ASBMB careers blogger 2.0

9/15/2017 11:23:47 AM

I am excited to join the communications team at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as the newest careers blogger. Each week, I will be bringing you updated job postings, training opportunities and honest career advice across the full spectrum of science careers.

I’ll have some big (closed-toe and heel, lab-appropriate) shoes to fill after all the great content provided by past careers blogger Diedre Ribbens over the years. As a sneak peek, I am looking forward to featuring Diedre in an upcoming post about her technical-communications career in the medical-device industry (stay tuned).

Also thanks to Angela Hopp (ASBMB communications director) for filling in these past weeks. If you haven’t checked out her recent posts like science jobs in the Washington, D.C., area, you definitely should catch up on this useful advice.

And I want to hear from you, too. Feel free to comment below, email me or reach out on Twitter (@science_mentor) to share cool jobs you find, additional career tips and topics you would like to see featured here.    

Building a Portfolio Career in Science Communications

This week the focus is on science communications, considering I am a little partial to this career route. My transition from working in a research institution to a freelance career was fueled by the need to have a flexible work schedule and my interest in helping scientists share their work with a broader audience. In particular, science communications is an ideal career route for any other science generalists out there who get bored easily and enjoy the challenge of mastering new areas of science.  

Science communications is a broad term that encompasses developing content in a variety of formats (e.g., articles, videos, graphics) to relay scientific information to a target audience (e.g., general public, other scientists, customers). Many companies and institutions do not have the budget for a dedicated communications team, so often this work is contracted out to freelancers who can provide the needed services.

Freelancing is an example of a portfolio career—a collection of part-time jobs with different clients and varying projects. The benefits are many with more autonomy, creative expression and work flexibility, but it also requires a great deal of self-management. Freelancing also makes a good side gig, which is a reasonable route to take and see if you like it (just make sure you check with your institution on whether you need to declare any conflicts of interest).

Seasoned freelancers may focus on a niche market over time. But if you’re just starting out, I suggest taking on a variety of projects to round out your portfolio and explore what services you can best provide. Examples of recent projects I have worked on include writing newsletter articles, foundation grants, issue briefs and communication plans.  

Most of my business has come from referrals (yes, networking pays off) or from people running across my portfolio website. If you are interested in science writing, a portfolio with published clips (typically three) often is needed to apply for jobs and internships and to join professional writing groups.

So naturally, one of the top questions I get asked is how to build a portfolio. First look at the work you have done so far. Any communication products like technical abstracts, research highlights and science outreach materials may be relevant depending on the type of work you are seeking.

If you are associated with an institution, try reaching out to the public-relations department to help write press releases. Or, let your PI know that you are interested in gaining more experience and volunteer to assist with grant proposals, reports or other projects. More than likely, they will be happy to have some support.

While freelancing certainly shouldn’t be free, you may need to volunteer to write for a professional society, industry/trade publications or other outlets to get started. For me, I got my writing clips by volunteering to write for the ASBMB Today magazine. My first published piece on “How to Compete with a Lab Diva” was a morale booster for sure.

There are other benefits, even if not paid, if you can find a good editor to help fine-tune your writing skills. Angela Hopp of the ASBMB took the time to be a proactive editor and taught me so much (and I’m not just saying that to get brownie points). And now, that volunteer opportunity has led to this amazing (and paid) careers blog gig.

Here are a few other ideas on gaining experience through training programs. I have plenty of other ideas in my head, so feel free to reach out or also check out this blog post on the topic of writing in the sciences. Comment below with any other opportunities you know about. Thanks!

Internships and Fellowships

You might consider participating in a science-communications internship or fellowship to gain experience and sample projects to buff up your résumé. Fortunately, most of these positions are paid decently (and I highly advise against taking an unpaid internship). Here are a few opportunities that I saw posted this week.
  • The American Society for Microbiology is hiring a public outreach fellow to assist the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., with developing an exhibit on viral zoonoses called “Outbreak, Epidemics in a Connected World.” The position requires a master’s degree in the life sciences at a minimum (Ph.D. preferred) with volunteer or paid science education experience. Applications are due Oct. 2, but the position is to be filled a.s.a.p. H/t to Erica Siebrasse (@ericasieb) for sharing this awesome opportunity on Twitter!  
  • The Open Notebook is accepting applications for its Early-Career Fellowship Program in partnership with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. During an eight-month period, fellows work with mentors to publish a series of stories focused on the craft of science writing and features of science journalists. This program sounds like a good way to learn what the art of science writing is all about. Applicants must have less than two years of professional writing experience but demonstrate strong potential. The fellowship is completed remotely and pays a stipend. Applications are due Oct. 15.   
  • The environmental-news outlet Ensia has established the Ensia Mentor Program that pairs up aspiring environmental-science writers with experienced mentors to develop articles for potential publication. Both mentors and mentees receive stipends for their work. Applicants submit story ideas or multimedia ideas on the website for consideration, and there is no deadline listed.  
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science takes applications for its paid Science News Writing Internship program on a rolling basis. Interns work for six months with newsroom staff to develop stories for both Science's daily online news site and Science Magazine. Preference is for applicants who have science backgrounds. Applicants should be at least college seniors or hold bachelor’s degrees. Applications should be submitted two months before the internship period. (See posting for dates.)


Certificate Programs and Courses

Another good way to get experience in science communications is through formal and informal training programs. Most courses and other trainings culminate in final projects that can be added to your portfolio or serve as drafts for publishing in paid outlets. Here are a few upcoming training opportunities and other resources to check out.  
  • The ASBMB is running an online session of its “Art of Science Communications” course in October of this year. During the eight-week course, participants learn the fundamentals of communicating complex scientific information to a nontechnical audience with an emphasis on presentations. The course is $25 for ASBMB members (and you can join the ASBMB here!). Applications are due Sept. 25.  
  • There are a number of free, online courses available through MOOC platforms like Coursera. One course that I highly recommend (and have completed) is “Writing in the Sciences” taught by Kristin Sainani of Stanford University. The course teaches participants how to write more effectively for both technical and general audiences. The next session starts Oct. 2 and runs for eight weeks with an estimated time commitment of three to five hours a week.  
  • The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas offers a wide range of online courses on data visualization, investigative reporting and more. The next course is “Crafting Data Stories” and starts Sept. 18, for six weeks. Participants will learn how to use a dataset to tell a story for the public.   
  • Also check with your local university or community college to see what certificate programs or other science-communication courses are offered through the journalism and other departments. I completed a grant-writing certificate program through the professional development (noncredit) center at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, which even led to paid work from an instructor who referred me for a contract.    

Donna Kridelbaugh is the ASBMB careers blogger. Connect with her on Twitter (@science_mentor) or at her website (