How a scientist becomes a freelance science writer

by Stephanie Chasteen on January 5, 2010

I recently wrote an article for the National Association of Science Writers, on my career path to becoming a freelance science educator and writer.  It’s on the members-only part of the site here, but dear readers, I give it to you here to enjoy!  A big thanks to Cathy Dold for asking me to write it, and giving me great editorial comments.

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Stephanie Chasteen, a science education and communication consultant, was getting a PhD in physics when she realized she was more interested in learning about science than actually doing it. Time for a career change. Stephanie discusses how she launched a “do-it-yourself” program to learn science writing while still working on her PhD.

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I found out about science writing in an unlikely place: the hot and sweaty West African nation of Guinea. I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer, and one day happened to meet a successful writer for Science magazine who was visiting her boyfriend, another volunteer. Her enthusiasm for science writing got me hooked on the idea of using my creative side to express and explore my love of the natural world. Twelve years later, I’m a writer who specializes in science education, as well as a physicist. I’m one of the relatively few writers who gritted her teeth through the whole game of doctor, working on my PhD while squeezing in writing experience on the side. Here is my story: what I did, and how it worked for me.

The Science Gristmill — Dr. Steph

Like many other science writers, I found that I loved learning about science more than actually doing it. So once my classes were done and I began the research for my PhD, my enthusiasm for the degree began to wane. I began to wonder if I should change my career track. I read books and attended NASW conferences to learn more about science writing, and I posed the question to many writers: “Should I finish the degree?” I was told that in some venues (such as newspapers) the doctorate might count against me, since I would be numbered among the lost souls who could no longer communicate with regular people. But for the most part, people looked slightly wistful. “Finish it,” they told me. “It will open doors.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced, and I applied to the science writing program at my university — the University of California-Santa Cruz — then run by John Wilkes. John liked me and my work, but he claimed he wasn’t sure that I would leave my PhD program if he were to accept me.

It was clear that if I wanted to learn to communicate science, I would have to put together my own learning program. A friendly phooey on John; I would show him!

Do-it-Yourself Science Writing

I continued to suffer through my PhD research, while also launching my science journalism quest.

I knew I needed some directed training in writing, so I enrolled in a journalism class at Santa Cruz. I recommend this highly to anyone. I learned the essential features of a story and got hands-on editing practice. I also wanted clips, and the instructor was well-connected with the local paper. She managed to get two of my pieces for the class (written on my own research area of solar energy) published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. After the class ended, I continued to write for the Sentinel, for peanuts, to get those precious clips and more experience.

I also kept in contact with the Santa Cruz science writing program, and traveled with their students to conferences. By making myself visible in this way, I developed valuable contacts and connections. When the Stanford News Service didn’t fill their internship that semester, I heard about it from these contacts, and offered to write some pieces for the service. “Write for free” is the first piece of advice I give to others (look up “reciprocity (social psychology)” on Wikipedia). I got valuable editing and assistance from the people to whom I donated my reporting and writing time. Plus, one of my press releases for Stanford garnered the attention of a writer for National Geographic, leading to my first writing gig in a (different) national magazine.

The Best Job I’ll Never Have

But I had a higher plan. When talking to other science writers at conferences, I’d been told that the two best routes for a scientist like me were to go through the Santa Cruz program (oh, well), or to get a fellowship with the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows program. So I gathered enough clips to create a good portfolio, and was accepted as a fellow. “Where would you like to be placed?” the fellowship staff asked. I hadn’t really thought about it. “NPR would be cool,” I suggested. My luck was golden; no one else had asked for the National Public Radio assignment. So I was off to the science desk at NPR, in Washington, D.C.

At NPR, I learned the high standards of excellence of national science reporting, including the nuances of language, the delicacies of health study implications, the dirty job of digging stories out of press releases and conferences, and how to write short, short, SHORT. I developed a deep respect for the science reporters and their craft, and discovered a latent love for audio. NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg said I had a “good radio voice.” I was in heaven.

