Ten years ago, I was in the final year of a biochemistry PhD, with no clue how to move into a career in science communication (SciComm). Two months ago, I wrote a workbook and career guide for other people in a similar predicament. It includes a lot of the things I’ve learned in the meantime. I wish I could say that I’ve mastered all the skills I mention in the workbook myself, but one of them still eludes me. I don’t know what my “SciComm style” is…
Science communication style
In 2016 I hosted the @iamscicomm rotation Twitter account for a week, and I took the opportunity to talk about some very broad questions in science communication. One of the questions I asked people was whether they had a personal “SciComm style”. (For example, the style at ErrantScience is cartoons with stick figure scientists). I was expecting the answers to be either “no” or a mention of what their style was, but it turned out that I needed to spend a lot of tweets just explaining what I meant. I got the impression that many people hadn’t thought about infusing a personal style into their science communication at all.
Although I found it frustrating at the time because I didn’t get the lively conversation I wanted, that Twitter moment helped me realise that this concept of a “science communication style” was just very alien to a lot of people. But back when I was still in the lab, I wouldn’t have understood what I was talking about either.
So, when I set out to write a workbook and career guide aimed at PhD students and postdocs who want to switch to a career in science communication, I made sure to include a whole worksheet that was all about trying to find your own SciComm style, by letting people think about their ideal audience, and how they picture themselves when they think about a future in science communication.
From Science to Science Communication workbook
This workbook originally started as a series of blog posts. In the final product, the topics from the original posts are reworked and edited, and each has one or two associated worksheets. There is also an entire section explaining when not to do science communication for free, so once you’ve purchased the download, you’ll learn why it cost money in the first place. It’s very cheap, though, and even cheaper for readers of this blog post (if you’re quick!) – until April 30, you can get 20% off with discount code CLUTTER.
A big amorphous blob
I created this workbook because I had to figure everything out on my own. I knew when I was a PhD student that I would rather spend time reading and writing about science or giving talks than actually standing at the bench and doing it. Other people seemed to enjoy the hands-on work, but I knew that there would be a more suitable place for me than the lab.
I had some idea that science journalism existed, and I knew there were people who worked on science TV programming, and that academic societies and journals clearly had people on staff with a science background, but I didn’t really know how to navigate non-academic science careers. Seen from within a research lab, anything outside of it that involves science and communication is just one big amorphous blob. Working as a journal editor sounds cool, and so does working for a science festival, or writing for magazines. That these are three distinctly different careers of their own, each requiring their own set of skills, was not quite on my radar. Neither did I know where to find different kinds of SciComm jobs advertised, which volunteer roles would give me the best experience for different types of work, or that new types of science communication roles are created all the time. Your future job might not even exist yet!
My patchwork SciComm style
I definitely didn’t have a SciComm style back then. My science blog included anything from rants about lab work to featuring science art. I judged science fairs. I was on the editorial board for a student-run journal. I visited classrooms and community centres to do science demos for children. I was a teaching assistant for an undergrad course. I would change my vocabulary and demeanour for all of these. If I had a style at all, it was a weird patchwork of lots of different styles.
I was also doing some science writing on the side, and I optimistically thought I could do that full-time after I finished, but my lack of familiarity with the world outside the lab meant that I wasn’t quite ready for this. (In my defence, it also didn’t help that the economy completely tanked in the exact month I finished my PhD, which resulted in magazines no longer hiring freelancers, and nobody offering science communication internships the following year.)
The world of science communication
I eventually found a full-time job, setting up a community blog for scientists. Then I found another job, and another one. I kept doing freelance science communication, and continued to meet others in the field. I read papers about SciComm research, joined internet forums and attended science communication conferences. Gradually, I learned more and more about the world of science communication.
I’ve experienced a lot of the different types of roles that exist within science communication: Volunteer SciComm by scientists, part-time, full-time, freelance, on staff, speaking, writing, organising events, managing communities, aimed at kids, aimed at adults, aimed at people with varying science backgrounds. I’ve been interviewed about science communication and I’ve given talks about science communication as a career. And finally, I decided to write down everything I had learned and share it with people who are still figuring out how to turn their passions for reading, writing and talking about science into a proper job.
And I’m STILL learning. I still haven’t found my own SciComm style yet. Doing a lot of different SciComm things post-PhD might have given me a good foundation to be flexible (or at least to write an overview of the science communication field) but it also means I have no real “SciComm identity” of my own. I’ve had the same blog for 13 years. In that time I’ve lived in three cities in two countries and had five different jobs (plus various freelance roles). I’ve been a researcher and a publisher and a writer and an educator. I still have multiple roles at once, and if I meet someone new I have to do some quick mental gymnastic to figure out what they might know about me and how I should introduce myself. Readers of this blog post probably only know me as “that lady who wrote a rambling guest post on ErrantScience: Clutter about some workbook she made and how she had no style.” … Maybe I should do the exercises in my own workbook.