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Science Journalism Degrees—Do They Make a Difference?


Is specialized training in science writing required to be successful in the field? Some of the country's top science writers have no training in journalism and would probably answer "no." Yet, even if a science writing degree isn't absolutely necessary for a science writing career, it does make entering the field a whole lot easier.

Jennifer Frazer, an environment reporter for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and a graduate of the science writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says, "The sad truth is regardless of your ability, with so few jobs, competition will be fierce and my sense is that employers tend to favor those with writing degrees or lots of experience."

For this story, Science's Next Wave looked at the methods for preparing science writers at the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, The Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University (BU), and the Science Communication Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). Program directors, former program participants, and science editors who have worked with their graduates agree that graduate-level training in science writing is a great way to get started in the business.

Those admitted to these programs can expect to dive head first into an intense one-year program that includes an internship period. Most of the students who enroll are mid-career scientists with extensive research experience. But according to Marcia Bartusiak, visiting professor at the MIT program, these aren't just lab rats looking to find an alternative career in science. "They are usually people who had been conflicted from the start," she says. "They arrived at college and saw two paths in front of them, one science and the other writing. Some of them chose the science route, but always felt their heartstrings being tugged toward writing."

Douglas Starr, co-director of the Center at BU, agrees and says those students are better adjusted than many of their colleagues because they see the larger picture. "A lot of students who have been really good at science and English have always been told they are sort of odd or that they don't fit," he says. "But the truth is they fit better than anybody else. They understand there is no division between science and the humanities because they're both deeply human activities."

Programs at a Glance

Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT
Began: 2002
Students accepted each year: 6 to 8
Unique to the program: MIT is the only one to tailor homework assignments to fit the particular career interests of the student. "Let's say the assignment is a news-and-research feature of about a thousand words," Bartusiak says. "One [student] may choose the style of Discover magazine while another may choose the news-and-research section for Science magazine. As long as they let us know what they're aiming for, we judge accordingly. In either example we hope to help them develop an ear for understanding how to interpret and translate difficult concepts to a wider audience."

The Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University
Students accepted each year: 10
Unique to the program: BU's program takes a journalistic approach to science writing. "Even though we have backgrounds in science, we see ourselves as journalists first," says Starr. "As such, we focus on science in its human context -- what it means not just to science fans, but to citizens and policy makers."

Science Communication Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz
Students accepted each year: 10
Unique to the program: While applicants to other science writing programs usually have science backgrounds, UCSC is the only program that requires it. "All of our students must have a deep science background, no exceptions," says John Wilkes, director of the program. "Specifically, they have to not only have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in science but a minimum 6 months, full-time research experience. We're the only program in the world that requires that."

Coursework and Internships

During the 12-month MIT program, courses are taken during the fall and spring semesters. Each semester, the student curriculum consists of the advanced seminar, thesis seminar, and an elective course. The advanced seminar is actually two courses in one and gives students a taste of different types of science writing. "Rather than sending the students off to separate classes in magazine writing, newspaper reporting, or the science essay, for example, we fashion a seminar that interweaves these various sections as the year progresses," Bartusiak says. "We have segments on science journalism, medical reporting and writing, and writing on the physical sciences. As a team, the students also produce a 3-minute mini-documentary during our film-and-TV section."

CREDIT: B. D. Cohen
Guest speaker, Thomas Murray, leads the discussion during a thesis seminar class.

The thesis seminar -- a 10 thousand- to 12 thousand-word piece for general audiences written in the style of a book chapter or long magazine article -- introduces them to the long form. Students get to choose electives that broaden their knowledge and seem likely to be useful in their writing career. Some choose to take a history of science course while others may take advanced science courses if they want to specialize in a certain area.

BU's three semester system stresses a journalistic sensibility, which means their students not only learn how to write about science but understand how science and society affect life in America and globally. While most science writing programs teach traditional areas of science writing like newspaper reporting and magazine writing, BU also includes literary journalism, profiles, book reviews, television segments, radio pieces, and even Web-based projects like their latest venture, a student Web magazine called Resonance: New Vibrations in Science, Culture and Technology . "In addition to the programming, they develop a theme for the magazine and write all of the features: news, commentary, criticism, TV, and radio," Starr says. "They've gotten good responses from the magazine including unsolicited job offers."

UCSC is on the quarter system and has three terms per academic year, not including summer. The program offers a certificate rather than a degree and is divided into three kinds of writing: news writing and reporting, feature writing and reporting, and opinion writing. The program is continuous, starting from the first day of classes in the fall quarter and ending the last day of classes spring quarter. Since the students learn everything together and the classes are exclusive to program participants, the UCSC program creates a fertile writing environment. "Our program is different from any other program in the country in that no one else [at UCSC] is allowed to take these courses," Wilkes explains. "The students get to know one another extremely well, which we feel is necessary in learning to write in an authentic voice."