Helen Fields, another former NPR intern, once told me wistfully, “I want my internship back!” And so do I. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

NPR was a delightful tease — a wonderful internship experience, but a job I’m unlikely to land permanently. Hence, “the best job I’ll never have.” But that internship gave me so much. Not only did I gain great experience at NPR, but the name carries a lot of clout. Even people who don’t know the AAAS mass media fellowship know the name “NPR.” So, it’s certainly helpful if you can snag an internship at a nationally recognized venue; the NASW internship fairs can help with that quest. And, another theme song from this experience is, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

What About That Pesky PhD?

Right about now you might be wondering how I managed to do all this and work on my PhD. I was very fortunate to have an extremely supportive advisor during my degree work. She granted me time off in the summer to do the AAAS fellowship, and when a contact arranged for me to take a researcher position with Twin Cities Public Television, she supported that as well. Other PhD students aren’t so lucky; their advisors keep them under lock and key. But, many PhD students are also too shy to ask, and remember, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Workaholic tendencies come in handy, too.

Selling Myself

In the last years of my PhD, I became my own business. I continued to teach myself about science writing and communication, and I marketed myself. Networking always feels slimy when you’re doing it as a means to an end, so I approach it with a sense of genuine curiosity and interest in people. Here are some of the surprising ways that my passionate delving into science communication has led to personal connections and jobs:

  • I volunteered to give a presentation at a science book club, which led to an introduction to physicist/writer Michael Riordan. He got me the researcher position at Twin Cities Public Television.
  • I offered to edit the physics laboratory manuals at Santa Cruz in lieu of a teaching assistantship, gaining valuable writing experience.
  • I audited an environmental writing course, befriending the instructor, Sarah Rabkin. She gave me professional advice and invited me back several times to present to her class on my career.
  • Overhearing a writer trying to explain dark matter in the 30 seconds before a NASW talk, I introduced myself as a fellow physicist. I have now written for David Ehrenstein (Physical Review Focus) a few times, and he is a friendly professional contact.
  • I wrote several press releases, for free, for the Stanford Report. One garnered the attention of the editor of a national magazine. He asked me to write a feature article on the topic, and I continued to contribute to that publication.
  • I contacted the husband of a family friend to find out more about science writing (these “informational interviews” are fantastic ways to find out about a field and get connections). I subsequently wrote a piece for the science career website he edited.
  • At the suggestion of my advisor, I contacted a scientist who was starting an ambitious public outreach project. He hired me as project manager, and through that job I met museum directors from around the country, science education specialists, and a national grantwriter. I still call on many of those contacts, and that is where I was introduced to the central figures at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco.

The Exploratorium (The Other Best Job I’ll Never Have)

Soon after receiving my PhD, I heard that the Exploratorium was seeking a PhD physicist for a National Science Foundation-funded postdoctoral position running teacher workshops. I got the job and accepted enthusiastically, even though it represented a definitive career shift away from traditional science journalism and toward science education. While at the Exploratorium, however, I continued to write. In particular, I convinced the museum to give me a crack at creating their first regular podcast series, for their nanotechnology program. Through this and another podcast series, I learned the art of podcast production, and I have now produced podcasts as a freelancer, including a series for elementary teachers for the National Science Digital Library, and interview segments for Science magazine.

While I do a small amount of traditional science journalism, today my main career is devoted to improving science education and supporting teacher professional development. I create videos and write papers on effective pedagogy, blog for science teachers, produce podcasts to communicate polar science to elementary teachers, design professional development curricula, and evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs. For me, writing is one of the tools I carry in my kit toward creating effective education programs.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been continually inspired by the simple fact that science writers are really nice people. I have asked for advice and assistance from many talented and intelligent writers, and they have given it freely, for the most part. While some writers have ignored my contact or questions, they are rare.

