Science journalism and communication are popular career choices and one way to make yourself stand out from the crowd of other wannabes is to get some kind of qualification. Most science communication courses cover a range of media and communication methods, but a brand new course in science media production, which started this year at Imperial College London aims to specifically prepare students for careers in broadcast media. Nick Russell, Director of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College, and Richard Scrase, one of the first students, reflect on the new M.S.c programme for Next Wave.
Nick writes:Our new course in broadcast science communication is the Science Communication Group's 10th birthday present to itself. In 1991, we welcomed a pioneer group of students into the first iteration of a then brand new course, a master's programme in Science Communication. That course has grown and developed over the past decade and is now a well-regarded preparation for science graduates who want to shift from doing science to communicating about it to wider audiences. Our graduates have gone on to become print journalists, broadcast producers, news media people, public relations people for science organisations, or to work in museums and galleries. We like to boast that more than 80% of our graduates find jobs that they want in professional communication, sometimes before they have completed the course!
But we felt the need for an encore and a new challenge, hence our 10th anniversary decision to launch a new master's programme in Science Media Production. We opened for business this October with a pilot group of 10 students. For the first term, they are sharing a common programme with the existing M.Sc. group, but after Christmas the two programmes diverge and we, and the students, will discover how well the new course is going to work. We are slightly nervous about it, but on the whole optimistic that there won't be too many teething problems.
The new course is designed for people who are already pretty sure that they want to work in either radio or television. All the practical work in the course is geared in that direction (whereas the old course has more diversity and choice in practical subjects). We are not suggesting that graduates of the new course will find it any easier to find broadcast work than those who graduate from the old one. The key difference between the courses is that the new M.Sc. caters for students with different orientations and learning styles.
Besides the focus on broadcast practical options and theoretical option courses specifically related to broadcast careers, the main feature of the new course is that students undertake a practical production project in the summer rather than write an academic dissertation. Overall, the new course has a stronger practical orientation, which allows students the freedom to make a television or radio programme on a theme that really interests them or in a way that really excites them. They don't escape without an academic element though, because they must write a commentary on their project. The higher practical profile also means greater use of equipment and facilities, so the course fee is higher than for the older science communication course.
While we hope that our students enjoy the intellectual and other challenges of both courses and that doing an M.Sc. is to an extent an end in itself, we don't kid ourselves that these are the main reasons for enrolment. Taking a year out of your life and begging, or borrowing (we hope not stealing) the funds to support yourself in London and pay the College fees is not something anyone undertakes lightly. In the end, the courses succeed only if graduates find they have an edge in the highly competitive market for communication jobs.
The evidence from the pattern of advertised posts and our record of graduate success provides a strong indication that the range of opportunities to make a living from professional science communication has been increasing during the 10 years that Imperial College has run science communication courses. This increase has been as much in broadcast as any other sector. Whether the broadcast market is still expanding sufficiently to take up our science media production graduates we cannot yet tell. We are optimistic that it is, despite the evidence of a recession in the media industries generally. The broadcast sector still looks set to remain dominant for the foreseeable future. There is little sign that the proliferation of channel choices will not continue (even if somewhat more slowly and less extensively than media optimists supposed), and scientific matters will become increasingly important in all our lives. While my crystal ball is slightly cloudy, I think it is still showing a bright future for professional science communicators, not least in radio and television.
I'm a guinea pig! But I'm not alone. Ten of us have signed up to the brand new M.Sc. in science media production at Imperial College. Virtually all of us have a science degree or two, and most of us have had just enough experience in media production to want more. In my case, I started the switch from science teaching to freelance writing and media work a few years ago. I see this new course at Imperial helping me to make my career transition complete.
I chose this course for several reasons. Partly because of Imperial's status as one of the U.K.'s top science universities; partly because our new course, "Science Media Production," has been spawned from a very respectable parent, "Science Communication"; and partly for the strong practical component. We get to make a radio or TV programme in lieu of writing a thesis for example.
There is no escaping Imperial's traditional academic criteria however; our progress is also measured through essays and exams. This term has been a real high-energy experience as we've worked alongside our 40 colleagues taking the M.Sc. in Science Communication. They also get to try their hand at TV and radio production and we laughed or cringed today as we replayed our first collective attempts in these fields.
I really enjoyed shots where an interviewee was filmed hanging upside down from a tree making points about spatial awareness; watching the public nervously dodging one film crew's attempts to entice them into the Science Museum; and discovering that people die of fear during earthquakes.
Our course also provides an induction into the humanities and includes core modules such as the "History of Science Communication." I've been delighted to discover that science writing has been the basis for making a (frequently precarious) living for more than150 years. What's more, some of the issues concerning science communication are exactly the same now as in the past. This is a quote from the second edition of Nature, 11 November 1869:
'The priests of science must consent to use the vernacular before they will ever make a profound impression upon the heart of humanity. ... Let them not fear the sneers of their deacons who will call their teaching sensational.'
I've never been a priest of science, but I have always enjoyed reading about or watching the work of scientists. Perhaps it's a little unfair on the research scientist when years of perhaps difficult and frustrating work are condensed into a few minutes dialogue for TV or radio, but it's probably the only way that the wider public can consider their achievements.
The course at Imperial sets out to give us the academic and journalistic tools to represent science honestly and critically, even if we have to work within journalistic constraints. The standard we aspire to makes me apprehensive at times, as does the dawning realisation of just how far I've got to travel by the end of the year.
But it's great experience. We've met staff from the science museum, the science line, and the BBC science unit during seminars already, and this has given us a real sense of being involved in the wider world of science communication.
This week there's a trip to the theatre, a seminar by somebody from Reuters, oh, and the small matter of a 2000-word essay due on Wednesday. As in the outside media world, there are no extensions to deadlines, so if you'll excuse me, I'll be getting along.
If you want to find out more about either of the science communication courses offered at Imperial College please email the Science Communication Group Administrator, Paul M. Abbott, or call +44 20 7594 8753.