Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Writing vs Academia

Are you considering leaving academic science? Here is some food for thought if you are. 

by Kerstin Nordstrom

via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m good at writing,” says disillusioned scientist. “Maybe I’ll become a science writer.”

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of these disillusioned scientists the other day. A summary of my advice is given below.


What makes you think that you don’t write?

Bear in mind, if you stay in academia, you will write. It is part of your job. Grants, papers, scripts for talks and lectures, emails, letters of reference, referee reports, maybe a textbook. Even if you leave academic science, it is likely you will still have a professional job where writing is essential.

So if you’re good at writing, (literally, not sarcastically) good for you!

But if you’re still thinking about science writing, consider a few basic questions before embarking on this journey.

  • Are you writing for pleasure at the moment?

“Science writing” is different from academic science writing. Have you been exercising your non-academic writing muscles? Write stories, start journaling, or make a habit of writing summaries of academic papers.

  • Or do you have fantasies of doing so, but no time to write?

Make time. A good way to make time is to give yourself a deadline. Volunteer to write for your college alumni magazine, for newsletters of organizations, or get involved as a blog contributor.

  • Do you want to turn your pleasure writing into your work?

Not to rain on your parade, but sometimes things become less fun when they become work. You also may not spend that much time writing as a writer. You’ll need to spend time pitching, interviewing, researching, and doing all the other usual work humdrum. If you freelance, you’ll have to nag people to get paid and also become your own manager.

You might fantasize about being the next NPR host or Mary Roach, but they took a long time to get where they are. Think about job stability and benefits. Think about what you’re willing to sacrifice. And consider the wide range of science writing jobs you might do. A few are listed below.

  • Academic Journal Editor
  • Public Information Officer
  • Staff Writer / Reporter
  • Freelance Writer

Two final things to keep in mind:

  •  In some ways science writing is a lot like academic science. There are lots of motivated and smart people who want the same jobs as you. Everyone has a passion for learning and understanding.  Both fields require good communication skills, and are in the basic business of explaining.
  • But the fields are also different. In science, you learn a lot about a little. Through years of work, you make strides in understanding a few specific phenomena. In science writing, you learn a little about a lot. You’ll get to switch up topics, sometimes daily. This requires sacrificing a deep understanding; you won’t have time, and it will confuse your readers if you introduce too many technical details.

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2013 by in Research, Science Journalism.
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