The people who contact me via my website often ask how they can get a job in science communication. It is by far the most common question I get via the contact form, and many refer to this post I wrote in 2017 for The Science Basement in their email.
Typically this question is asked by a science master/PhD student or junior researcher, who wants to either improve their communication, or even make a career switch. This post summarizes the main points I typically reply in the hopes that it can inspire others as well.
Surely, there are many ways to go about it, and this is my view on a career in science communication.
Communication is a broad field
Science communication is a very broad field. I would even say it is too broad – a consequence of never really having been (re)defined to match the shape and form of digital media anno 20xx.
To say you want to work in science communication is equivalent to saying you want to be a scientific researcher. While it does state the overall area you want to be productive in, it says nothing about what you want to do or what your skill-set is. Research covers a broad range of specializations and so does communication.
A science communicator is expected to excel in writing, giving presentations, managing social media, photography, video filming, text/photo/video editing, interviewing, illustrations, media strategy and public relations, to name a few. Each of these is a full-time job in itself, and each of us has a preference for which task we enjoy the most and which we are best at.
My own favorite task is write and edit texts about physics and astronomy, but over the years I have done all of those tasks and more. This broad range of tasks has required me to spend endless hours on learning new skills such as how to film an interview or how edit a photo. Something I would not have had to do to the same extent if I had worked in a more clearly defined field.
Not all science communication jobs requires all of these skills, but I would claim that most of them do. At least to some degree.
Two types of careers in SciComm
Overall, there are two types of careers to persue in science communication,
The first is a regular employment, that is typically found at a university, a publisher, in a private company or similar. I have had two of those employments myself – both at a Danish university. One job was at a physics institute where I worked with physics outreach and project management, and the other was at the science faculty where I worked as science journalist and PR manager.
There are multiple benefits to this type of job: specialized colleagues, direct access to researchers, employment benefits, etc. One of the things I enjoyed the most was having good colleagues that would work with e.g. layout or web maintenance, so I could focus on scientist interviews, writing and managing public relations.
The second type of career is based on working freelance or as self-employed. This is where you generate your own customer base, do your own marketing, etc. This type of job has much more creative and executive freedom to it, which I think is a driver for many who chose to work this way. However, it takes time and effort to build a brand and portfolio. I have been working freelance for several years and enjoyed it a lot.
Where to start?
Most people ask me where to start. Some consider talking a university course in communication, others consider starting a social media campaign. I do not know what the “best path is” to a science communication job, and to be completely honest I do not believe there really is one.
My own path is self-made, with all the benefits and downsides that come with that. I did many cool projects and acquired a lot of new skills, but I definitely also experienced dead-ends which in return taught me to be more efficient when it comes to certain aspects of working freelance. My approach means that I can not advise on which courses to take or which tasks to start with, but I can give my input based on what I learned.
Whether your approach is to apply for a job or start a business, I would advise to make a few things clear beforehand:
- What do you want to communicate? (Message)
- Who do you want to reach? (Audience)
- How do you want to do it? (Tools)
Making these clear to yourself can help you notice any skills that you need to acquire, whether it is scientific writing, public speaking, managing social media accounts or something else. By then, it will be more clear if taking a course is the way forward or if it is better to dive in and “get your hands dirty” right away.
My advice? Do not do everything at once
If there is anything I learned over the past years, it is the art of limitation. It sounds banal but it is true.
In the beginning as freelance I spent a lot of time setting up many social media accounts to see where my main audience is. Preferably, I would be present on all media, but as with anything in life it is a constant balance between effort and gain.
I monitored which platforms would generate more attention to my astrophysics content, and after roughly 2 years of collecting data I made the decision to close down accounts that did not meet my goals, and keep the ones that did. If I get time and resources for it, I might re-open some of them, but for now they will stay closed.
A similar learning goes for science communication jobs in a company/university. Since the job requires basically all skills in communication (and no one has that) then my experience is that it is better to focus on a few solid skills instead of trying to master everything. This will give more room to specialize and become really great at something, and it will also keep your expectations balanced with an employer or client. Be excellent in a few areas and decent in many.