Diary of a British Scientist: Catalyst for a New Career


[Editor's Note: Jemima Jobhunter is a pseudonym for an actual scientist, who studied immunology and pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde and then moved on to Newcastle University, where she got her Ph.D. Since 1995, Dr. Jobhunter has been working as a postdoc on a rheumatoid arthritis project at Bristol University. She says what mainly attracted her to this project was the opportunity to travel to Mexico, where her lab has collaborators!

Like many young scientists struggling to establish themselves in science, Dr. Jobhunter has started seriously considering career alternatives, and in particular science communication. Below, in the first of what we hope will be a series of articles, she describes her first steps along the road she hopes will take her from the bench to a shining new career!]

I am going to be a science writer, I am going to be a science writer, I am going to be a science writer ...

My current state of mind allows me to believe that the number of times I tell this to myself (or indeed anyone I happen to meet) correlates with my chances of escaping from the world of the laboratory to that of science journalism. In the hope that my prayers are answered, God for me comes in the form of "the effective communication of science" or "the public understanding of science." Every week I eagerly consume the pages of the well-known science magazines and dwell on the coverage of scientific issues in the press. I have found a new passion.

So how did I arrive here? To most readers it will come as no surprise that the number of young, and even not so young, scientists opting out of research and facing decisions about alternative careers is escalating rapidly. I can take some comfort from the fact that I am not alone; however, the competition suggests that I may be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. Having completed a fulfilling Ph.D. in immunology, life as a postdoctoral researcher soon became a much less fulfilling fight for survival. In addition, my enthusiasm for benchwork was running its course, and so an alternative direction had to be explored.

Because my research interests had always been clinically oriented, I was keen to explore the possibility of working as a clinical research associate (CRA) for the pharmaceutical industry. For some time this seemed to be a natural and viable option; however, after considering the advice of many who are experienced in the field, I realized that this perhaps was not the best direction for me to follow. It seemed to me that many CRAs spend a lot of time data handling and "managing" patients and GPs involved in trials. Raw data was something I wanted to move away from. Of course, not being able to get my foot in the door also contributed to my decision to abandon the CRA path.

Because I had prepared a Ph.D. thesis and several research manuscripts, along with endless grant proposals and progress reports, I thought naively that the next step would be to become a science writer of some description. I know now how wrong I was. Nevertheless, this initial confidence sparked a chain of significant events.

The most momentous catalyst presented itself as a trip to New York. I received a letter from a highly respected group of science publishers that I had applied to inviting me for an interview in the Big Apple. What better place to start, I asked myself. "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere!" A couple of days later, I was having to make the transition from pushing back the frontiers of science in the lab to preparing for an interview in a Park Lane hotel.

I survived a grueling but enlightening interview for an assistant editor post (with jet lag) surprisingly well and felt privileged to have gained an insight into a large publishing organization. For the first time I had the opportunity to talk with members of an inspiring editorial team, all of whom had been engaged in scientific research prior to their leap into publishing. Although I had enjoyed preparing a piece of technical writing as part of the selection process, while admiring the view of the Empire State Building, I realized that it was not only basic science but issues such as policy, education, funding, and news that I yearned to communicate. And so my quest for a job that would let me do this began.

Blessing in disguise is solace I now take from being denied that opportunity to launch myself into science publishing. Who wants to live in Manhattan anyway? It was an encouraging start, but several months and several more rejections later I have come to terms with the fact that making the transition from a research-based to a writing career is not easy. I seem to be placed somewhere on the toughest part of a very steep learning curve. But then I wouldn't expect someone experienced in the communications field to turn their hand to life in the laboratory without a struggle.

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