Watch out, Carl Sagan, I'm coming for your job
August 15, 2011 5:44 AM   Subscribe

How do I, as a scientist, get a career popularizing and communicating science? Should I specialize and become an expert within my field, or should I keep my focus general?

As I enter the (hopefully) final year of my PhD, I am thinking hard about what's next for me. My soul searching has recently led to the realization that my passion isn't necessarily in my particular niche of science as much as it is for science in general. Great discoveries, elegant methodologies, and the philosophy of scientific inquiry all tie my stomach in knots with excitement, and I dislike the idea of limiting myself to my sub-sub-specialty of science. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I would love a career communicating science to the public. Whether I actualize this goal by writing books, discussing with students, hosting a scientific tv show, writing a science column, or just talking about science to the person next to me in line at the supermarket counter, I think I could be an excellent liason between the scientific community and the general public.

My undergraduate degrees were in physics and math from a liberal arts college, and my PhD will be in biomedical engineering (the liberal arts of engineering). I am a competent writer, I like to think that I have a good sense of humor, and I'm good at breaking down complicated topics. I sincerely believe that I have the right skills to understand, interpret, and communicate science. The question is, where do I go from here? I realize that I'm not likely to progress from graduate student to bestselling author overnight and that there is no set formula for success. When I read about the careers of notable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Feynmann, it seems like each was/is a brilliant contributing scientist within their respective field. To become an (allegedly) brilliant contributing scientist within my field, I expect that I should pursue a postdoctoral research position. However, I feel like becoming a postdoc will send me deeper into my niche and move me even farther away from my goal.

So, hivemind, what would you do? Postdoc or no postdoc? Do I continue specializing and gain credibility as an expert yet specialized scientist, or do I generalize immediately? My goal is to improve the general perception of science, but I also need to be taken seriously by my listeners/readers/viewers/whatevers. Are there fellowships that I'm not aware of designed for nonpolitical science advocacy? I am not interested in politicizing science or lobbying, just making science accessible to non-scientists. All advice and guidance will be much appreciated.
posted by wondercow to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
this seams alot like general messages from, perhaps looking into a TED Fellows program
posted by fozzie33 at 6:00 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, you've hit on it, I think. The very best popularizers have been accomplished scientists first--those you mentioned, plus Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, the Harvard ant guy whose name unaccountably slips my mind. Lots of liberal arts people, myself included, have written about science a lot, but mainly by acting as conduits using real scientists as sources. That's a craft, and a good one, but not an original contribution to anything much. You could work toward doing the latter with just the degrees you have, and if you have original ideas to pursue, you could probably do that without the post-doc work. On the other hand, where's the funding coming from? I thought I'd be writing my way toward some suggestion for you, but looks like I've just rephrased your question. But judging from the public discourse on science, say in Washington, popularizing science could be a damn important career.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:07 AM on August 15, 2011

I'd say keep doing science, for now - it's what is going to open doors and create opportunities for you to pursue your interest in communicating science.

And, on the subject of communicating science, two suggestions - one, consider studying the visual display of data. Edward Tufte is a good place to start. Another is, consider gaining skill in writing, particularly in plain language and other audience/communication-oriented writing forms. Skilled professionals are often incredibly poor at this (speaking from my experience as a grantwriter), but it can be a very important way to not just say stuff, but to be heard and understood.
posted by entropone at 6:10 AM on August 15, 2011

These are different times. I tend to think that being vocal about the need for further education in science may conflict with a career path whether it is in research or industry. You will have more legitimacy if you are well respected among your peers and have a Nobel prize or two but all these reality tv shows are looking for hosts now and will take you if you are a self-professed scientist.
posted by JJ86 at 6:11 AM on August 15, 2011

I think the most important things are to be Engaged, Interested and Entertaining. These are the things that made Bill Nye the Science Guy successful and he, as far as I know, only has a B.S..

So, keep learning, but keep in mind that if you want to communicate science to people, you should probably get some experience interviewing people and maybe take some public speaking and get into improv or stand-up comedy.

If you're interesting and earnest enough, no one will really care what level of education you achieved.
posted by inturnaround at 6:13 AM on August 15, 2011

If science journalism is something you're interested in, Ed Yong (author of the awesome blog Not Rocket Science) posted this, from Alice Bell's blog about what it means to work in science communication. Science communication isn't just something you can dabble in while being a researcher - it takes qualifications and training and time consuming work. There are master's programs and other courses you can look into, if you're interested.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:17 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest trying for an AAAS internship for science journalism. There's the internship at Science Mag: and the Mass Media Fellows internship: Both of them are a few months long and give you the opportunity to try science communication to see if you like it, and to give yourself of an idea of what you want to do next. They're a nice foothold into science communication.