It’s worked for me to be self-promoting without being pushy. I keep attractive business cards in my back pocket and distribute them freely. I give a little to get a little — I cultivate a genuine curiosity in what other people are doing, and ask questions to show it, but also have an elevator speech ready about myself — a verbal resume. I have found ways to do this that work with my innate shyness and introversion, though it’s always a continuing process.

Almost everything interesting that’s happened in my career was the result of me asking someone for something, such as an exception to the rules or the chance to do something new. On the other hand, it’s important to realize that rules are there for a reason, and there is a time to go with the flow. Being flexible and accommodating gains you valuable goodwill. There are times when I wish I’d recognized this line more clearly.

Lastly, writing takes practice. My blog gives me a public platform that helps me market myself, but it also gets me to write something every week. I also got writing practice by writing for free, creating podcasts, and writing as much as I could within jobs that were not focused on writing.

For the record, in the end I have mixed feelings about having completed the doctorate. It did open doors, and I am able to work on higher-level projects than I ever would have if I had left with a master’s. My professional life is now rich and varied, and I have a lot of control over my work. On the other hand, I spent three miserable years in the lab and, because I didn’t enjoy the process, I did not soak up many of the skills in problem-solving and research that are the mark of a PhD. I have a valuable piece of paper, but it’s as much a symbol of my stubborn nature and innate intelligence as it is a symbol of a doctorate-level understanding and aptitude. If this is a decision that you are trying to make for yourself, there is no easy answer as to the right path.

I’ll close with a story that defines my rather indirect professional path. I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria — thermophilic or acidophilic bacteria, for example — do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine. I could not have predicted, on that hot, bright day in Guinea, that I would end up writing for science teachers. But I listened to a woman talk about science communication and something perked up inside me. That way, it’s a little warmer that way. And I took a step.

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UPDATE 2/7/13

I get a lot of email from readers of this article asking for advice on how to get into science writing.  I understand that the first chapter of a new book, The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age (the first book listed below) is geared specifically towards prospective science writers, and has a great first chapter that answers common questions (should I get a PhD?  Do I need a certificate in science writing?)  So, budding writers, I suggest you check it out!

And some books on career changing for scientists and academics:

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar matushiq January 5, 2010 at 11:26 am

very nice, thank you for sharing your proffesional life :)

avatar Mindy January 22, 2010 at 12:23 am

I really like those last two sentences. They sum it up so well.

That way. It’s a little warmer that way.

I think that’s how I’ve been going through life, and right now where I’m at is not moving me toward the warmth. However, I’m testing things out to see where that warmth is. Putting out a few feelers. Looking into a few things.

Thanks for giving me the words to describe where I am.

avatar sciencegeekgirl January 22, 2010 at 3:03 am

I’m so glad the piece spoke to you, Mindy. It’s been my mental image for my life for a long time. Good luck in your journey!

avatar shannon January 26, 2010 at 8:08 pm

this is a great article, thank you for posting it here! i’ve discovered that i love science and working with people, not in the lab. i can really relate to your mixed feelings on finishing your phd, i have those too.

thank you for the inspiration and an idea of how to switch fields!

avatar Mark Jackman May 13, 2010 at 5:06 pm

I’ve been working in Pharma for nearly ten years (chemistry), and I’m seriously considering a move to science writing. Thank you for some immensely useful info.

Now following you on Twitter!

