As a graduate student or PhD scientist you are likely to be surrounded by plenty of career advice and options – that is, if you’re interested in a career in academic research or the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Those of us who aren’t sold on either of those fields are left wondering what other career paths are available. One field, which has received little attention by most faculty and institutional career centers in the past, is science communication (SciComm). Briefly, a job in SciComm involves you communicating science, typically to laypeople but sometimes even to other scientists. Examples include formal science education in a classroom, informal education in a setting like a museum, outreach to various populations and science writing.
Why Might You Like a Career in Science Communication?
If you think increasing public understanding of science is a worthwhile goal, you’re already on the right track. Communicating science, like any other form of teaching, can be incredibly fulfilling. You’ll have the chance to see the light bulb go on when a person grasps something they just weren’t understanding before, or share the excitement of learning about an awesome science story. If you’re like me, you might have found that you enjoy talking about and teaching science more than you like actually doing it.
What Skills Do You Need?
For starters, it’s key that you enjoy talking about science to others. Teaching skills are a necessity; you should be able to break down subject matters in a way that people with a range of backgrounds in science can understand. This could include kids and adults, depending on the populations you want to reach. It’s also important that you make science approachable and fun – it helps if you have a little bit of creativity to come up with new and interesting ways to present science, whether it be with a hands-on experiment or an analogy that can be easily understood.
The Pros of a Job in SciComm
Compared with academia and industry, SciComm hasn’t received the same amount of support as a viable career path following graduate school. But we should give SciComm more credit. First off, those of us in the US are aware of the disheartening state of career opportunities in biomedical research, meaning that the job market for PhDs in academia is shrinking. If you are lucky enough to land a job as a junior faculty member, you will be faced with years of struggle just to get funded. Industry may not be subject to the whims of governmental funding, but your job security rests with a company whose goal is to make a profit and will drop projects as necessary to meet that goal. Given these issues in academia and industry, we should be talking more about other jobs that PhDs might be interested in – SciComm is just one possibility.
Second, engaging the public in a conversation about science is important, not just to educate them about the science that affects their daily lives (e.g. climate change and the importance of vaccination), but also because it is our job as experts to make science a priority to the general population. Finally, the skills and lessons learned from SciComm experience can even be applied to a career in industry or academia if you choose to go down this road – after all, who wouldn’t benefit from improving their ability to communicate their research?
The Cons of a Job in SciComm
Like any career path, SciComm has a few drawbacks. Depending on the type of SciComm job you pursue, pay varies widely. It can also be tricky to actually find job openings, as positions often have vague or obscure names; for example, I once saw a job advert that was seeking a person to develop a science outreach program that was simply titled “Project Manager”. So you may need to put in time to carefully sift through job descriptions. Additionally, because SciComm is a growing field, there aren’t many resources online or at institutions that can guide you on this career path; however, that’s where the community of science communicators comes in. Start talking to scientists already involved in this type of work and build a network of experienced communicators. You can also check out online communities such as SciComm Hub and Versatile PhD, which include resources for multiple SciComm careers and ideas on how to get involved.
How Can You Start Your SciComm Career?
SciComm is considered an “alternative” career, however, as more people are starting to think about this field of science, more communities and resources are forming to support their career development. Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Join the community of science communicators to start learning what the field is like and to better delineate exactly what type of SciComm you’re interested in. Twitter is an excellent place to meet many SciCommers and to quickly get up to speed. We don’t bite, and it’s great to meet people who love talking about science as much as we do!
2. Volunteer in a position that allows you to practice communicating science. Ask your local museums if they are accepting volunteers – you’ll get to speak to a diverse group of museum guests.
3. Outreach organizations at your institution or in your area are also great options.
4. Writing is another important skill in your communication toolbox – have you considered starting a blog? Even if you don’t aspire to be a famous writer, the act of writing and thinking about how to communicate at any level is excellent practice and will help with whatever career you end up in.
What are your thoughts on a career in science communication? Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about making the move? Let us know in the comments below!