Going Solo


I have always been interested in science. At the risk of sounding trite, I like the way it helps us understand who we are, where we came from, and where we might be going. While I was at university, I also became interested in what people think about science. Why was it culturally acceptable for friends studying arts and humanities to be proud not to know what DNA was, but socially shameful for me not to be able to spout Shakespeare fluently?

It took a while for me to realise that I could pursue both these interests and call it a career, but over the past 12 years I have been fortunate enough to work in all sorts of projects aimed at bringing science out of its ivory towers and onto the streets. I have worked in science journalism and science media relations; I have managed large-scale public events and exhibitions; I have developed interactive projects to make science more user friendly; and I've administered grant schemes to encourage public engagement with science.

About this time last year, it occurred to me that I might be able to build on these experiences to go beyond the boundaries of more traditional office jobs and carve out a niche for myself as a self-employed science communicator. Five months into what some would call a crazy experiment, I'm in a better position to ask, and even begin to answer, a number of questions:

  • Does the joy of being my own boss compensate for having to be my own employee? (Yes)

  • Have I just swapped time spent commuting to the office for time spent fretting about where the next piece of work will come from? (No)

  • Is freedom from the office an overly optimistic term for imprisonment at home? (No)

Clearly, my new lifestyle is still very much a work in progress, and I hope what I write here doesn't come back to haunt me in the future. But I am beginning to get the feel of what works and what doesn't. I'm in a better position to identify the previous experiences that are serving me in good stead. And the list of things I wish I'd known is even beginning to be balanced out by pleasant surprises.

So, what do I do?

I call myself a science communicator, which probably means different things to different people. In the context of my work and this article, however, it is about building relations between science and its many public audiences. This really means operating from two viewpoints:

  • First, to identify the interests of those audiences, which might at any one time include journalists, politicians, educationalists, and general or specialised 'publics.'

  • Second, to reflect those interests, by delving into science to find out what's going on, and working out new ways of talking about it. Here, my job is to work alongside scientists themselves as well as with the funders of research and the organisations in which the research happens.

What does that mean in practice?

It is hard to describe a typical working week, as one varies hugely from the next. But, to give you an idea, at the moment I am involved with the following projects: interviewing and writing about scientists for the Royal Society's new Web showcase; managing the Aventis Prizes for Science Books--one of the biggest nonfiction literary prizes; acting as a mentor for projects supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's public awareness awards; and promoting new pieces of research to the UK media on behalf of a number of international research organisations.

This mixture calls upon a broad range of skills, which includes being confident in interviewing scientists and persistent enough to ask seemingly stupid questions until you have enough information to say something interesting, amusing, or meaningful to someone who's new to a topic; keeping a media-savvy eye out for a story or piece of research that might be promoted to mainstream news desks; exercising a raft of organisational skills to coordinate the hundreds of book entries and people involved with a prominent books prize. And, throughout it all, balancing the demands of different clients, delivering to deadlines, and trying to achieve a reasonable life-work balance.

On top of jobs I am actually working on, I am also busy putting together bids for new work and undertaking the extensive administration required to keep the tax people happy and the technical side of things functioning smoothly. And now that I'm coming up to the end of my first 6 months, I want to think about the strategic directions I might develop in, and what I need to put in place to market myself. I have been fortunate enough to rely on word-of-mouth recommendation until now, but a Web site and a more "official" identity will help me in the future.

What have I been surprised by?

The most obvious question for anyone setting up independently is whether there's enough work out there. So far, I am relieved to say that this doesn't seem to have been a particular problem. Doing a lot of research before I left the security of my previous employment gave me a good idea of where the gaps in the market might lie, which organisations would be likely to outsource work, what kind of work it might be, and how and where I could best pitch myself.

I am gradually discovering ways of generating variety and an overall purpose to my work, to ensure that the working week doesn't feel like an eternity or a string of disconnected contracts. Securing some longer-term jobs brings a security and sense of continuity that has given me the platform to continue being flexible and responsive in the shorter term--two of the joys of being self-employed.