Thanks again,

Mark

avatar Tope paul August 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm

challenging, inspiring and motivating thanks for sharing a complete story of your career path. it does more than just information, it gives me a sense of the fact that we are one in this struggle of trying to figure out what exactly we did like to do.
Thanks

avatar John January 17, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Excellent article! Thanks so much for posting this, Stephanie.

avatar Jennifer February 2, 2011 at 12:13 pm

This is very valuable information for those of us starting out on a nontraditional career path! Much to the horro of my parents and friends, I just took a leave of absence from my PhD program to explore opportunities in science writing. Life you I finally realized that the stories that come out of science motivate me so much more than a desire to be a cog in the science “gristmill.” Your story helped give me the courage to follow the “microbial path.” Thanks!

avatar sciencegeekgirl February 12, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I’m so glad it was helpful to you, Jennifer! There are many people in your boat, it seems.

avatar Jessica June 10, 2011 at 12:35 am

Thanks for the informative and inspiring article Stephanie. I’m currently a postdoc and have recently been inspired to move in the direction of science writing (it does seem a little warmer). Other than applying to the UCSC program, I had no idea where to begin getting some writing experience beforehand. A journalism writing class sounds like a good place to start. Thanks so much for the advice and especially the inspiration!

avatar Tim July 12, 2011 at 7:06 pm

This was an excellent and inspirational essay for those of us trying to find our “warmest spot”. Thank you.

avatar SHANTHI September 30, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Thank you very much for sharing your professional life journey. Do you help with writing articles to publish paper?
I am an enthusiastic research student.My future career interest to do more research on mind body medicine research. I have lots of idea but my knowledge in English is very limited. So I am actually looking for someone who can help me in writing research proposal to apply for fund in future.

avatar Stephanie Chasteen September 30, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Sorry, I can’t help out with that. There are often people on campuses who help with that sort of thing. Best of luck!

avatar Rachel November 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Thank you for posting this. I’m in the middle of my Ph.D. and feel exactly like you did. The classes stopped, and slowly I feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into drudgery. “How did this happen?” I ask myself. The thought of three more years without respite is thoroughly depressing, but you have given me some ideas–maybe I can start angling in the right direction, and give myself the courage to finish. Many thanks.

avatar Marta December 12, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Thanks for sharing your story! I find myself in the same position you were a few years ago, and on the verge of leaving my PhD and apply for a MSc in Science Communication to pursue a career in science writing. Although I am still not sure if three more years of procrastination will really pay off, after reading your post I see it in a different light. Three more years of improving my english and journalism skills as well as finishing (or should I say starting?) my PhD don’t seem so bad, now!

avatar Stephanie Chasteen December 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

It’s a tough decision, Marta — lots of folks in your position, as you can see. Good luck!

avatar Proteintech January 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm

We are currently looking for a guest blogger to write life science based articles on our company blog – http://proteintech.wordpress.com/proteintech-blog-competition/

It would be great experience for anyone looking to get into science writing.

avatar Ann Stanley January 8, 2012 at 1:48 am

Thank you for writing out your story. I got a Ph D, spent many years in my chosen field, and was rarely happy doing research, so I dropped out, became a massage therapist to fund my creative side, and started writing. I haven’t published much, but I both love writing and miss science. I’ve been wondering how to combine the two without having to go back to school, and you’ve given me more than a few ideas and some inspiration.

avatar Paul Holper February 28, 2012 at 9:28 am

Congratulations on a well written, inspiring article. Science is such an exciting field to communicate. I’m sure that there is much great research being done that the public would be fascinated by, if only it were well publicised.

avatar Stephanie Chasteen March 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Just came across this useful resource: A guide to science writing careers. http://casw.org/casw/guide-careers-science-writing

avatar Kyle Mathis March 22, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Wonderful article. I am a veterinarian, but have long admired good science writing and science teachers. Oddly enough, I was also in the Peace Corps (Sri Lanka 1990-1992) and graduated from UC Santa Cruz (Kresge, 1989). Good luck to you!

avatar Brenda Willowbeans May 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for this. I wanted to be a science writer at 17, but had no idea how to go about it (such a different world with the internet now) and ended up a physics major. But I KNEW I didn’t want a physics PhD and pretty soon I didn’t really want a BS in it either (this was during the last recession and I was worried about employability) so I dropped out and thought about bio-physics as the next possibility. I ended up out of school for about 7 years at which point I went back and got a BS in environmental biology. FF another 7 years and now I flirt with the PhD(to be a professor) idea, the research MS or some applied MA/MS which is probably what I really want, but I’d have to fund it (I was thinking maybe environmental data management – but science writing is still so compelling to me I have it up on a pedestal out of reach – perhaps I should take it down and dust it off). Thank you for stirring up possibilities anew.

