So you want your first science journalism job?

Every year dozens of students complete science communication courses – but are there enough science journalism and writing jobs to go round?

As the end of my science communication course was looming, the main concern I had was to get a job. A year spent as a science media student gets one to appreciate how difficult it is to get your dream career. Competition is tough and I’m not alone.

There are dozens of other eager new science communicators out there. Add to that the students on general journalism courses interested in the science beat, as well as young scientists eager to switch the lab bench for the media world, and you get a feeling that there are hordes of people just like you competing for those few advertised jobs.

If that isn’t bad enough, there’s the talk of the traditional media’s demise, the economic downturn and reduction in freelance rates. It’s not surprising that most graduates leave the comfy world of academia in a state of panic.

It turned out I was lucky. A series of unpaid work placements and a lot of experience with student media meant that after a couple of months of applying, many rejections and several unsuccessful interviews, I ended up – in October 2009 – with three job offers. The jobs were for medical writing, pharmaceutical advertising copywriting and an internship on a science journal’s news team. These are all the sorts of jobs that courses prepare you for. What I wasn’t prepared for was choosing between well paid, full-time medical writing jobs and a short-term, poorly paid internship in what I really wanted to do – science journalism.

Several months, a couple more jobs and unpaid internships later, I got back to science journalism and now, finally, have my first proper job in science journalism. But my turbulent experiences in the job market made me wonder what other recent science communication graduates are now doing.

Apart from a small number of international students who come to one of these courses to improve their science reporting and then return to their home country – such as my colleagues Gaetano Priscilliani, a reporter with La Reppublica who upon finishing the MSc Science Communication course at Imperial College went back to Italy to work as a freelance science writer for publications such as Wired Italy, or Arko Olesk, the editor of Estonian’s only dedicated popular science magazine Tarkade Klubi, who upon finishing his course at Imperial returned to editing his magazine – most graduates stay in the UK and seek employment within this country. But where do they find work?

“It is surprisingly difficult to extract first-destination data from graduates.” Felicity Mellor, a course leader for the MSc Science Communication at Imperial, told me. She admits that they have no data on how many students actually end up specifically in science journalism jobs.

Mark Brake, a professor from the Glamorgan University’s science communication masters course also said they have no data on this, but he pointed out that some students go on to do innovative work, even though it’s not science journalism. He gives the example of an ex-student of his, Jon Chase, with his popular ‘science rap’ project.

Mellor is only aware of one student that graduated in last year’s (approx) 45-strong cohort that currently works in journalism. Jessica Hamzelou started a six-month internship with New Scientist straight after her course. But if you’re looking at the odds, one in 45 is not great.

“Careers our graduates go into include documentary production, jobs in museums, PR, event organising, science outreach, publishing, as well as journalism. As we always warn students at interview, first jobs tend to be on short-term contracts,” said Mellor. “Of course, not all our graduates want to be journalists and many aim for different careers from the outset.”

Clare Wilkinson from the Science Communication Unite at UWE also told me there was no data available yet on where their students end up working, although some do get journalistic jobs in TV, radio and science writing.

On the student side of things, Hamzelou said that her course was crucial for getting the internship and that many people at New Scientist have done the course, which is held in high esteem. But she also highlighted the importance of experience – in her case this was writing for I, science magazine at Imperial and editing the science section of the London Student.

So what is the competition for jobs like? When I got rejected for a science reporter internship at the Economist, the e-mail said there were some 250 applicants for one space. Even a journalistic science communication job at the Science Museum, where six of us got shortlisted for interviews, had 60 applicants. But most of my applications were for communication officer and PR roles, reflecting what was advertised at the time.

“I guess the competition is pretty tough because I haven’t ever seen a science journalism job advertised. I really feel like the only way to get in is via work experience and internships,” Hamzelou told me. “It looks like most people [from my course] aren’t doing straight journalism.”

So it seems the competition is tough, and perseverance is crucial. Kat Austen, who moved to science journalism after completing a PhD and a Postdoc at the University of Cambridge said that “doing a science journalism course will definitely help, but experience is also very important.” She wrote and edited for Cambridge’s BlueSci magazine before starting as the Letters and Community editor for the New Scientist.

