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Science. Communication. Community.

Finding Your First Job As A Science Writer

In the age of newspaper and magazine cutbacks, it can be tough finding your first science writing gig.  Here, I share some tips I learned in my recent job search.

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Science writing has become a competitive field.  Non-traditional job search techniques are encouraged!  (Photo credit:  Tony Fischer Photography via Flickr)

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box in your job search. (Photo credit: Tony Fischer Photography via Flickr)

Earlier this week, blogger/writer/author Carl Zimmer summarized a few great tips for beginning science writers on his blog at National Geographic.  In his post, Zimmer provides encouragement for new writers in the field, though he also admits that he entered science writing years ago, when the future of journalism seemed much less bleak.

As a relative newcomer to the field, I appreciated his advice and his candor.  Zimmer is a freelance writer, sought out by national publications for his talent and experience – an excellent career role model.  However, if you’re just starting out in science writing, comparing your resume with his might seem a bit overwhelming.

I certainly don’t have Zimmer’s writing repertoire, but I thought I could provide another perspective to this topic – that of an early career science writer.  About a year ago, I switched from research to writing (via the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Program), and just this week, I scored my first full-time gig as a science writer.  If you’re hunting for your first job as a science communicator, I’ll try to lighten your load by sharing a few helpful tips I learned along the way:

1.  Know what kind of job you’re looking for.

Science writing is an extremely diverse field, and it’s important that you find your niche before submitting a hundred resumes.

Do you dream of working as a traditional journalist, writing about science for widely-distributed publications like national magazines and newspapers?  Though staff positions are hard to come by, freelancing for your favorite publication is an excellent way to make a few bucks and get your name out there.  (If you’re not sure how to get your foot in the door, The Open Notebook compiled some great tips and contact information from editors at the National Association of Science Writers Pitch Slam last fall.)

Does the uncertain future of journalism make you nervous?  Try looking for positions in science writing at research institutes, national labs, and universities.  Though you probably won’t get the same national exposure of magazines and newspapers, you’ll be the first liasion between the laboratory and the mainstream media.  Some of these positions require the writer to wear multiple hats, with a heavy emphasis on marketing and social media.  Others are more akin to the traditional journalistic writing you’d see on a website or in a magazine.  Read job descriptions carefully, and make sure that you’re comfortable with the expectations.

2.  Freelancing can be a full-time job, but know what to expect.

Freelancing sounds glamorous – and there are certainly perks (i.e. making your own schedule and working in your pajamas) – but turning it into a career can be challenging for newbies.  In the beginning, editors will often ignore or reject your pitches.  These initial failures are a great learning experience (I’m serious), but it also makes things tricky if you’re counting on these articles to pay your rent.  Try pitching to regional or trade publications first, followed by the communications department of local universities.  Even if you don’t have a specific idea, a simple introduction can lead to future assignments.

Also, expect to spend a good portion of your time negotiating contracts, looking for reasonable health insurance, generating invoices, preparing your complicated taxes, and reminding accounts payable departments that their payments are late. NASW and the National Writer’s Union provide a slew of resources for freelancers – especially at tax time – but still be prepared for curveballs.  These can either be fun adventures in business-ownership, or distractions from your one true love: writing.  Only you will know what fits for you!

3.  On your resume, everything counts.

Mention absolutely anything you think might be relevant.  Do you speak a second language?  Did you write for your college newspaper?  Do you have relevant hobbies outside of work?  For example, say you are applying for a job as a web writer for a newspaper or magazine, but you also spend your weekends blogging about cheese and using social media to keep in touch with college friends.  You should definitely mention your familiarity with blogging platforms, content management systems, and social networking; even if you’ve never performed these functions professionally, employers know that the skills will transfer.

4.  Ask for (and accept) help.

If you’re still in school, attend events hosted by your university’s career center – an extra set of eyes reading over your resume and cover letter can be very helpful.  Once you apply for a job, reach out for any connection you might have with that employer.  This could mean looking up friends from high school, parents’ friends, or searching your university’s alumni directory.  If you come across someone, ask if she would feel comfortable recommending your work, or passing your resume on to the hiring manager – the worst she can do is say, ‘No.’

5.  Look in unexpected places and keep an open mind.

Be sure to check the most common job search websites (Monster.com, Indeed.com, etc.), but also check out the jobs page for specific employers you’d like to work for.  It often takes time for jobs to make it to a career site – and the sooner you can see the job and apply for it, the better.  Other good sites include JournalismJobs.com, Media Bistro, LinkedIn, and the job listings of any professional organizations in which you’re a member (NASW has a good one for members).  I’ve even heard of colleagues finding science writing jobs on Craigslist and in the classified ads of the newspaper – you might be surprised!

Are you a seasoned science writer, or a newbie?  Do you have any tips for those in the midst of job searching – or – are you encountering any particular challenge in your search?  Let us know in the comments below!

(Just starting out and looking for more?  Here are some tips on how to find a science writing mentor, from Figure One blogger Jessica Morrison.)

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About jstoll01

Jessica began her journalistic endeavors as an embarrassingly informal food critic for her college newspaper. After dropping the fork and picking up a micropipettor, she spent two years as a genetics research technician and three years in graduate school before trying her hand at science writing. Upon receiving a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012, Jessica participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program as a Science Desk intern at NPR in Washington, D.C. There, she contributed a number of posts to the health blog (Shots) and the food blog (The Salt). She continues to write regularly for the NPR blogs, National Geographic News and other media outlets as a freelancer, currently based in Southern California.

5 comments on “Finding Your First Job As A Science Writer

  1. Abby
    June 28, 2013

    This post is a great complement to Carl Zimmer’s piece the other day. You nailed the concrete tips for the actual job search, so thank you!

    Any ideas about how fluid you can be within the world of paying science writing jobs? For instance, if the first job you get is more of a marketing/communications job, how easy would it be to transition to doing more of a journalism job later?

  2. jstoll01
    June 28, 2013

    Hi Abby — Thanks so much for reading! To answer your question about career fluidity, I think that it depends on the position you accept. Since I’ll be working for a larger research institute, I’ll only be responsible for writing — a separate marketing and media relations department will be responsible for pitching to the media. I sought out this position because I felt that it provided the best of both worlds, leaving more options for the future.

    However, a media relations/marketing position can leave you just as many options, but it seems to depend completely on the institute’s or university’s expectations (a good rundown of the difference between salesman PIOs and journalist PIOs can be found here: http://dennismeredith.com/a-sales-rep-or-a-piojournalist_361.html). If you’re respectful to editors as a media relations officer, they’ll probably be more willing to accept you as a traditional journalist down the road. If you’re spamming their inbox, you’re more likely to be seen as a pest than a colleague. At least, that’s my opinion!

    I’ve actually read a response to this very same question somewhere else, but I can’t find it! I’ll keep searching, and thanks again!

  3. jstoll01
    June 28, 2013

    Also, depending on your future job, you may need to declare previous employers as a conflict of interest in certain stories. If you work for University A, then begin working for a newspaper to write about University A, you’ll probably need to note that you’ve worked for them in the past, or allow another writer to cover that particular story.

    • Abby
      June 28, 2013

      Helpful! Thank you. (And good luck in your new science writing job – awesome!)

  4. Pingback: Finding Your First Job As A Science Writer | Figure One | Public Communication of Science & Technology

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This entry was posted on June 28, 2013 by in Science Journalism and tagged , , .
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