Imagine being able to "switch gears" from your current life and take a new one for a spin--without jeopardizing your existing science career. Perhaps you originally intended to become a scientist but now have second thoughts. You can't quite see yourself as a scientist over the long term, and yet you're not ready to throw in the towel and embark on some radical departure from the bench. It's not that the science has lost its luster--just the part that entails doing it. Or maybe you quite enjoy doing bench work but are desperate for a different sort of creative outlet.
After much soul-searching, you hatch a plan that lets you explore an altogether different career without burning any bridges in your present career. In fact, you decide to put some of those bridges to work for you. With some careful planning and abandoned illusions about proper sleep, you become a scientist by day and a journalist by night.
Which is precisely what I've done.
For more than 2 years, I've been doing both scientific research and science journalism. I'm currently a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at the Antimicrobial Research Centre at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My great love in life is microbiology, and I still wish to be a microbiologist first and foremost. But having said that, I've also wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid.
So while doing my undergraduate degree in microbiology, I undertook a concurrent major in English literature. My initial foray into journalism entailed writing a couple of biology articles for a small local magazine. But my big break came while I was doing my master's degree in microbiology at the University of Toronto. It was during a photo shoot in the clinical laboratory I worked in that I happened to meet an editor from Maclean's, Canada's national newsmagazine. By some freak chance of fate and the kindness of strangers, I published two articles in the magazine stemming from stories that I came across while working at a Toronto hospital.
I subsequently applied to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program and was chosen for a journalism internship by the American Society for Microbiology. During that summer in 1999, I spent ten of the most exciting weeks of my life living in Washington, D.C., where I worked in the D.C. bureau of New Scientist, a weekly international science magazine. Upon my return to Canada and my Ph.D. program at McMaster, I began writing mostly for The Globe and Mail, a Canadian national newspaper, as well as Modern Drug Discovery (an American Chemical Society publication), and more recently, Maclean's. I've also been interviewed twice by Bob McDonald on the topic of microbiology on Quirks & Quarks, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's weekly science radio show, as well as made guest spots on a Vancouver radio station and some Canadian television talk shows to talk about my research field. I've also been asked to write a children's book by a Canadian publishing company. Much of my work has stemmed from one article spawning other freelance work.
So, 2 years and some 70-odd clips later, do I intend to hang up my lab coat full-time and be a journalist? On the contrary--writing is my favorite pastime, but then so is science. What I like the most about being a scientist/journalist are the people I get to meet through interviews--especially when I get to interview some of the people I admire most in microbiology. Science journalism affords me the opportunity to phone leading experts in whatever field I'm writing about and to enjoy candid conversations that simply would not be possible in my position as a graduate student or young scientist. Another great advantage is that science journalism forces me to learn about other areas of science removed from my own, requiring me to think outside of the box of my own little world.
On the downside, I find journalism deadlines to be the worst part. When you spend long hours in the lab and are faced with a tight deadline, you can forget adequate sleep. Now I request flexible deadlines whenever possible, because I simply don't have the time to turn over stories on very short notice as a full-time Ph.D. student. The other disadvantage is that journalism is not meant for the thin-skinned--if you're at all sensitive or easily offended, be prepared to get your feelings hurt on occasion. It's the nature of the beast.
Getting into broadcast journalism is more competitive than print journalism since there are not as many opportunities. Also, a career in radio and television depends as much upon your on-air personality as it does on your ability to write. If you envision a job in front of the camera, be prepared for even stiffer competition. However, broadcast jobs can range from being front-and-center on the airwaves to being writers, producers, editors, reporters, talent scouts, and a slew of other positions. In this golden age of cable and satellite television, the numerous stations are your oysters. It's worth a try--you just need to be prepared to meet a great deal of competition. And there are fewer freelance opportunities than there are with print journalism, particularly if you're in a specialized genre such as science journalism. The pay scale is comparable to print in that it depends upon the length of the segment, the amount of work involved, and the degree of experience you have. However, unlike print, payment is a predetermined rate based on these factors, and not the number of words.
So where does one begin? Well, if broadcast journalism is your thing, apply for journalism internships at local stations or science specialty channels. Failing that, approach the producer at a given station and find out how you might get your foot in the door. Once you have some experience under your belt, contact an editor or producer at a larger publication or station (I e-mail first and then follow it up with a phone call a few days later) and try to land some work with them. Don't let fear of rejection stop you--remember, the worst anyone can say is "no."
But before embarking, you should know what media people are looking for. The style of writing in journalism is completely different from academic or technical writing. An editor once told me, "If you wouldn't say it, then don't write it." Sage advice. Both broadcast and print journalism follow the exact same principle. Read your work aloud: If it sounds stiff and unnatural, then it is. You should sound like you're telling a story--not rehashing your thesis. Most importantly, make sure that your grammar and spelling are up to the task. If they aren't, your new career may be short-lived. Also, really get a feel for the profession before you quit your day job and start flying solo. Invest in a copy of the The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White.
And if your mind is fixed on becoming a full-time journalist, your best bet is to enroll in a journalism program. Many universities in the United States grant a master's degree in science journalism. Journalism school will help you tightly hone your craft while helping you land a good journalism internship and, ideally, a job. It isn't absolutely necessary, but it certainly helps and is worth considering if your mind is made up. If you want a full-time job at a national-level publication, it's pretty hard to do these days without journalism credentials.
There are limits to what you can do in your spare time without it impinging on your science. Striking that balance is possible, but I've found that it's seldom easy. I've often been told by other journalists that I'll have to give up one eventually. As for whether to choose one career path or have the best of both worlds, I always tell myself this: One can always be a full-time scientist and a part-time writer; there's no such thing as a full-time writer and a part-time scientist.