I'd also suggest not doing a postdoc unless you're really into the science associated with it. The thing about all the science popularizers you've mentioned is that they all excel in their disciplines. It's hard to do this without an overwhelming desire to find out more about a specific subfield. Likewise, I would not worry about being a professor just to have credibility with the public. As inturnaround mentions, Bill Nye is probably one of the most well known and influential (to a certain age range) science popularizers, and he didn't need a PhD, much less a postdoc.
posted by be11e at 6:33 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

the Harvard ant guy whose name unaccountably slips my mind

Steven Pinker?
posted by chiefthe at 6:38 AM on August 15, 2011

After a PhD in biomedical engineering, you don't need any more science to be a great liaison between the scientific communities and the general public. "More science" often translates into more technical--less accessible--writing. You need above all to be a great writer: bright enough to grasp the big ideas, curious enough to ask the interesting questions those ideas imply, and skilled enough to bring those together in a way that sets fire to the page.

I highly recommend the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. It's run by a very skilled and knowledgeable group of science writers, and is both practical and inspiring. It encompassed everything from case studies to BBQs to article writing workshops and scientific presentations by folks at Los Alamos. I participated a few years ago and still find myself incorporating what I learned there into my work as an editor of fiction and creative non-fiction. It is very low key, which made the incredible networking opportunities a real delight. It was easy and organic to talk meaningfully with some very smart and well-connected people. Participating would give you a realistic understanding of what the science writing role encompasses and skills you'd want to work on.

The other recommendation is for MIT's graduate program in Science Writing. I've talked with a number of graduates who feel like the program was just the right bridge between doing more science and learning more writing. It gave them a practical set of skills and approaches, access to experienced advisors, and great post-graduate support. And of course your diploma comes with the MIT name on it.

My third recommendation is to find a communications role in the field you're most passionate about. This lets you leverage your education and interests without driving you further into niche lab work with the subsequent pressure to publish academic articles. I was a member of a regional science writing professional group and there was a steady stream of general communications jobs in scientific or academic settings. You could look for something similar or explore the roles available at nearby universities.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:38 AM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

the Harvard ant guy whose name unaccountably slips my mind

That'd be E.O. Wilson.
posted by pemberkins at 6:41 AM on August 15, 2011

You are me, 3 or so years ago. Allow me to brain dump.

There are postdocs out there with more of an education focus--specifically, look at the big NSF funded centers, because their funding is dependent on presenting science to the public, and as a result often have education departments.

There are postdocs in research groups where the PI does significant outreach (again, usually because he or she is running a monster NSF grant). Even better is a PI who has to do significant outreach but doesn't really like it, because you can take over and they will fall to their knees in gratitude.

Places that did not seem to have any compelling job openings for someone at your level, or at least didn't when I was looking: Science museums, national history museums, zoos/aquariums/planetariums. I was really disappointed by that.

Science writing is an option, but it seems that there are a lot more people going that way from the journalism direction rather than the science direction. (This may make you a selling point or a liability, I didn't look far enough into that to say for sure.)

A thing you have that you should sell hard to anyone who might hire you is the fact that you have the ability to communicate with a wide swath of both the scientific community AND the public, based on your description of your background. Clinicians and physicists and engineers for sure, and I'm betting chemists and some forms of biologists/geneticists/what-have-you. I had a hard time finding a good fit but the right spot was ultimately one that considered this a huge asset. That said, I didn't end up finding a position working at Nova or something dreamy like that, but I do get to teach cool stuff without all the professing.

One thing you may find, wherever you go, is that there are a lot of scientists who know that public outreach is important but who know they stink at it. They LOVE having people around who enjoy that and are good at it. (I end up giving a lot of tours, and it's one of my favorite things to do. It was a really minor part of my job description that has become much less minor just because I like doing it, and the upper-level folks are really happy about that.)

Anyways, yeah. There are options.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:21 AM on August 15, 2011

I am in research - I am not in your research. I am also not a PhD.

If you really want to know what is the best direction I would read about the "market of research" -

Knowledge and Money by Rodger Geiger

I am amazed at the disconnect between Primary Investigators (PIs) and money.

In my experience your goal is to create a name for yourself in your field of science. Find a niche and publicize yourself into this. This includes publications, and networking at conferences. When someone is writing a grant proposal which needs your field for collaboration you want them to think about you and your work. Funding is peer reviewed, so when your proposal is placed before the funding organziation you want them to recognize that you are a leading researcher in the field.

Now I say find niche in your field; however, always remember the bigger picture. Where else can your work be used? For instance, I recently watched the movie: Between the Folds. In this film mathematicians were using their math skills to create origami configurations to understand and study their math in a 3D manner. One scientist - Robert Lang used his math/physics and origami background to further airbag research. He also created a collapsible telescopic lens.