Mixing the kinds of work I do, operating alone in some cases and as part of a team in others, ensuring a variety of clients, and making sure I still go out to meet people and attend events all help to substitute for the support, perspective, and company provided by office life. When I went out at first, I used to feel almost naked without a cloak of "corporate respectability" to hide behind--but I'm rapidly discovering that being taken for who you are, rather than what organisation you work for, can be just as enjoyable.

Something I didn't anticipate, but which I am learning fast, is how tricky it can be to work out how long things will take. Without this, it's impossible to know how much to charge. I am beginning to understand how to balance optimism with a little restraint, in order to set fees and timescales that clients are happy with and that I can deliver to.

I am also learning how to deal with the endless jokes from my friends about a Utopian life of pyjamas and daytime TV. Finding ways to dedicate both time and space to a home office is important to ensure you get the work done, but not at the expense of the rest of your life. Domestic diversions have not yet proved to be too much of a problem--I continue to be grateful for the advice someone gave me before I started: "If you can't keep your mind on your work, then you should think about changing careers."

What tips do I have?

The rhythm of self-employment can be quite different from that of a full-time job in an office. I have made a number of realisations in the last 5 months that are gradually improving my new way of work. Finding ways to shape the working day is important: building synergies between different jobs, using contacts made through one job to help with another, and developing a web of connections between what I do all helps.

Confidence and clarity in defining my intellectual property--what it is that I'm "selling"--has also enabled me to secure more contracts. Thinking consciously about what pieces of work I want to be associated with has steered me away from things that might look less good to potential new clients. Having the courage to insist on clarity about a job specification up front is also important. Finally, being clear about what's possible to deliver has helped me to be wary of unsolvable problems that are being outsourced--there may be a good reason why no one else has managed to resolve them. ...

What experience has been useful?

It's hard to be prescriptive about the right kind of experience for a freelance career in science public relations. I suspect quite a lot depends on temperament and character--a predilection for risk taking, the courage to promote yourself, and an optimism that things will work out all help. Ironically, a short and not very successful spell as an impecunious freelancer 10 years ago has also been useful in teaching me what to plan and what can rest in the lap of the gods.

A scientific training of some sort is useful (mine's in zoology); a large Rolodex and as much relevant experience as you can chalk up also help. I did an MSc in science communication, which gave me many good ideas about different ways of writing about research. It also put me in touch with people I still regularly work with today. But I wouldn't imply that it's an absolute requirement--real experience is very often more attractive to prospective employers.

A stint as the editor of Current Opinion in Cell Biology (combined with that science degree) helped me appreciate how science and scientists work. Three years as a publicity manager at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council ( BBSRC) gave me invaluable opportunities to discover what the public is interested in, where their concerns lie, and where science might (or might not) fit in.

Time spent as a science journalist with the BBC World Service, the French Association of Science Writers in Paris, and the European Federation of Biotechnology in the Netherlands taught me not only how to work at an international level, but also gave me first-hand experience of what goes into producing good media stories. Subsequent jobs running parts of the press office at the British Association Annual Festival and building media relations at BBSRC gave me knowledge from the other side of the fence.

Finally, an understanding of some of the politics behind science has helped me appreciate how all these things fit together--how they are driven, what gets funded, and where the priorities are likely to lie. My job at BBSRC and 2 years of redeveloping Copus (previously the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science) into a network for science communication in all its forms helped provide a perspective on what's happening, who the key players are, and how best to become involved.

Where from here?

The great thing about working for yourself is that you can set yourself up to do whatever interests you. In my case, I continue to be curious about what people think of science and why they think it. I still love the challenge of unravelling what's going on in science and finding ways of making it more user friendly. And my current circumstances mean I can explore this to my heart's content. Without the security of permanent employment, I am only ever as good as my track record, but having the freedom to choose much of the detail of what goes on that record is a luxury I am beginning to enjoy.

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