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Getting the Message Across: Scientists in Public Relations

As scientists-turned-journalists, Next Wave's editors and writers are often asked by readers we meet when we're out and about how we got our jobs. Maybe that's because journalism is the job that most readily springs to mind when a researcher who enjoys writing and communicating begins to think about careers away from the bench. But there are many other roles in which you can combine your scientific training with your communication skills--and if journalism is usually the first that people think of, then the whole field of public relations (PR) often seems to be the last. Which is a shame, because PR offers a wealth of interesting opportunities for career-transitioning scientists.

A Diverse Field

One of the reasons why it's difficult to recognise the career possibilities that the PR field offers is because the job titles can be so diverse. Often known as public information officers in North America, you'll also find PR people called press officers, communications managers, external affairs managers, and education officers--to name but a few. Why such variety? Well, it simply reflects that the job itself can vary enormously depending on the type of organisation you work for and the focus of your communications activities.

The primary responsibility of a PR person working for a membership organisation might involve communicating with the members of that organisation, through newsletters, Web sites, and direct contact--a role known in PR-speak as 'internal communications.' Meanwhile, someone who deals with 'external affairs' will--surprise, surprise--be looking outside, making sure, for example, that the organisation's point of view is put across to policy-makers. (See the contributions of Heather Reiff and Peter Cotgreave to our recent Science Policy feature for more detail on how this happens.) Someone working for a pharmaceutical or biotech company might have a different sort of external audience to deal with, taking the lead on 'investor relations.' Would you be able to explain to shareholders why they should keep faith in your company, despite the fact that the latest clinical trial results are more than a little disappointing?

In addition, although many PR people work in-house for a single organisation, there are also a lot of agencies in the sector. If you're working for a PR agency, you'll be expected to juggle the needs of several different clients who all think their situation is the most urgent. And while freelance PR people are still far less common than freelance journalists, it's definitely a possibility, but usually for people who have gained some experience--and some great contacts--by working in-house or at an agency first.

From the Horse's Mouth

But don't take my word for it! As you'll find out if you read my own story, I made the transition out of the lab and into journalism through a PR job, so I'm biased. As usual, though, Next Wave has collected the viewpoints of a crowd of people, so read on for an objective look at the sheer variety of PR jobs and the kinds of opportunities the sector has to offer you.


Realising that research was not the ideal choice for her, although she enjoyed explaining technology to the masses, Meike Koelsch decided to leave the lab for a PR agency.

Her career path may have been convoluted, but now that she's working in an agency specialising in health communications Ulrike Martin is exactly where she wants to be.

Working for a PR agency that specialises in managing communications for the biotech industry offers the opportunity to keep up to date with cutting-edge research, as well as plenty of variety, says Emma Murray.


With 12 years of science communication experience under her belt, Natasha Martineau decided to take the plunge and see if she could make a go of self-employed science PR. A few months down the line, she tells Next Wave how she's getting on.

Commercial World

The nuclear industry will always be controversial, which puts British Nuclear Fuels Ltd physicist-turned-PR-honcho Paul Vallance right in the hot seat. But, he tells Next Wave, he wouldn't want any other job.

Back in 1998, Anjani Shah interviewed a number of professionals to find out what scientists have to offer the world of Corporate Communications and Investor Relations.

Not-for-Profit Sector

Danny Kay said that everyone ends up where they should, and Maria Mennen believes he was right. Pursuing her interest in science while exercising her organisational and communications facilities has brought her to her current role. She also describes a day as head of communication services at the University of Amsterdam.

After embarking on a Ph.D. in ecology, Jennifer Cutraro realized that she just didn't want to narrow her options that much. So she switched to a graduate program in science journalism and now is just about to take up her new role as a science writer at Purdue University.

Michel Claessens's Jekyll and Hyde existence--researcher by day, science journalist by night--came to an end after he spotted an ad for science writers at the European Commission.

According to David Mate, who works for Natural Resources Canada, his transition from field geologist to science communicator required a combination of keenness, determination, good mentors, and plain dumb luck.

Not getting into medical school was one of the best things that happened to him, thinks Steve Bradt, since he loves his job as a science writer, spreading the word about research the University of Pennsylvania.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) funds scientists from coast to coast to carry out research in fields ranging from aerospace to biotech. Making that research visible is a challenging, but fun, job for the NRC's communications team.

As an astrophysics student, Michelle Cain didn't know what a corporate communications officer was. But just a few months into her job at the UK's Institute of Physics, she's enjoying learning the ropes.

Environmental engineer Pixie Hamilton didn't intend to find herself in a communications job, but she's pleased that she did. Hamilton explains the career steps that brought her to her current position as a Water Information Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Good internal communications are essential to the success of the Canadian Arthritis Network, as Tineke Meijers explains, and it's the focus of her role as Executive Director of Research and Development.

When Next Wave visited the PR arena in a limited way in 1999, Kathy Wren told readers how she landed her job in the News and Information Office at our parent organisation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

We also heard from Sandra Crossfield, a media relations officer at the National Research Council in Canada, who told us that in her line of work you have to expect the unexpected.

And Kirstie Urquhart, now Next Wave's European Editor, described making the transition from chemistry lab to public relations coordinator of the British Society for Immunology.


Think this could be the career path for you? As usual the Next Wave staff have collected a bunch of useful resources to help you on the way.

Not Convinced?

If you're a scientist who likes communicating, but you're still not convinced that PR is for you, why not check out some of Next Wave's other science communications-related features: