From Academic Bench Chemist to Freelance Science Writer

Given that finely-honed writing skills are an essential component of successful research, it should come as no surprise that many graduate students and postdocs gravitate toward science journalism as a career option. What is surprising, however, is the lack of guidance we’re given in pursuit of this goal. To see how one scientist made the transition, we spoke with Katharine Sanderson, freelance science writer and former chemist, about her unconventional path to journalism and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

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BenchFly: Entering graduate school in Chemistry at Cambridge University, did you have a particular career path in mind?

Katharine Sanderson: I thought I was going to be an academic, a chemist.

 

At what point did your initial career aspirations begin to change? Was there a particular incident or reason that catalyzed the search for a new path?

During my PhD I realized that I wasn’t happy to focus on such a tight area, nor was I enamoured enough with chemistry to be able to compete with my immensely focused, intelligent and ambitious contemporaries. I had an inkling even before my PhD, though, that science communication could be an interesting career move, or at least play some part in my future: during my Masters degree at Imperial College London I took a course in the very popular science communication department there.  In my time at Cambridge I also made some tiny steps in the science writing direction, contributing occasionally to the departmental magazine, [email protected] Without formal journalism training, though I thought that without a big dollop of luck somewhere along the way, writing was likely to remain a hobby or at best something I did for free in my own time.

 

Was the decision to leave the bench a tough one? Once you decided it was time to look around for other career opportunities, how did you begin the search?

As all sensible career-minded people should do, I went on holiday for a year after finishing my PhD and decided to put off the job hunt for a while longer. Despite thinking I wanted to leave academia, I wasn’t sure what else to do. On my worldwide travels, I did end up being offered a postdoc position in New Zealand. It was here that I realized that, had I accepted, my only motivation would have been the opportunity to live in NZ, so I declined. This was really the moment that I made the decision to leave the bench for ever and I knew it was the right thing to do.

I started looking for jobs online and while I was waiting for a bus in Northern Peru, I sat in an internet café and filled in an application for an editorial job at the Royal Society of Chemistry, back in Cambridge, UK.

I knew that these jobs came up regularly, and that it might open the door to something else for me. And I was weeks away from returning to home and the reality of having nothing to go back to was starting to worry me.

Days after landing from a year of backpacking, I had the interview at the RSC and got the job. I wasn’t a science journalist yet, but that change came after a year or so when I was seconded to work on a seriously understaffed and relaunching magazine, Chemistry World. Thrown in at the deep end, I had to learn fast and the small team put in some very long hours to get those first few issues of the magazine out. It was no picnic, but that was the turning point. I was on my way. I went on to win an award for best new features journalist in UK magazine publishing, and a couple of years later I got a job at Nature as physical sciences reporter.

 

Looking back, were there things you could have done to make the transition easier or to create additional opportunities for yourself?

Had I known I was definitely going to be a science reporter or write, then yes. I should have made more of being at Cambridge and writing for various departmental, college and University publications. Maybe I should have skipped the PhD and done the Imperial College Masters in science communication. But I feel that I arrived where I am by luck in the initial stages, and how do you prepare for that? I have learned a lot about myself along the way, including during my time doing research for the PhD, and without that chance perhaps I would have ended up somewhere very different.

 

Did you do anything to specifically help develop your writing skills in preparation for a career in science writing?

As I mentioned previously – in short, not very much before I got a job. Once I got to the RSC it became clear to me very quickly that I didn’t want to stay an editorial assistant for very long. I made sure that when the magazine was brought into the Cambridge offices from London for the relaunch, that I introduced myself to the editor. The RSC ran a short course about writing, in the hope that they could get some in-house copy on RSC papers. Again, this was all a coincidence. I had no idea when I applied to the RSC that this move would be made by the organization.

 

If “present-day Katharine” could speak directly to “about-to-graduate-Katharine” and advise her on what to do and what to expect about the freelance journalist career path, what would you tell her?

I am not sure what I could say to her that would have changed her decisions at the time, and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have listened anyway! If the question is more general, about advice for a freelance science journalist, I would say that I have had a much easier time than I expected because of the contacts I had made already, first I have lots of academic contacts from my time at Cambridge as a student, then the chemistry network I became a part of at the RSC. I then moved to Nature, where doors really opened to me. I now have editorial contacts to add to my academic contacts, and have been exposed to scientists in far wider-reaching fields. I learned that I can be flexible, and don’t need to be restricted to writing about chemistry – which goes back to that wish to be free from the narrowing focus that comes with an academic career.

The experience I had as a staff reporter at Nature in particular has been crucial in the transition to freelance. I have a proper understanding of the daily news process, and I know exactly what is expected of freelancers by the editors.

 

What would you describe as the most difficult or challenging parts of being a freelance science writer? And how do you deal with them?

The work flow causes most stress to freelancers I think. I’ve so far been pretty consistently busy. I find that when I can spy a clear patch on the horizon, my instincts kick in and I start looking around and thinking about article ideas, and before I know it I’m pulling my hair out because I have too much on and too many deadlines. I’ve learned to relax a bit more about whether I’ve got work lined up. It makes life easier, and I am more relaxed and able to think more about subjects I’m interested in.

When I worked there, having the name of Nature behind me when I picked up the phone was a huge benefit. People returned my calls. Nobel prize winners called me the same day they’d been awarded their prize. Now I only have my own name to fall back on, and that is a bit daunting. I try to make sure I have a publication in mind when I’m gathering information, so I can make sure the scientist I’m bugging for information knows I’m serious.

The cut-throat news environment is something I miss. In that environment motivation is easy to find. You are surrounding by smart, brilliant people. Now I have just my cats and my boyfriend to talk to on a daily basis I don’t have the opportunity to talk over news ideas, come up with better angles, bounce ideas around. It is more isolated. You have to be very pro-active as a freelancer and make sure that when you suggest an idea, it is pretty much fully formed and enthusiastic from the start. Gone are the days of mentioning something as a passing comment, and with the help of colleagues finding that a fully-formed idea for a news piece or feature appears.

Getting paid is a real hassle. Some well-respected publications (which shall remain nameless) are pretty bad at getting money to freelancers in a timely fashion. I don’t think there are excuses for this, especially when other publications manage it very easily. Chasing payments is a painful and sadly necessary part of the job. I cope with it simply because I have to.

 

Conversely, what would you say are the advantages?

The freedom I have is the biggest advantage anyone can have. It’s more than a freedom about where to live (at the moment I’m in the foothills of the breathtakingly beautiful French Pyrenees), or a freedom to choose to work your own hours. I have the space to breathe, to build contacts, to think about article ideas in a way that I never had as a staff reporter.

I can say no to things. If I am stretched for time, I’m under no obligation to accept an assignment, although I generally would try never to say no. But knowing that I can is great. It doesn’t sound like a very positive advantage, but it can be empowering.

The pressure as a freelancer is different to that as a staff reporter. It’s about wanting to be true to yourself. Finding out what it is that you really care about, or want to write about is a difficult journey, but very fulfilling. I am more relaxed, yet focused. I am in control of what I do, and that feels good.

 

Are there things a graduate student considering a career in science writing can do today to make them a more attractive candidate as a journalist (freelance or otherwise)?

Get as much experience as possible – writing for college papers, departmental magazines, even blogging. A number of magazines run intern schemes for students, or for journalists just starting out. Consider applying for these.

 

We recently discussed the impending death of scientific journals. Are we wrong, and if so, how do you see the field of scientific writing for journals evolving over the next 5-10 years?

Science is always going to be disseminated to the scientific community somehow, so journalists will always have source material to work with. The question seems to be more about where science journalism will be published, and not many journals employ science writers anyway, so I don’t see much change happening if they disappear (and I can’t comment on whether they will or not – I think publishing will change, but as I said, I think that scientists will always need to set out their results somehow).

 

How do you think increased access to Internet-based distribution channels such as blogging, Facebook and Twitter have impacted the career of the freelance science writer?

Some high-profile science bloggers who were not paid writers have been very successful. Hats off to them because the amount of time they put into this is incredible, and is testament to their love of science and dedication to communicating it effectively.

I think that the impact on freelancers has been that some publications or websites that you might think would commission you to write for them, turn out to get most of their content for free. It cuts down the number of paying jobs. And it increases the amount of competition for work. But I expect (although don’t know) that many bloggers might not have the time to turn around a news story in a day or two like a full time freelance journalist would.

 

From an editor’s perspective, do you think a professional freelance journalist and a successful science blogger are viewed equally in terms of their writing ability and job candidacy?

I don’t think there is necessarily a standard career track into science writing, and if there is I didn’t follow it. I think that any editor worth their salt would simply look at the style and quality of the work that a prospective writer had produced, whether on a blog or as a published news or feature article.

Blogging would certainly be a way to hone your style, and get a portfolio together.

 

Is there one skill in the science writing industry that’s valued above all others?

For me it’s honesty. For example: don’t accept a claim at face value, look into the work and get someone else’s opinion if. Don’t try to pretend you understand a tough piece of science when you don’t – the editor will spot your cover up from a mile off. I’m not an editor, though, so they might have a different answer.

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Katharine Sanderson is a freelance reporter, specializing in science. Her career path to this point includes a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University, a stint as a reporter and features editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s magazine Chemistry World, and most recently four years as a staff reporter on the news team of the international science journal Nature.

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1 comment so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Yevgeniy

    wrote on February 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    This is very inspiring and much needed piece of information for those interested in science communication and science journalism. It is very true that there is no formula for how to transition from your bench to become a scientific writer. The people that I talked to who managed the transition all represent their own personal accounts, and almost all attribute much of it to luck… However, upon a closer look, you see that luck means having some courage to break away from things familiar, and a well developed professional network that you can call on when in search for a job that would get you one step closer to your goal. Almost all people I talked to stumbled into this occupation of a scientific writer. So, thank you, Katharine, for sharing your invaluable experience and words of advice.

    -Yevgeniy.

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