avatar J Sev October 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Thank you for the first insight I’ve ever been given on a science writer’s career. I’m only a freshman at university and the only bio major I know of with interest in this field. It’s nice to see science writing as a reality instead of a far away idea like it has always been to me until now.

avatar Gunjan October 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Wonderful and Informative article. Thanks for sharing your story with all of us science lovers. Like few others I am also pursuing my PhD but leaving it in between due to some unavoidable circumstances. I was looking for some freelance career option in science and the first article I read is yours. I especially like the last part of your article where you have given the analogy between bacterial response and career path. thanks a lot.

avatar Sam October 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Fantastic! I remember when I first started freelance writing.
It really can be a bumpy road unless you have the right resources.
I really wish there were resources like http://financialsecurityfromhome.com back when I first started! It would have made my writing online work such a smooth transition from “regular” work.
Thanks again for the awesome article.

avatar Merel November 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Wow, that’s strange to almost read my story………..
I recently graduated as a PhD and now my aim is to switch to scientific writer.
It is what you wrote in your story: I love to learn, but I hated working in the lab and solving lab-problems. I finished my degree only to get the title……..

Thanks for sharing!

avatar Jack November 11, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Thanks for your very honest and reflective post. I enjoyed reading it very much and saw myself in it in several places (especially about working hard to finish a degree that you weren’t sure was right for you). – Then, I saw how many people commented saying similar things! It’s amazing how well the internet brings together so many people struggling with all the same hopes and fears.

As many of your other readers here, I am also interested in science / educational writing and I’ve been struggling to find where in the world might have a place for someone like me. I’ve had high hopes for the avenues that eBooks (esp. Apple’s iBooks) have opened up, but I sometimes wonder if the high volume in that space will yield any possibility of appearing on the radar.

I’m so happy that you’ve found your niche – working at NPR’s science desk or at the Science podcast both sound like dreams!

Best to you, Stephanie … and to all you other aspiring writers out there.

avatar ali December 7, 2012 at 3:06 am

Just wanted to say I love your analogy at the end! Thanks for the article.

avatar Jamie Anderson December 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Brilliant stuff, thank you. I loved the bacterial analogy at the end too; it’s exactly the same for me, and reassuring that someone else does the same, and moved towards an area I am very keen to get into.

Keep up the great work!

avatar Alex January 4, 2013 at 3:55 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your story has quelled my internal struggle with whether or not I should make the leap into science writing. ..it definitely feels warmer there!

avatar Charlie Mulcare January 8, 2013 at 11:35 am

Thanks for such an inspiring read – I’ve been surfing the web to learn more about science writing (I’m currently a medical writer) and this is the most useful, balanced piece I’ve come across! I will definitely take your advice about seeking some further training – can you offer any advice regarding online courses? Thanks again, and good luck for the future!

avatar Stephanie Chasteen January 8, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Glad it was helpful, Charlie! I don’t have any leads on online courses, though, sorry, though I’m sure that online journalism courses abound, you might have to go to one of the onsite programs for science journalism training. NASW.org has a list of science journalism degree programs.

avatar Natalie Osayande January 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm

As a Junior who just changed her career path to science writing, this has inspired me to keep going and given me wonderful advice. I do not know many science writers but when I stumble upon articles like these, I am simply delighted!

avatar Franklyn Farrell October 5, 2014 at 3:40 am

Wow, I have transitioned to a nonclinical career over the past 6 months and I am very happy but I am exploring ways to expand my bag of tricks so to speak so that I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. Anyway, I found this article extremely helpful and inspirational.

Thank you for your candor in the article. :-)

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