Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

How to Find a Science Writing Mentor

Want to become a science writer?  If you’ve spent the last five years in a laboratory, you’ll probably need some outside help — Twitter is a great place to start.

by Jessica Morrison

Standing on the shoulders of giants.

Standing on the shoulders of giants. (Image credit: Norma Desmond via Flickr)

A new year has started, you’re a few years into your Ph.D. and you’ve decided that you want to get serious about becoming a science writer. But if your experience is anything like mine was, you might find local advice hard to come by.

My Ph.D. advisor is a leader in our field. He has connections in national labs and universities, but few, if any, in science communication. His former students work primarily in aforementioned national labs and universities. So, when I needed someone to advise me about my career options and the path forward as a science writer, I had to go outside the comfortable confines of my research group.

In my own experience, I’ve found that having a guide makes the entire journey easier and more rewarding. For my first post at Figure One, I would like to offer a few tips for finding your own science writing mentor.

Tip #1: Expand your network of potential mentors with Twitter.

The science writing community is very active on Twitter. If you’re just getting started, or even if you’ve been around for a while, don’t be afraid to join the conversation.

When I went to Twitter to ask about science writing mentors, my fellow science communicators had a lot to say. Here’s a sampling of their responses…


Responses to my tweet: “Who was your science writing mentor?”

…and I Storified the rest here: Science Writing Mentor Query.

My go-to list of people that any scientist-turning-writer should be following on Twitter:


Tip #2: Join professional organizations.

If you’re only a member of a professional scientific organization to get a cheaper rate for conferences, you’re not doing it right. While you’re a student, the world is yours for the taking. People will love you, and they will help you, if you let them know you need them.

My background is in geology and chemistry, so I have memberships with AGU, GSA, and ACS. Others like AAAS and NASW are must-haves for the budding science writer. I also recently joined SEJ and IRE.

The price of membership can be overwhelming on a graduate student budget, but there are student rates, and the networking potential is huge. For example, NASW matches student members with mentors at the AAAS Annual Meeting. AGU and AAAS sponsor a Mass Media Fellowship.

Tip #3: Ask for what you want.

It’s never been so easy to interact with science writers and editors at places like Scientific American, Wired or National Geographic. A few years ago, when I had a bit of an existential crisis about being in graduate school, I wrote to Brooks Hanson at Science.

When I look back at that first email I sent him, I am a bit embarrassed that I led with “My name is..”:

Dr. Hanson,

My name is Jessica Beard, and I am a first-year graduate student in environmental mineralogy and crystal structures at the University of Notre Dame. I’m writing you because I’m interested in pursuing an editorial career in scientific journalism following completion of my degree at Notre Dame—a four year bachelor’s to PhD program.

My current research focuses on the incorporation of radionuclides into secondary mineral phases as related to the release of nuclear waste into the environment. I have a bachelor’s degree in geoscience with some emphasis in journalism.

I’m not sure how to plan for the transition from graduate school to career in scientific journalism. Could you offer any advice or suggest a career path to help facilitate this goal?

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

Jessica M. Beard

But he replied. And while I didn’t follow all of his advice right away, I’m amused by the suggestions that he pitched my way that I did eventually follow through with, if even by accident. Oh, and a four year PhD program? HAHAHA. *ahem* Where was I? Ah, yes…

I had a similar experience with Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing.

Hey +Maggie Koerth-Baker, just saw your post about AAAS. I’m a science PhD student, in “The Academy”, written a few posts for the #SciAmBlogs, write for a DOE newsletter, going to #scio12, and I want to know everything I can about how science journalism happens.

Here’s the important part: Any chance I could shadow you for a day at AAAS?

And it worked. She said yes! I shadowed Maggie and fellow science editor John Timmer (Ars Technica) at AAAS last year in Vancouver. The experience and the connections that I made changed my life.

Tip #4: Always say “Thank You.” Always. Say it early, and say it often.


3 comments on “How to Find a Science Writing Mentor

  1. Joe Palca
    January 18, 2013

    All good suggestions…the important lesson here is don’t be shy.

  2. Jessica Morrison
    January 18, 2013

    I agree, Joe, and I was shy. I was painfully shy when I first started reach out, but it got easier the more I did.

  3. Chris McManes
    January 21, 2013

    Jessica, your tips on becoming a science writer are very good. Even for those who aren’t interested in writing for their peers or the public, it’s a good idea for all STEM professionals to become better communicators. Whether you’re communicating with your co-workers, your boss or colleagues, the better you can share your ideas, the more likely you can convince them of whatever is important to you. You don’t want to keep the work you’re doing hidden. If it’s really that good, you’ll want to share it with others. It might help you to get a grant, too.

    The best way to write better and present better is by doing it. The more you do it, the easier it will become. Your suggestions on people to follow on Twitter for help and advice are a good starting point for those who want to communicate better and more persuasively. Another good resource many have access to is your company or university’s public relations department. There’s a lot of help available for those who want it.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2013 by in Science Journalism and tagged , , .
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