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Breaking into the Media -- Do You Need Formal Training?


Science writing is an attractive career for scientists searching for an alternative to the grind of the lab. A career in science writing allows researchers-turned-writers to leave the bench, yet remain close to science, keeping abreast of the latest advances in diverse research fields. Science writers also get to step out of the scientific community and share their enthusiasm for research with lay audiences as well as experts.

Still, aspiring writers find out sooner or later that it takes more than experience writing research papers to break into the verbal media. For some, "more" means a degree in journalism or science communications; in the U.K., scores of science communication degrees and journalism courses now offer training to help young scientists learn to write for their bread. For others it means lots of self-directed hard work.

Should I Do a Course or Not?

Does formal training really help you make the transition? Is it, perhaps, even essential? A query run on the Association of British Science Writers ( ABSW) e-mail list yielded many voices, but they all sang a similar refrain: doing a course is by no means a requirement, but it may be a great help.

"I had done a Ph.D. and had 3 years postdoctoral experience but didn't really have the confidence or contacts to start phoning around [to] science editors at broadsheets to pitch stories," says Dr. Ananyo Bhattacharya, reporter for the science-policy newspaper Research Fortnight. He feels the science-communication M.Sc. degree he completed at Imperial College London last October gave him a good grounding in the basics of science writing, as well as a foot in the door. "Not only does the Imperial M.Sc. course offer feedback on your writing, but there's the opportunity to get some experience through internships. I was lucky enough to end up at the [Daily] Telegraph science desk."

Caroline Williams, a freelance science writer and radio producer, and a 2001 Imperial College alumna, agrees that learning practical skills is a huge benefit of doing a course. "[Courses] can give you hints like how to pitch, what makes a story, how to structure articles, etc. That definitely helps," she says. She also thinks that the networking opportunities the course offers are key. "In my case, I made contacts at New Scientist and did a placement at BBC Natural History Radio, and have been working for both ever since," she says. "Working for these two early on also made it easier to get work in other places as a new freelancer."

Still, scores of science writers have made it without going back to university. "In my opinion, getting the best scientific training you can achieve is far more important than a degree in science communication," says Dr. Lynn Dicks, a freelance science writer who regularly appears in New Scientist and BBC Wildlife. She went straight from her Ph.D. at Cambridge University to a career in science writing. "Both editors and interviewees will take you far more seriously if you are a trained scientist, and you are less likely to make silly mistakes that come from a shallow understanding."

Which Course Should I Choose?

Young scientists in the U.K. who decide to get formal training to ease their transition into science writing have two options: a postgraduate diploma in journalism or a science communication degree.

The goal of 1-year postgraduate diplomas in journalism, such as those offered by Cardiff University (with a tuition fee of £5250) and Trinity and All Saints College in Leeds (about £4400), is to teach the nuts and bolts of news reporting and feature writing. Which practical skills a journalist needs depends on the type of media, and these courses offer options to fit each type, so when applying for a journalism diploma students often have to decide whether they picture themselves writing for newspapers, magazines, the Web or broadcast media. The print option of these 1-year programmes will equip you with all the core skills you need when you are out there: pitching and writing stories -- including interviewing skills -- shorthand, and copyright and libel law.

Yet one aspect of these courses may be seen as a disadvantage by aspiring science writers: that they teach general rather than science journalism, so you may learn more than you need in some areas, and less than you need in the details of writing about science. Only one U.K. journalism school offers a specialisation in science. "City University's Postgraduate Diploma students can choose to study science journalism for twenty weeks," says science journalism tutor Jenny Gristock. They need to be enrolled on a postgraduate journalism diploma first, which has a tuition fee of £5450.

Science-communication degrees, such as the M.Sc. in Science Communication offered by Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London (one-year full-time degree with a tuition fee of £4000) or the Diploma in Science Communication at Birkbeck (2-year part-time, about £900 a year) in London, are more "academic" than science journalism diplomas. A big chunk of these courses aim to put science into the broader context of history, philosophy, and society, while the rest is dedicated to practical modules for work in all media types.

Aspiring writers ought to consider many different factors when choosing a course, foremost of which is knowing what type of work they would like to pursue. "[Science communication degrees] are quite broad, and if you're not absolutely sure that journalism or writing is the only thing you're interested in, it gives you a chance to try out radio, television, [and] museum work," says Research Fortnight reporter Bhattacharya. While Jheni Osman, an Imperial College alumnus now Acting Features Editor for Focus magazine, was generally very positive about her experiences, she acknowledges that such breadth of topics may come at a price. "Colleagues at work have mentioned that a few work-experience people from science communication courses do not have enough in-depth training," she says.

Osman adds that aspiring science writers who want to gain a lot of specific written practical training should consider doing another course than science communication. "No science communication degree will give you purely practical writing training," she says. A journalism course may be a better option, even though it won't provide a scientific focus. "If you really want to be a journalist, go and do a journalism degree and then specialise in science and medicine if you can," says Gristock.

What if I Do Not Want to Go Back to University?

If you're not keen to go back to university, rest assured that it is perfectly possible to succeed without more schooling. "[Formal training] can help you to find a job, but if you're lucky and/or persistent, you'll probably find work in the field anyway," says Matin Durrani, Deputy Editor of Physics World. "What counts is evidence that you can write."

What you need is practice. "The alternative to doing a course is getting as much experience as you can, any way you can," says freelance science writer Fiona Proffitt. "My own 'way in' was to write for a friend's environmental Web log, write book reviews and conference reports for an ornithological journal, do work placements at BBC Wildlife Magazine and Science (all unpaid), then do an internship at Science," she says. Student magazines and local newspapers are also a common place to start.

"I think there are as many ways into science journalism as there are science journalists," says Proffitt. "If you have some scientific training, some talent for writing, make the right contacts, get some experience, and are really determined to do it, you can succeed without formal training in science writing."

The ABSW has a Web site packed with useful advice for would-be science writers, in particular the excellent "So You Want to be a Science Writer?" guide. The ABSW also teams up every year with the Wellcome Trust to offer bursaries for scientists taken on a journalism diploma or science writing degree.