Diary of a British Scientist, Part 4: Back to School


The prospect of returning to higher education simultaneously filled me with both horror and excitement. Like many, I had vowed staunchly NEVER to sit another examination, and after the trials and tribulations of a Ph.D., I had vowed to never perform in a vivalike situation again. But a few years later, I am genuinely getting excited about directed study, including dissertations, timetables, boxfiles, and all.

Prior to finding out about the Diploma in Science Communication offered by Birkbeck College (University of London), I had made some enquiries about other communications courses available in the U.K. and--when I was feeling particularly adventurous--also in the U.S. There appeared to be many available courses with titles ranging from "Science Communication" to "Science and Its Publics," offered as full-time or part-time degrees or diplomas. The Wellcome Trust publishes a useful and concise directory of all the courses available in the U.K. and Ireland.

The main attraction of the Birkbeck course was that it integrates comfortably with full-time employment, thereby avoiding the time (and equally important) the financial constraints associated with further education. I wasn't prepared to sacrifice my job and salary to commence a full-time study program, and combining the study of science communication while working in a "real live" active research environment felt like it would be a healthy balance.

Birkbeck College describes their diploma as "a nationally available part-time course for full-time communicators, managers of external relations, researchers, and anyone wishing to contribute to public understanding of science." Most students are science graduates, some now conduct research in universities or research institutes, others work in publishing or publicity, and some come from more traditional science careers such as teaching. Birkbeck contracts out professional science communicators to teach each session (this method of teaching came highly recommended from others in the profession). Some of the tutors have very varied backgrounds and have worked as staff writers or editors on international science publications, while others come from a more academic background. This means that the program offers a lot of practical hands-on experience as well as the essential theory behind communications.

The program is divided into six streams: the nature of science, understanding the media, science and its publics, language and personal communication skills, other media studies, and case studies in science communication. Although I was drawn initially to the course by the concentration on writing skills offered in the first year, I was also excited about the prospect of getting some experience of science broadcasting. I also wanted to delve into some science philosophy--a discipline that I had until now avoided but feel a bit more equipped to deal with!

I had to think carefully about committing myself to a program of study lasting 2 years, but I felt that it must surely be an investment. Each year consists of 5 weekend meetings and a 1-week summer school. This means that students with demanding full-time jobs are likely to be able to attend all the meetings, assuming that they can get to London easily. As often happens without warning, I have been struck with many pangs as I realize that the academic life offers a lot of flexibility and freedom. I have the luxury of being able to organize my time such that the diploma studies do not interfere with my research time and vice versa. However, this freedom somehow doesn't seem to be enough to stop me from making a mad rush to exit through the lab door!

After going through the selection procedure, I secured a place for the 1999 incoming class. Off I went with my new schoolbag and pencil-case to the first weekend meeting in London. I really had no idea what to expect. The class consisted of 15 pupils with fantastically mixed backgrounds. There were a few token disillusioned postdocs interspersed with industry researchers, medical writers, representatives from the media, the Natural History Museum, and the National Space Centre. It was a real melting pot of scientists all eager to engage in this thing we call "Science Communication." It had all the makings of a promising start.........

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