Science communication or science writing is one of the most common non-academic career paths that scientists consider after their PhD or postdoc. If you are looking at your post-benchwork options and science communications is top of your list, first ask yourself, “Do I like writing?”.
Kate Sleeth is the Associate Dean of Administration and Student Development at the Beckman Institute of the City of Hope and works with many PhD students and postdocs who are considering their career options. Kate told us that, “Science writing seems to be the first option on the list for many people. I say, “Do you like writing?” and they say, “No, I hate it.”
If you do like communicating science through a mix of writing and talking, the good news is there are many different jobs that might be perfect for you. Here are eleven options:
1. Science journalist. Science journalism is different from blogging as journalists are often trained and must adhere to a code of ethics. They are expected to provide independent, unbiased, unplagiarized coverage of scientific stories for news outlets including newspapers, science magazines, radio and TV. Science journalism courses and classes are available in-person and online at many universities around the world.
According to the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, full-time science journalists make US$40,000-$100,000 whereas freelancers make between 50 cents and $2.00 per word for assignments.
Science journalist is first on our list because journalism is the first thing many people think of when they think about science writing, especially if you read the work of follow the tweets of rock star journalists like Ed Yong. However, mainstream media outlets have increasingly tight budgets and so are hiring fewer and fewer specialist science journalists, making this a very difficult field to break into.
2. Science blogger or podcaster. It can be easier to break into science blogging or podcasting because there are more outlets and less rules. This doesn’t mean that we do sloppy work. All science communicators should adhere to the same code of ethics as science journalists to ensure their work accurately describes the science. However, many blogs and bloggers will have their own agenda, meaning that they are not as unbiased as science journalists should be. Also blogs, especially smaller ones, pay a lot less per word or per assignment than major news outlets.
The line between science journalism and blogging is blurring, with news outlets like Nature and Scientific American having separate blog sections. Blogging can be a great way to start out, improve your skills and gather an online portfolio to show potential employers.
If you need to hone your skills a little first, there are many online and in-person science writing courses, some of them free, like those on Coursera.
3. Marketer. Marketing gets a bad rap from non-marketers because many people associate it with spamming or guerrilla advertising. That’s bad marketing. It’s ineffective and something no one wants to be a part of. When marketing is done well, it is about understanding specific customers and their needs, then finding an engaging way to tell them about products and services they are likely to find useful.
Since there are now fewer traditional media outlets, and more ‘new media’ outlets like blogs and social media, it is marketers and PR teams that produce much of the content people read. If you’re not sure if marketing would work for you, try it out. There are many dedicated life science marketing firms who take interns every year. Or you could try to find someone in your network who works in marketing for a life science company and ask them to tell you about their job. There are also free online marketing courses.
The American Marketing Association’s 2016 Salary Guide showed that entry-level marketing positions come with a salary of around US$42,000 whereas Chief Marketing Officers or Agency Presidents can make more than US$200,000. The Hudson Salary Guide 2015 puts marketing salaries in the UK anywhere from £25,000 up to £120,000 for a Director of Marketing role.
4. Public Relations Officer. Yes, PR is different from marketing. Marketing is about talking to customers, PR is about talking to everyone else. It is about establishing a brand and creating relationships with journalists and with potential investors, partners and employees. While some large life science companies have been cutting the size of their PR teams, there are still a many life science PR firms around the world, many of whom will take interns.
According to the Public Relations Institute of Australia, the Public Relations Society of America and Prospects (a job website in the UK), PR professionals earn between US$30,000 for a new grad and US$170,000+ for an Executive Vice President or Senior Director role (or £22,000 to £100,000).
5. Press Officer/Communications Manager. Most scientific institutions, including universities, will have a Press Officer or Communications Manager, and the larger ones will have a press team. Many people, including the aforementioned Ed Yong, transitioned from being a scientist to working in science communications by first becoming a press officer. This role includes PR tasks such as pitching published science to science journalists, as well as media training for scientists, writing the institute’s blog and running the social media accounts and writing newsletters for staff and donors.
