Being a corporate communications officer is not usually the first thing that springs to mind when you are a student in astrophysics considering your first career move. It was definitely not my first idea. Like so many science undergraduates, I had an interest in science writing and thought about becoming a science journalist. It made sense--I loved science, but didn't really want to continue in research, and enjoyed writing. So how did I get into corporate communications, and what is it anyway?
As a corporate communications officer for the Institute of Physics, I mostly deal with news relating to the Institute or its initiatives, rather than actual physics (that's more the press officer's job). It's quite hard to describe a typical day at work for me, as there are lots of very different parts to my job. What enticed me into public relations (PR) in the first place was the writing, which in this job mostly means writing press releases. Writing a press release is very different to writing a feature or an essay--they have to be short and sweet, so it's a pretty good skill to develop. However, this is only one, very small, part of my job.
I also arrange media briefings for particularly important events organised by the Institute. This goes hand in hand with press-releasing events; the difference is that media briefings allow journalists to come along to find out more in person, ask questions, and gather firsthand information from the event, rather than to just write an article based on the press release and a few phone calls.
Another rather different aspect to my job is corporate image and branding. I act as the Institute's "style police officer," making sure that everyone at the Institute uses the right logos, colours, and designs in their publications and presentations. I am also gatekeeper to the Institute's display material--choosing and looking after poster boards, display stands, and promotional gifts. For example, I had to arrange for a display stand to be purpose built and set up with all our posters and leaflets at our annual conference. This is a side of my job that isn't media orientated, but is all about the face the Institute presents to the outside world.
In the office, my department is also the voice of the Institute to outsiders as general enquiries come to us. This means I need a broad overview of what all the departments in the Institute are about. Being able to answer telephone enquiries comes with practice, and we also get our fair number of calls totally unrelated to physics. I was really thrown by one particular call, until I realised I was talking to somebody who thought we were the Institute of Physicians! So you clearly need the ability to think on your feet and handle anything that comes your way.
In addition to all this, I also get involved in various Institute projects to get the PR side of things built in from the start. This is very important, as it is the best way of making sure that a project gets the message across to its target audience.
So as you can see, in this kind of job you have to be able to write with flair, clarity, and simplicity (especially if you're writing about science), be good with people, and able to cope with some admin! Now I've been in the job for about 9 months, I think it's safe to say I've settled in to it. You might think "of course you've settled in", but it really took longer than I expected. As a scientist working in a PR department there was a lot I had to learn--and there still is a lot to learn. The whole experience for me has been a very steep learning curve.
I am lucky in that the Institute gives all staff a certain amount of training every year. So I have already been on a few PR courses, and I want to do a writing course in the near future. That's a very important factor in a first job--if you get training as part of the package you can build up your PR qualifications as well as your on-the-job training. So if you want to continue your transition from science to PR you'll have enough experience under your belt to move up. My boss also gave me a few PR and communications books (see box) right at the beginning--definitely worth reading when you start out in this kind of job without much previous experience!
Talking of experience, I would say that if you want to go from a science degree into a PR or communications job, this is your most valuable asset. Lots of people have science degrees, but only a few have science degrees and work experience with the media. It doesn't have to be a national publication--your university newspaper or magazine is ideal. I personally appreciated having seen quite a few press releases before having to write some myself. And the compulsory course in science communication I did during my MSci in Astrophysics at University College London was definitely a bonus when it came to getting my current job.
From my limited understanding of PR and communications, I feel I do want to stay in this field now. As a whole, my job is varied and interesting, even though it actually involves less writing and more organisational skills than I had imagined. The truth is, when I saw the ad for this position in the final year of my degree, I didn't really know what the job would entail, but I applied anyway while trying to find out as much about it as I could. My initial thoughts of going into journalism have changed since then--I am quite happy in a job where I can do a bit of writing and develop other skills at the same time. Being a corporate communications officer will (hopefully!) open up a range of opportunities in PR and communications for me.