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Field Report 4: How to Succeed in Spying: It Takes a Lot of Trying


So I decided to be a writer. Just making the decision got my adrenaline flowing -- I was ready to go! Bring on the stories! I managed to get this column started; certainly more writing jobs would be easy to find now that I was fully committed to my new career.

And it actually did start out that way. Thanks to some very kind recommendations from my editor at Next Wave, I soon had connections at a couple of science-related publications, and they wanted me to send in story ideas. I was happy to oblige, so I spent many hours poring over preprint lists and surfing the Web looking for "breaking news." Whenever I found a good -- by my novice's definition -- story, I would write up a short query and send it to one of my new editors.

Many of these ideas ended up in the trash can, or became victims of the delete key, but, miraculously, some of them didn't. I started getting real writing assignments -- real paying writing assignments. I wasn't anywhere near being able to support myself, but I was going in the write direction.

Then a funny thing happened. Or rather, a funny thing didn't happen. Despite checking my mailbox three or four times a day, no checks were arriving. I had done the work, signed the contracts, delivered the goods. Where was my money?

In one case, about the time I started to get really worried, I got an e-mail from my editor asking if I could please send my mailing address to someone I had never heard of, but who apparently had my check(s). My check was not in the mail at all, it was stuck in some media-related bureaucracy! I was doomed. I sent the address to the mystery bureaucrat, but I still haven't seen the check.

When I asked another editor about this disturbing state of affairs, she told me a very entertaining story about a check that she didn't get from a magazine that she wrote some freelance articles for. Luckily (for her), that story has a happy ending. The check finally did arrive.

Before you start thinking that I am using this column as a forum to bash my editors, let me tell you that I still trust my editors and the bureaucracies that they work for. I fully expect to receive fair compensation for my work. Eventually. So I am sure that I will be able to use my earnings from freelance science writing to pay my rent, buy food, and pay for utilities. Eventually. Unfortunately, those darn bill collectors want their money. And they want it now.

And to add irony to injury, the one check I did receive paid me just enough to get me thrown off unemployment! I scrambled back on a week later, but it was difficult to interpret my return to the welfare rolls as an uplifting personal success.

I was desperate. I needed a paying job, or jobs, and I needed them now. No promises. Cash only. I did the only thing I knew how to do: I hit the phones.

Within a few weeks, I made dozens, maybe even hundreds, of phone calls and sent more e-mails than I could count. I contacted anyone and everyone I had ever known and asked them for help. Did they know anyone or anything that might help me find work writing? And if they didn't, did they know anyone who might? I quickly learned two things. One: Friends, family, acquaintances, and total strangers are almost always happy to help in any way they can. Particularly if all you ask for is advice. Two: There really are only six degrees of separation between me and everyone else in the world.

My first solid lead started with another fellow postdoc, Thomas. I first met Thomas 2 years earlier, during my Midwest postdoc from hell, and as soon as I knew where I was moving, I sent him an e-mail. At first he couldn't think of anyone who could help, but then he remembered one person.

While he was a graduate student, he had a fellow graduate student friend who later took a postdoc at a university in my newly adopted hometown. Since she was working in my recently abandoned field, I contacted her and we met for lunch. While exchanging stories about the trials and tribulations of graduate school, we discovered that she had been an undergraduate at the same school where I was a graduate student. She had even dated one of my friends. At the exact same time we exclaimed, "I knew you looked familiar!"

She then told me that she had recently received an e-mail message announcing a part-time teaching position in the department. I contacted the professor in charge of hiring, only to find that they had already chosen someone else. I figured that this was just another dead-end, but a few days later, the professor called back to say that, while the teaching post was filled, they were looking for someone to rewrite their lab manuals.

He told me that the position would be on a contract basis, meaning I would get an hourly wage and no benefits. I could expect to get about 10 to 20 hours a week and, if I was interested, we could arrange a meeting with the department head to talk more. Needless to say, I was interested. Big time interested. The kind of interested you get after eating breakfast with your in-laws for 3 months. The kind you get after depositing unemployment checks in person. The kind you get when you have to ask your mom for money to go to the movies. And you are 34 years old.

We arranged to meet about a week later. But before that meeting took place, I hit the jackpot. Inasmuch as any work that pays by the hour can be called a jackpot.

Another of my desperation e-mails had found its way into the hands of a science writer that I knew during my midwestern postdoc from hell. The same one whose articles served as the model for my first tentative steps into professional writing. She knew a physicist who did educational outreach (but had just lost his grant, so he couldn't offer me any work), who knew a space scientist (who did no outreach or education at all), who knew a geologist (who occasionally volunteered in the schools), who knew an evolutionary ecologist (who worked for a nonprofit with no money at all), who knew the director of another local nonprofit educational company.

So one day I found myself in the conference room of a small nonprofit company that designed educational software. I was sitting in another of a long string of informational interviews, telling my professional life story to yet another stranger, and trying to make it sound optimistic, when I noticed a change in the air. It took me a moment to pin it down, but then I realized: She was asking me questions. Good questions. Like: "Could I see a writing sample?" and "Are you comfortable with computers?" and "Do you ever do consulting work?"

In retrospect, I think it was at that moment that I became the Spy, Scientific and Educational Communications Consultant.

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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