Scientific institutions have to manage tight budgets and Press Officer salaries reflect this. The Hudson Salary Guide 2015 lists Press Officer salaries in the UK as £22,000 to £30,000 and Press Manager salaries as £40,000 to £50,000. According to job websites PayScale and GlassDoor, Communications Officers in Australia make AUD$47,000 to $80,000 and their American counterparts make from US$45,000 up to US$140,000 if working for large Government organizations.
6. Public Education and Outreach Officer. Many scientific organizations including research institutes and science museums will have a Public Education and Outreach Officer. These people work with other museum or institute staff to develop and implement learning programs to engage and educate the public. This can include talks and presentations, workshops and exhibitions as well as flyers and other written materials.
Careers website Prospect lists Museum Education Officer salaries in the UK as ranging from £17,000 up to £40,000 for more senior roles and Payscale data shows that Public Information Officers in the US earn a median salary of US$50,000.
7. Medical or technical writer.Medical and technical writers create product inserts for pharmaceuticals and other products, write regulatory documents, educational materials, journal articles, white papers and scientific presentations. These roles are about communicating the technical side of science using the correct language to avoid regulatory or legal concerns. For this reason, you need some training before transitioning from scientist to one of these jobs. Some medical writing companies offer entry-level positions that include training. There are also professional organizations, such as the American Medical Writers Assocation, the Australasian Medical Writers Assocation and the European Medical Writers Association, that have training, resources and events to help you learn about this profession.
According to PayScale, Medical Writers earn US$49,000 to $100,000 in the US, AUD$47,000 to $108,000 in Australia and £23,236 to £42,043 in the UK depending on experience.
8. Regulatory Writer. Regulatory writers are a specific type of medical writer who only deal with the documents required in the regulatory process. Like other medical and technical writing roles, very specific language must be used or regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will not approve the product. Large life science companies usually have a regulatory affairs team or contract this work out to Regulatory Affairs Specialists. Smaller companies will often also contract out this work as they may not have the resources to have an in-house team.
Regulatory Affairs roles require extra training and knowledge. Many universities offer classes in Regulatory Affairs and there are also many professional societies that can help you network and find training if this career interests you.
9. Medical Science Liaison. Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) work for pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies or contract research organizations (CROs). Their job is to explain how a product or a suite of products that treat or diagnose a particular disease area work to medical professionals. A lot of travel is usually involved in these jobs, so it is not ideal for people with young families. It also involves a lot of talking to a lot of different people, so it suits more outgoing or extroverted people. While MSLs work with marketing and sales teams, they do not do sales, they provide educational material and work through any concerns or problems medical professionals may have.
MSLs in Australia earn AUD$70,000 to $ 130,000. A survey of MSL salaries in 69 countries around the world, found the average MSL salary worldwide was US$139,000.
You can learn more about being an MSL from professional societies like the Medical Science Liaison Society.
10. Science Policy Analyst/Advocate. We recently spoke with Chris Pickett, who transitioned from being a postdoc to working as Director of Rescuing Biomedical Research. He told us that science policy jobs are 85% writing to a range of different audiences. Science Policy Analysts write blog posts and articles, newsletters, white papers and research articles and position statements.
Career site indeed lists an average salary of US$49,000 for science policy jobs in the US and £28,000 to £38,000 in the UK.
If you are interested in this career, Chris says the best way to transition is to look for a science policy fellowship position. These can be competitive so it is best to try and get some science policy writing experience first, which you can do with Rescuing Biomedical Research’s writing program.
11. Journal Editor. Since PhD students and postdocs must read, write and review academic articles, it seems like a natural transition to move into being a journal editor. This job involves commissioning articles, co-ordinating review and publication of submitted articles, corresponding with reviewers, authors and board members and writing editorials and news pieces.
At smaller journals, these roles can be voluntary or come with small salaries, but at prestigious journals like Nature (where the competition for jobs is fierce), copy editors can earn US$44,000 and senior editors can earn US$80,000.
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