. I think I wrote about two stories each week. Got a couple front-pagers, which felt amazing. It was, I cannot emphasize this enough, so much fun.
Any advice for applying to the AAAS fellowship?
Yes, in fact, I wrote a whole post on it: What I had on my (successful) AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application. Apps are due in January, put it on your calendar.
How did you get your job at Discover?
I was very, very lucky and #blessed. When the summer was something like halfway over, another reporter at the paper stopped by my desk one day and said something along the lines of, “I don’t mean to presumptuous, and I don’t know if you like what you’re doing or what your plans are for after the summer is over, but I just talked to [the editor in chief of Discover] and talked you up, and she’s hiring, and if you’re interested you should send her your resume right now. She’s expecting you.”
Ummm……….. Yeah that was probably the nicest and most life-changing single tiny thing any person has ever done for me. Sorry that this doesn’t help you snag a job at Discover, or anywhere for that matter! Maybe the takeaway is "associate with kind people." That's probably good advice for life either way.
What was your job at Discover like?
I started as assistant editor and was promoted after about a year to associate. At first, it was seriously a dream job. For maybe six months I’d show up to the office, sit at my desk in my office with my name on the door, and just be totally in awe that this was, indeed, my job. I not only had a career in science communication — a feat that seemed unachievable just six months earlier — but I was an editor at Discover holy crap!!!!!!11
I did a lot of writing at first, and slowly ramped up my editing. I had never “been an editor” before, but being good at writing and having edited plenty of written work (for instance, papers and applications that my friends and colleagues wrote all through grad school) was plenty. That involved a lot of assigning stories, editing the stories, thinking about what sorts of images would go with them, coordinating fact checks and designers, and more. I did a bunch of other fun stuff too, like making YouTube videos, appearing on NPR radio shows, and picking book excerpts to run in the magazine.
Why did you decide to leave a staff job to freelance?
Like I said, I was in heaven for about six months, maybe a year. Then a lot of downsizing and layoffs and turnover really got me down, and really changed not only the vibe but also my actual work and workload. Meanwhile, I started to really notice what we were paying freelancers, and what other freelancers were saying they were making, and it seemed like significantly more I was making on staff. I thought about leaving for a while, and when my husband was offered a job in another state, I left.
What do you like most and least about your job now, as a freelancer?
I know I said I hated the lack of structure of grad school, but now I love the flexibility of freelancing. It doesn’t have that same floundering vibe as grad school, mostly since close deadlines make it much easier to get out of bed and get your work done in a timely fashion! It also allows for a much more varied workload — you can be working on one project one day, and something totally different the next. I love that I can now do not only journalism, but also throw in things like content marketing (which pays way more) and working for nonprofits (which is super rewarding) and working for scientists (which feels good in a certain otherwise-neglected part of my brain).
Least? Probably that it’s a lot harder to take sick time or vacations. At least, I haven’t quite mastered it yet. There’s obviously no paid leave, so any time you’re not working, no matter the reason, you’re just not going to get paid. It seems like any time I have time off planned, a client asks for something and I think, well, don’t want to let this opportunity go by! So, I haven’t taken much time off in the past year of freelancing at all. Most of my “days off” have ended up having a couple hours of last-minute work thrown in to meet some deadline, or I didn’t quite finish my pre-vacation project and have to wrap it up. For me, even if it’s only a little bit of work time, that ruins my “day off” vibe.
You mentioned… content marketing? What’s that?
Oh! It’s actually what I’ve been doing the most of, recently. It’s very similar to science journalism, except instead of a media outlet contracting an article, it’s a company or organization. These groups might have a blog on their website, or an email newsletter, or a social media presence that really benefits form thoughtful, scientifically accurate writing.
It took me a second to get used to it, like, morally, because I had assumed it was something shadier than it actually is. I had always learned, essentially, that everything on the internet is a lie unless it comes from a “credible source,” and especially to not trust anything that comes from someone who’s trying to sell you something. But now that that “anything” is something I wrote, I have a more nuanced perspective. These people just want people to make their way to their website (where, yes, they may be selling something) — but these days the standard way to lure people in is to have good content.
Plus, most companies and orgs in the science sector have a greater mission and vision beyond their product, too — they not only want you to buy (or buy into) their thing, they really do want you to read their stuff and learn about their topic! It’s really fun. So, sure, the internet can be a hell-hole, but there are a lot of people out there doing good work in places you might not expect! It also helps that I haven’t run into any clients with even the remotest interest of “fudging” anything in their favor. I’m sure those bad guys are out there, but I haven’t met them, and if I did, I’d kindly take my services elsewhere.
Any other advice for me?
You’ll be great. And I do encourage you to reach out to more people for informational interviews! Just maybe not the most famous science writer you can think of. He’s busy.
Got more questions other people might want to see answered, too? Drop them below. Got a super-secret question just for me? Drop me an email.