How do I get into a science writing career?
March 20, 2011 5:54 PM   Subscribe

I’m an editorial assistant at a scientific publishing company, but I really want to be a science writer. How do I make it happen?

I’m currently working as an editorial assistant at a small medical publishing company in New York City, and, after observing and talking to my colleagues there, I’ve decided I would like to pursue a career as a medical/science writer. It seems like a very good fit for my skills and interests. I’ve always had a desire to write, as well as a broad interest in science (particularly life science/biology). I’m good at (and very fulfilled by) clearly explaining complex scientific or mathematical concepts.

Though a lot of my time is spent on administrative tasks, my current job is giving me a great introduction to science writing and publishing. I’ve been given several small writing assignments and lots of constructive criticism and guidance. All this is very encouraging, but I feel that my lack of scientific expertise is a barrier to my going further in this career.

I have a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts which bears some explaining. I went to a college (St. John’s College) with a very unusual non-elective, 4-year program of study based on the “Great Books” of Western literature, philosophy, science, and mathematics. All readings are primary sources, all classes are discussion (not lecture) based, and students are evaluated on essay writing, rather than traditional testing.

The science component of my education emphasized the thinking behind scientific theories and experiments; with hands-on laboratories designed to replicate the latter. While this equipped me very well to pull out and discuss the important ideas from scientific writing, it left me forgetful of most of my basic high school chemistry and (I fear) without much of the detailed knowledge my contemporaries came away with from more conventional colleges.

So I’m wondering what sort of further education I should pursue. An MS? A few post-baccalaureate chemistry and biology classes? A specifically oriented science writing or science journalism program? (I hesitate to go into the latter, as I feel like I’m presently getting a pretty suitable on-the-job journalism education, but I could be persuaded.)

PS My spouse and I would like to stay in NYC for now.
posted by szweib to Education (6 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There are many people who would LOVE to be in your position -- you are working with scientific writers now. You already have the connections to move up a notch and becoming a science writer. Look for a mentor among your co-workers. Pick a topic that interests you, then WRITE about it. Show it to a potential mentor, and ask for advice. Best advice to people who want to be writers -- WRITE. Every day.
posted by david33957 at 6:24 PM on March 20, 2011

You don't need credentials; you need clips. If you have a working science background already and your writing skills are decent, you have the beginning. You already have more than most students who are graduating right now; a job and access to publishers.

Start writing. Get a domain name and a website (basic but professional is best). Build your brand as a science writer. That means writing and getting published in a variety of places since in-house writing gigs are hard to get these days. Start taking part in the global conversation about science subjects; it's better still if you specialize and become an expert in something.

While you are earning a living doing your publishing-related job where you are excelling, start networking and building contacts. You will need them because many science journalists have been laid off and they are still freelancing, so competition is fierce.

I work at a national lab and do a bit of science writing and a LOT of getting other writers together with researchers. Me-mail me if you want to talk.
posted by answergrape at 6:29 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Once you start exploring a bit, you will find a wide variety in terms of the science that you can write about and at different levels (also for dramatically different amounts of pay, but that is another story).

Because you mention medical writing and you are located in an ideal location (there are about a billion medical communication companies in this city), I’m going to suggest something entirely different. Read a few journal articles (pick up New England Journal of Medicine, for example). See if you can read and understand the majority of a review article. If you do okay with that, now try a few primary research articles (pick something that interests you, don’t torture yourself). Some of the information that you want to understand if you do decide to go the medical communication route is to find out what the P value means, for example (did you cover that in college? It is part of basic statistics, but I can’t figure out from your description if you had that or not). Now if you can start to work through a few articles, and understand the conclusions quickly (skim an abstract, results, discussion, now you are ready for part 2.

Send out applications to every single medical communication company in this city and tell them that you want to be a medical writer. Now here is the easy part (provided that you can understand the journal articles); all you have to do is take a writing test, and most of them have you read a journal article or two and then write a paragraph or 2 explaining it to a lay person. If you do well, you are hired. I have a list of med com companies in NYC and can point you to companies that are likely to hire people at the beginning level, and I know if 1 or 2 that will even hire people with a BA and aptitude. The conditions at some of the places are horrible, but if you pick the write place you will write quite a bit.

Now if you want to try some other type of science writing, you can dabble and visit my previously, previously. Also, I would bet that the journal Nature hires people with your background but as a heads up, they pay peanuts……I love their journal, but I can’t afford to work for that amt of $, but YMMV and it may be a great place to get a start.

One more thing (because you ask about classes). I really, really believe that at your level, you probably aren't going to be able to just pick a class and get what you need out of it. You need to be able to read those science articles and understand the majority of the content. Trust me, most undergrads don't get that at the undergraduate college level. Talk to people at your work place with a science background instead. If you do decide that you want to do medical writing, by the way, check out the AMA style guide (get ready for a writing test).

IF you decide to stay with medical writing, by the way, I am goint to nth answergrape and say....specialize. Pick something that you like, go after those projects, and if you decide to go independent, only take those kind of projects. Do that, and you will find that there is absolutely no competition at all
posted by Wolfster at 11:15 PM on March 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I would hold off on J school for now - if you change your mind, you can do it later. Maybe see if there is a class at NYU or Columbia that interests you. Also check out MediaBistro's classes if you want to get more comfortable with specific skills like editing. Definitely look into professional associations like the National Association of Science Writers. Are there science writers you really like? Follow them on Twitter. If there are places where you would really like to work, make a list of them and check once a week to see if they're hiring for a position that interests you. Good luck!
posted by kat518 at 7:03 AM on March 21, 2011

Wolfster's plan is how I wish I got into medical/science writing. How's how it actually went down for me.

Like many current medical writers, when I was in grad school pursuing my PhD in microbiology I realized that I didn't want to do bench science. I decided I would settle for a Master's and then find work with that degree. At a career fair I stumbled upon the medical communications company that I current work for. It was pure dumb luck how I ended up as a medical writer. Now I give talks at my alma mater on how to become a medical writer.

There's a few different directions you can take. Wolfster laid out how to get into the medical publications side of writing, ie, writing manuscripts, posters, abstracts, etc, for clients who are mainly the pharmaceutical industry. You could also pursue a job in regulatory writing, ie, writing documents for pharmaceutical companies that are submitted to the FDA for eventual drug marketing approval. A good way to get started with that is to get a job with a Contract Research Organization (CRO).

If you're interested in meeting other medical writers, I would suggest attending a meeting of the NY Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association meeting. Attending these meetings were great for helping me establish contacts in places that I might want to work at in the future. The AMWA website is a good place to get basic resources on the field of medical writing and for checking out the freelance directory for how other people market themselves and the skills that they have.

I took a bunch of classes that have tremendously helped my medical writing career. Of the most helpful to me was to obtain a Certificate of Medical Writing from the University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies. The University of Sciences in Philadelphia has an online course in medical writing but is pretty pricey. AMWA has some self-directed courses, but they are mainly general writing instruction; however, there is a new statistics module that would probably be helpful if you're lacking in that area. The annual AMWA meeting (and probably the NY AMWA chapter meeting) often has good courses to get you started in a particular area, but I found that they are too short and not comprehensive enough to actually use in everyday practice.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some other helpful nuggets of info. Me-mail me if you have any other specific questions.
posted by photovox at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

I realize this post hasn't been active for a while, but I just found an amazing resource for people looking to start a career in science writing. I am considering trying to get into it myself, so I don't have any experience to share, but Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science has collected the origin stories of 145 established science writers. Definitely worth a read.
posted by RedMapleWhiteOak at 4:17 PM on September 11, 2011

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