Skipping the science communication course all together is a tougher route in, Austen said, but the benefit of doing another type of degree, such as a PhD “is that you have a much better understanding of the scientific process, which is important in proper representation of people’s work.”

Rachel Mundy who is doing a part-time Biology with Science Communication degree at Royal Holloway University of London was one of the founders and the first editor of the BlueSci. She feels that many undergraduates on courses that have science communication modules do not take the full advantage of work experience schemes and memberships of the likes of the ABSW – all crucial for getting contacts and the know-how to get that first job. Her experience is that the competition for science journalism jobs is intense, and any experience or qualification helps.

As the recent online discussion at PSCI-COM and ABSW-L mailing lists illustrates, some people feel students do not get enough support from the professional science journalist community: lack of funding for such courses and conferences and lack of events aimed at students. Even the venerable Guardian Student Media Awards do not offer a category for the best science writing, leaving would-be student journalists high and dry. But others quote examples such as giving talks to students as evidence that the professional community is helpful to students.

There are now several student magazines dedicated to science, including BlueSci and its spin-off EuSci at Edinburgh, Imperial’s I, science and Oxford’s “_Bang!_ “: They all started within the last six years as self-enabling work-experience-slash-CV point-getters. If nothing else they highlight ingenuity and enthusiasm of would-be science journalists and perhaps offer a good training ground for those most persistent to get that elusive first job.

There are a wide range of jobs in media communication but most of them are not journalism. Becoming a science journalist is tough. What seems important to me is that specilist student media exist where students, on a SciCom course or not, get to cut their teeth, and make first steps in science reporting and journalism. Anything that gives you an edge.

This article was first published in the ABSW The Science Reporter (June 2010 issue)

Mićo Tatalović

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5 thoughts on “So you want your first science journalism job?”

  1. Thanks for the info! I’ve been looking for some honest analysis of the science journalism job market. I’ve been getting support for my consideration of getting a Master’s in science journalism, but what I really wanted was realism.
    Currently I blog about science. It’s free, you can do it however you want, and best of all you don’t have to pitch anyone for the stories. Now I have an enormous backlog of clips that would be great for my first internship in science journalism–if I were ever able to find one for which to apply.
    I have gotten a small amount of money–under $1200–by fundraising for a book based on the blog. Certainly more than I’ve ever gotten from an employer for science writing!
    Anyway, I recommend blogging. If you think you’re going to get a job, a blog helps (in spite of the fact that people are paranoid that they’ll write something to offend or disagree with future employers.) If you don’t think you’ll get a job, it’s still recommended, because it’s fun. I think I’m going to spend less time and effort looking for science journalism jobs after reading this. Probably resign myself to a desk job again, just blog on the side.

  2. Science journalism is indeed a very competitive field, especially now that traditional newspapers like my hometown paper, The Los Angeles Times, is shedding its previously excellent science coverage. The result is a flood of quality writers in need of jobs. I’ve found my own route by starting my blog – The Science Lifestyle Blog. I have yet to monetized my efforts (if that is even possible), but what I’ve learned in a prior life is that you can parlay efforts like this into bigger and better things. The moral is to play it smart, and science journalism can be a wonderful path to follow.

    The Physics Groupie

  3. Glad you like the article, and good point Matt – I do remember your talk on this at BlueSci event back in Cambridge.

  4. That’s quite helpful for recent/future graduates to know! I’ve retweeted it for @eusci

  5. Excellent account, Mico, and glad the hard work paid off for you. One common route into science journalism not often discussed is by working your way via other forms of science publishing. If you can get a job as an assistant editor or editor at a big publishing company, for example, you’ll probably be asked to write the occasional news-in-brief or research snippet (and, increasingly, blog posts). You can then leverage that experience to move on to bigger things – particularly if the company you’re working for has a news desk (e.g. Nature). Granted, this route is best for those wishing to go into the news-for-scientists area, but would also be good experience for applying for jobs at newspapers etc. I’ve seen quite a few people take this route (myself included) over the years.