Good Luck.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 7:39 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Agree that to be a Bill Nye type person you need to have a career to back it up, but if you want to get started helping non-science types learn about science, you should find local science fairs, robotics competitions, etc and volunteer. You can either volunteer on the planning side, and help the marketing types find ways to bring in people who wouldn't normally attend events like these, or you can get involved as a mentor to the students participating and learn something about how these non-PhD types understand and get excited about science. Plus, during "off-seasons," group leaders/teachers who work with these students on a daily basis might let you come in and practice breaking down big lofty topics into something schoolkids think is awesome. That way you can see how good you actually are and how you can improve.
posted by olinerd at 8:23 AM on August 15, 2011

Have you thought of doing regular free science lectures at the library? For years, I went to Jim Loudon's free monthly astronomy lectures (a.k.a. Astrofest). He could explain things so that, by the time he was done, even a layman (I started attending in high school) could understand the complicated stuff. The auditorium (400? 500? seats) was full every month. When the Voyager 2 photos of the Saturn moons came out, the lecture was standing room only.

My point is, this could be a way to start to make a name for yourself as a local science guy. Either focus on one field, or explain to the layman the science behind the news and plan your topics around what's on the news. Become the guy that local papers always come to for quotes and explanations.
posted by bentley at 9:09 AM on August 15, 2011

Teaching popularizes science from the ground up, so to speak. Not as glamorous as being Bill Nye or the Kratt Brothers or Gould or Wilson, but arguably far more important. Also it is hugely, hugely educational to go from the rarefied milieu of academic science, where the value of science is self-evident and everyone both knows and plays by the an environment where science is viewed as alien or suspicious or "too hard", and you really have to develop your evangelical chops. In other words, a really good way to figure out how to popularize science is to get down and do it at the high school or community college level for a while.
posted by Sublimity at 9:14 AM on August 15, 2011

(Sorry, wrong page). Confessions of a Space Popularizer and How You Can Be One Too, by Jim Loudon.
posted by bentley at 9:17 AM on August 15, 2011

And dear God, examine your analogies carefully as you enter the area of science popularization. Describing biomedical engineering as "the liberal arts of engineering" is apt to upset practitioners in both fields and baffle everyone else. How is medical device design, for example, like the liberal arts? Perhaps you mean it's less quantitative? (Which is dubious.)
posted by Mapes at 1:32 PM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful suggestions and links so far--they have given me a lot to think about. I agree that more hands-on experience teaching would be helpful, given my goals. I have been volunteering at science fairs and in a 3rd grade classroom, but perhaps I should step up my game and try giving a public presentation or two. I'm always impressed by people who can bring their academic work into the public eye.

You all are the best!
posted by wondercow at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2011

I work in the media relations office for a university. One thing you can absolutely do is, if you get a job as a professor, contact that office and let them know that you want to do as much media as you possibly can, including writing op-eds for the local paper about the importance of funding or whatever. They are dying for well-spoken, well-written scientists on campuses. Ask them for media training--they'll tell you how to do a TV interview, for example. Don't shy away from commenting on piddly local stories, either--the more you do, the better you'll get. Get started now; in 10 years, when you're a star in your field, you'll be more than ready for the big time.

Also, if you know of ANY science going on around campus that could be easy to report in a three-minute segment, with good visuals, let the media relations people know. They'll send a TV crew over and you'll get a spot on the evening news. Small potatoes, but in the aggregate, it adds up.

There will probably be a few likeminded professors on your campus--get together and start a blog for the general public about what's going on on campus. Involve the campus media relations department to make sure you're not stepping on any toes.

Make communications an integral part of a course. Have them make a series of tutoring videos, for example, that future students can use. Heck, teach a course in science communications.

Good luck! The universe NEEDS people like you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:51 PM on August 15, 2011

Oh, and: go out to lunch with your media relations person who is in charge of science communications. They will give you lots of insight into what media outlets want and what you can expect them to understand or not. Knowing what the media can do will help you identify what you can try to communicate through mainstream media and what is more appropraite for a trade publication or blog.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:55 PM on August 15, 2011

I found a couple of other websites that are, or contain links to additional resources you might want to check out:

"So, you want to be a science writer" and the Canadian Science Writers' Association.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 6:57 PM on August 18, 2011

I do a fair amount of science popularizing in the general press. I started when I was a postdoc, but it seems pretty plain that having a Ph.D. in the relevant science is sufficient credential for newspapers and magazines. I would:

* blog a lot. See how you like writing short, comprehensible pieces about contemporary science. See if people like reading what you write.

* Let local public radio know you're available to do commentary on science. My sense is they really need people, especially for anything touching on medical.

* Johns Hopkins offers an MA in science writing.

My advice? Do the postdoc. The deeper and broader your knowledge of the science, the more you can place discoveries in their proper context, and the more you can talk as a peer to the people whose work you're popularizing.
posted by escabeche at 7:45 PM on August 18, 2011

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