The final requirement before graduation for all three programs is the student internship. Internships occur all over the country and in the U.K. These are usually paid appointments and may last 10 weeks in the case of MIT or 3 months or longer at UCSC. The internships run the gamut of scientific publishing: the Atlantic Monthly Online, U.S. News and World Report, Harpers, Popular Science, ABC Medical News Unit, The Boston Globe, NOVA, National Public Radio's Science Friday, Technology Review, the National Cancer Institute, Science, and others.

CREDIT: Ron Jones
John Wilkes, director of the Science Communication Program at UCSC.

Counting the Cost

Students interested in attending one of these programs must come to grips with the high cost of education. Fortunately, some form of financial aid is available for each program.

Tuition and fees at MIT -- not including room, board, and health insurance -- totals about $36,000 per year, according to Shannon Larkin, academic administrator of the program. This amount is the same for in-state and out-of-state students. The program usually has money set aside for partial-tuition fellowships based on financial need, and additional institutional awards can help. "We can nominate our students for other MIT fellowships, given on the basis of merit and experience," says Larkin. "This year two [out of six] of our students were awarded these fellowships."

BU's tuition and fees are $15,000 per semester or $45,000 for the 3-semester program, but the program offers significant financial aid. "We're nicely endowed with university and foundation-based fellowships," says Starr, "so most of our students receive a certain amount of scholarship aid." The scholarships are awarded based on merit and need with no residency requirement.

Out-of-state students in the UCSC program must pay $23,000 in tuition and fees, but if living expenses are factored in they should expect to pay in the high 30s [$37,000] for their 9-month academic year. Some privately funded scholarships are available, though currently, the University of California system does not support UCSC students, due in part to California's poor financial condition and the legislature's gradual retreat from funding higher education.

Is the Degree or Certificate Necessary?

Bartusiak, Starr, and Wilkes agree that their programs prepare people for the publishing world by systematically teaching them the craft and how the real world of science writing works. For example, their students know what topics are likely to catch the ear of an editor, so graduates feel that they have an advantage in sending out queries. This training allows students to hit the ground running upon graduation and the proof of their success can be seen in the large percentage of their students writing professionally. Also, having a science writing degree confers an advantage when applying for certain writing jobs.

Two of MIT's former students Amitabh Avasthi, a news-writing intern at Science magazine, and Mara Vatz, a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agree that coming through the program jump-started their writing career. They also say that the culture at MIT enriched their experience. "Being at MIT gives students in the program easy access to some of the world's greatest scientists and research labs," Avasthi says. "There is never a shortage of story ideas at MIT," says Vatz. "Everywhere you look, someone is doing something new and interesting. I found even world-renowned researchers to be very accessible. They were always willing to meet with me and take me seriously even though I might just be interviewing them for a school assignment."

Peter Farley, managing editor of the bi-monthly publication Medicine@Yale, is a graduate of the BU program and says, "I was a book editor in scientific publishing for many years, but the science writing program provided me with an invaluable bridge to the "culture" of journalism in general. It's quite different from book publishing," he says.

One of Farley's schoolmates, Barbara Moran, a senior researcher at NOVA and a freelance writer, says the BU program improved her writing and critical thinking skills. "I had already worked as a journalist before entering the program, but I, personally, needed the extra training," she says. "I use the skills I learned there every day. I'm sure I would have never gotten where I am without BU."

Greg Miller, a writer at Science magazine, entered the UCSC program after completing his Ph.D. in science. "I was pretty sure I would like science writing, but I had no idea how to go about it," he says. Miller liked the fact that all of the instructors were working journalists and that he was instantly plugged into a network of former graduates and others associated with the program.

Speaking of Science: Do editors of the nation's magazines and newspapers prefer to hire students who come from science writing programs? According to Colin Norman, news editor at Science, editors look for people who have the ability to write clearly and with flair, so those who have lots of "clips" increase their chances of getting hired. "However, we have hired many writers at Science who have not been through a formal writing program, so a degree or certificate confers an advantage but not an absolute one." Norman says the applicant's ability to generate story ideas and the recommendation of editors they've worked with are also very important.

Whether a person completes a science writing program or not, the world of science publishing is open and available to everyone. Competent writers will fulfill their dream, but they must be willing to work hard and develop a thick skin. "It is a tough way to make a living -- the competition to land a first job is intense, and the freelance market is very tough," Norman says. "But it is a very rewarding career if you can stay the course."