Looking beyond the obvious career path: Part I – Science Journalism

Last year, another Science is Vital campaign went underway, this time focusing on a problem facing many PhD and postdocs: science careers. A summary of the final report can be found here.
Importantly, the campaign and the report highlight many of the problems facing postdoctoral researchers and the increasingly small number of opportunities in academia. In fact, as reported by the Royal Society, only about 3.5% will actually be able to establish such a career.

Only 0.45% of those that complete a PhD will have an academic career at Professorial level

Considering the current situation, which many estimate to get even more complicated, as the number of PhD students increases, it is important for post-docs to contemplate and investigate alternative careers. The Post-doc Committee in the Life Science Department at Imperial College has started organising a series of informal discussions focusing on precisely these topics.

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Last Thursday, we invited Dr Claire Ainsworth, a freelance science journalist, to share her experience with post-docs in the department. Claire briefly explained her path to her current career, from an internship at New Scientist, her role as a Biology features editor at Nature news and the decision to move into freelance work. Sharing details on stories she wrote for New Scientist that took her to Kenya provided a personal touch to the session. Her heart-felt confession that writing is hard and sometimes even painful – and that she sometimes hates it! – allowed everyone to understand that, as with any other career choice, it’s not always easy and you have difficult moments everywhere.

Her insight into the challenges and diffilcuties aspiring science journalists face was clearly appreciated. As with other science-related careers, it is not easy and, in the UK at least, it is very competitive. One main advice: be pro-active, go and find the stories! Importantly, before actually applying for a job or trying to get any of your ideas or stories commissioned by any media (mainstream or specialised) try to get your work out there, in different outlets, from university newspapers to local radios. Most of all, find what you like to write and talk about, and do it.

Claire is also a science media trainer for SciConnect, helping scientists to better communicate their research, particularly to a non-specialist audience. This is a ‘hat’ she says is also quite rewarding. Her experience as a science journalist is, this way, shared and used by other scientists.

Both careers complement each other and expand the many skills she acquired during her PhD. They are two of many different ways post-docs can pursue a science oriented career without following the default path of Undergrad – PhD – post-doc (x n) – fellowship – lectureship – professorship. That only works for 0.45%. And those numbers won’t change. Thinking about what you want to do and why and plan for it as early as possible is essential not only for success but also for a satisfactory career, whichever that might be.

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