I did not start writing for the local newspaper when I was 17. I never dreamed of being a famous TV reporter, and I certainly did not become a journalist because I felt I had to educate the world. Instead, I realised during my time as a graduate student in chemistry that I had more fun writing about my work than actually producing the data. Furthermore, I found it far more interesting to venture into related fields of science than to invent the 27th method for studying UV-induced DNA damage. (My Ph.D. adviser may forgive me--I still think this was great science, just not the kind of work I wanted to do for the next 30 years.)
"Don't you think you will get frustrated only writing about other peoples' work, not doing any research yourself?" a concerned chemistry professor asked when he heard about my plans to become a science writer. At the time I replied "no" without much thought. Today I am convinced that giving up the lab bench for a microphone and a tape recorder was one of the best decisions of my life.
Much harder to answer was the question of whether I had the skills for a successful career change. For a start, I decided to let others be the judges. With several sample articles I applied for a grant for science writers from the German Verband der Chemischen Industrie [Chemical Industry Association] ( VCI). The grant provides chemistry graduates with a stipend for 6 to 12 months. During this time, the recipients work for newspapers, magazines, TV or radio stations, or for the press offices of research institutions or companies. This kind of practical training is common for scientists who plan to become science writers in Germany--after all, after having spent years at university, most people do not choose to devote even more time to a second formal education. Working in different editorial offices for several weeks at a time is not only a good way to find out instantly whether or not one likes the job, it is also a great opportunity to get to know editors, who, after all, will become your potential employers when the time finally comes to earn a living as a bona fide freelance science writer. One thing that anybody who decides to switch fields should keep in mind: secure jobs with a steady income are rare for would-be-journalists with no, or almost no, experience of writing for the general public. Therefore, most scientists start out as freelance writers. Some "work their way up" to the position of a permanent member of staff in an editorial or a press office. Others--sooner or later--start valuing their independence as a freelancer and end up despising the thought of ever having a steady job.
After receiving the grant for science writers from the VCI, I made arrangements for several months of practical training in different editorial offices, among them that of Deutsche Welle (DW) Radio, a public broadcaster with headquarters in Cologne. Almost 50 years ago, DW started out as a shortwave radio station. Today, DW-Radio broadcasts by shortwave and satellite in German and 29 foreign languages around the world; DW-TV can be received worldwide by satellite in German, English, and Spanish.
In my case, practical training at DW eventually led to a staff position. This did not happen immediately, but only after some time working as a freelancer. This was when my transformation from a 90% scientist, 10% would-be-journalist to a 90% journalist, 10% used-to-be-scientist really began. At first, this was a difficult process because scientists and journalists often think in different ways. Which topics are hot? How do you explain difficult scientific facts? Which information can be omitted either because it is not important or because nobody would understand it anyway? Questions like these lead to fierce discussions between journalists and scientists. For former scientists it is especially important to know on which side you stand, otherwise you might end up writing for the wrong audience--one of the worst mistakes of an inexperienced science writer.
The time it takes for a scientist to become a "fully fledged" science writer can vary substantially. In my opinion, two common scenarios seem to push the activation energy for this often rate-limiting step in establishing a career as a science writer to unconquerable levels. The first is the decision to become a journalist because you cannot find a job elsewhere--never a good reason for making the switch. The second is the fear of completely severing the links to science. This often leads to the situation of working as a scientist and trying to establish a career as a science writer at the same time.
So ultimately, what are the requirements for a successful career change? Personally, three factors seem crucial: first, lots of curiosity to venture into any imaginable area of science (and beyond ...); second, a basic feeling for language combined with an iron will to quickly improve existing writing skills; and a bank account that will get you through the first few months of freelancing, when you most likely will have little or no income at all.
What do you do once your pencil is sharpened and you are ready to hunt for your first story? When asked this question, 10 journalists will probably give you 11 different answers! You might find your first interviewees among your old colleagues. After all, there is nothing wrong with using the connections and expertise of your "former life" to establish your new career. Or you might visit the press office of the local university to find out what is "new" and worth writing about. What you do with the information you have collected depends on your goal in general; this might be an article for the local newspaper, a radio report or--a little unlikely for beginners--a story for a TV station. The decision is not totally up to you. You should find out whether or not the editor of the local newspaper is interested in your story, before investing too much energy in it. Before you pick up the phone and ask, it is highly advisable to do some research on what kind of articles this editor usually prefers, meaning which science stories were printed in the particular paper during the last few weeks.
As an editor at DW-Radio in charge of the science program, I frequently receive phone calls from authors wanting to sell their stories. It is then my job to decide which ones are the most interesting and suitable for our weekly science program. Certainly, selecting topics, putting together a program, and presenting it on air are the most creative and therefore the most exciting and pleasurable tasks of an editor. However, before a program is broadcast, work days are also filled with numerous routine tasks. I usually start by browsing through the major German daily newspapers and weekly news magazines for science reports. Checking several news agencies, both general and specialised ones, only for science news, along with regular visits to the home pages of numerous research institutions are also vital for staying up to date on what might be an important topic for the next program. Last but not least, several kilograms of mail, mostly press releases, pile up on my desk every morning, needing to be scanned for important information.
The first half of the day in the editorial offices is often filled with various conferences. For example, the daily program is planned and discussed with colleagues and the editor-in-chief. Back in the office, there might be freelancers calling who need help with arranging studio recordings. Since most radio stations today require reports that are ready to broadcast, reporters have to speak and record their manuscripts themselves. In the age of digital recording, more and more freelancers have the necessary equipment at home. Others still use the radio station's facilities. As an editor, I am responsible for checking the finished reports before they are broadcast. If I need additional ones, I engage journalists, who might specialise in the topic I am looking for, or live and work close to where the required interviewees are based.
Occasionally, when time and money allow, an editor gets to venture out of her office and gather information herself. Of course, the most exciting trips are not necessarily the ones to the local research labs. During my appointment at DW-Radio I have had the opportunity to investigate nature conservation in Israel, the problems of deforestation in Bolivia, and the situation of scientists in China. I returned from these excursions not only with hours of recordings in my suitcase but also with memories and impressions of adventures that as a research chemist I would never have had.