Journey to Journalism

"Right," I said to myself. "There is no way this is going to work. I mean, I might be able to fix the cell harvester, I might set up an assay with cells that don't die, and eventually-eventually--I might even get solid, interesting data. But there is just no way research will make me happy."

This was rather difficult to admit, even to myself, given that I had always thought my vocation was in research. By the end of my Ph.D. I would have spent no fewer than 9 years training as a scientist, and I wondered how I could possibly have got it so wrong. What puzzled me was that studying science did not feel like such a mistake, yet doing science was agony.

The obvious had been staring at me all along. What I loved in science was the theory--the thrill of pushing the limits of my understanding of how things worked. And more than anything, I was yearning to tell the world about it.

The public outcry against human cloning, and the conversations I had with anxious friends, convinced me that people were just as eager to know about what was going on in the labs. They wanted to understand scientific advances because they realised that decisions that would change their day-to-day life, even society as a whole, would otherwise be taken without them. I felt their right to speak was largely overlooked by the scientific community, and the hype generated by the media did not make the situation any better.

I had all the enthusiasm necessary for a career in science writing, but halfway through my Ph.D. my journalistic dreams seemed out of reach. That was before I realised that budding science writers are actually offered a lot of support and encouragement. Next Wave, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of British Science Writers, and the Wellcome Trust all made major contributions to my career transition. They provided crucial advice and information on how to get started and also made my dream possible in their own ways. Next Wave made me believe in my new career, with its articles on the experiences of other scientists turned writers; the British Association for the Advancement of Science fueled my desire to promote a better public understanding of science; and the Association of British Science Writers and the Wellcome Trust funded my year in journalism studies.

The best tip that anyone can offer someone who wants to follow a career in science writing is the most obvious: If you are serious about becoming a journalist, you have to start writing. Right now--if you aren't already. Getting the discipline of writing on top of working in a lab can be difficult, and I found competitions such as those organised by The Daily Telegraph/BASF and New Scientist extremely helpful. They provide a goal, a subject, and, more important than anything, a deadline. Often there are other opportunities in your own scientific community. The British Society for Immunology, for example, organised a "Media Training Day" where us scientists put on a journalist's hat for a few hours. I am also immensely grateful to the society's newsletter for prompting and publishing my first-ever article.

Still, the leap from the lab to the newsroom is quite daunting, and journalism courses can prove very helpful. I felt I would learn more from a general journalism course than one in science communication. As a non-native English speaker (I am French), I was anxious to perfect my English, and I thought more time would be dedicated to the quality of writing in a general course. Also, after so many years of studying I feared I knew scientists' minds only too well and was in search of a different approach to the world. The greatest challenge and reward in science writing is to get the message across to completely lay audiences, and your only chance of succeeding is to be able to see the world through their eyes.

I was incredibly lucky to be accepted to the Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism Studies at Cardiff University, and even more so to be offered a bursary from the Wellcome Trust and the Association of British Science Writers. All the efforts I had made to get a glimpse of the journalistic world paid off when it came to filling in the application forms, including the test of turning a Nature article into a New Scientist-style one, which would win me the £10,000 grant.

I tremendously enjoyed my year at Cardiff University. In a very intense first term we were taught all the writing and interviewing skills we needed to be journalists. In the following months we were plunged in at the deep end of a newsroom and felt like real journalists. Twice a week the 30 people in the course produced our own paper, getting rushes of adrenaline as we took turns as reporters, news editors, subeditors, and chief sub. The electric atmosphere that fills the newsroom before the publication deadline, and the pride you feel when you see your work in print, is definitely addictive.

I probably lied a bit when I said I went for a "general" journalism course. It became clear to me very quickly that if I loved writing, it was only about science. I remained patient during the first term, but my frustration increased as my articles were systematically rejected during news conferences. Realising that people tend to switch off when they hear scientific words is probably the most important lesson I have learned. Determined to switch them on anyway, I one day stormed into my tutor's office and begged him to allocate a whole page to science. I felt confident and fulfilled in my new role as science reporter and editor, and my science pages eventually became very popular in the newsroom. I had won my battle.

But another battle had been waiting for me all through that year. In order to take the course I had put the writing of my thesis on hold. Finishing off my Ph.D. was probably the last thing I wanted to do when all my classmates were embarking on their journalism careers, but my experience as a science reporter gave me the best of motivations. Tell a scientist you are one of them, and they give you the interview you want.

I have just submitted my thesis and can at last look for a job that will reconcile my aspirations to be both a scientist and a writer.

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