In the style of some great prison breakout movie I am slowly tunnelling my way out of academia. Not literally, of course--you won't find me dropping gravel surreptitiously round the place from the pocket of my labcoat. Rather, I'm picking up as much experience as I can in my chosen field, science communication, while still ensconced in the ivory tower.
What follows is a compendium of the useful advice I have picked up while digging my way out, much of it from the lovely, generous people on the Psci-com e-mailing list whom I'd like to thank. And to blame if, when I emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, it's in a field just outside Swindon. ...
Try and stay on the inside
If you can face it, stick at your day job until your new career prospects are fairly secure. This sounds tough if all you want to do is run screaming for the hills, scattering pipettes in your wake. Take heart in the added media "cred" and easier access to hot topics and top scientists that being a genuine worker at the frontiers of science is giving you. It also means reliable income, and no embarrassing gap in your CV to justify. However, you will have to find the time to get some communication experience in your spare time. Those mammoth soap-watching and biscuit-munching sessions on the sofa may have to take second place to your fledgling journalistic career.
Just do anything you can to get greater exposure or more cuttings in your portfolio. Many science Web sites ( The Naked Scientists, for example) and local PR organisations are after voluntary contributions. And if you are funded by a health charity, why not ask if you can write publicity material for them? Just write something suitable, then pester them. Also gain some practice in explaining scientific concepts through university teaching and student mentoring, while bagging experience with public audiences at science museums and schools or during Science Week.
TV and radio can be harder to get into. Again, the way to do it is to produce some good material for your local, student, or hospital radio/TV station and try persuading them to run it. So buy a minidisc recorder and good quality microphone, and go round interviewing any scientists you can get hold of about their work.
Of course the downside of voluntary work is that you won't get paid, and you should draw a line between "gaining valuable experience" and "being exploited".
The Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) is a great resource for embryonic science hacks as well as those whose aspirations stretch further. Their online guide "So you want to be a science writer" does exactly what it says on the tin, and the bi-monthly London media briefings for members are a fantastic networking opportunity. Psci-com should be a port of call for anyone interested in what is charmingly known as PUS (public understanding of science), and their e-mail list archives are a great resource. It's also a good place to find voluntary as well as paid job opportunities. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine Public Relations Associations (STEMPRA for short) also has a useful Web site and, of course, Next Wave is always here to help; see box.
Back to school
Although returning to student life may seem unthinkable once you have enjoyed a reasonable salary, it may pay off in the long-term. Various universities now offer postgraduate courses in science communication, including Imperial and Birkbeck colleges, and Cardiff and Bristol universities. If you already have considerable experience under your belt you may find that a course is not that helpful, but bear in mind that it will give you a definite way into the media sphere through the built-in work experience component that many such courses offer.
For those who aren't ready to completely cut their umbilical cord from research, some courses can be done part-time. And for those who fear for the state of their bank balance, some bursaries are available from the ABSW. People interested in practising their communication skills on the nation's policymakers should look at the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University who are offering studentships for 2004.
There are also other opportunities for media training within academia. Some funding bodies (like the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council offer media training for researchers, while the British Association Media Fellowships offer six-week print or broadcast placements for scientists to gain a better understanding of how the media works.
Editors are not interested in how many papers you have in the Journal of Bands on Gels but in whether you can nose out a story and communicate it clearly. Likewise, your PCR skills are unlikely to impress a PR company. So start a dual CV strategy as soon as possible. Keep your scientific CV up to date, just in case you have a change of heart, but build a new one stressing your communication skills and experience.
This can actually be harder than it sounds, so try to get a few media-types to cast an eye over your efforts. Don't forget to think about your transferable skills--many of the things scientists do in the lab, such as supervising students, organising seminars, and reviewing papers, are valuable skills that just need the right packaging to be attractive. Finally, organise an up-to-date portfolio of your work. You never know when someone might want to see your majestic oeuvre.
The Tax Man cometh ...
If you are lucky enough to be given extra cash to spend on shoes and holidays--or on the mortgage, for the unimaginative--that's great! But any money you make on the side is still taxable income so keep records of what you earn. It is crucial to keep your receipts for any associated expenses (such as travel, paper, computing), as these can be offset against tax. At this stage I am still stuffing all sorts of bits of paper into my sock drawer rather than operating a neat and rigorous filing system, and the concept of a tax return sends me into a sweaty panic--but watch out for a forthcoming article entitled "tax for the incompetent".
Be nice--and punctual
A hugely important piece of advice that has stood me in good stead is "always be friendly and helpful, and always get your copy in ahead of deadline". It makes people rather more predisposed to helping you if you are easy to work with and reliable. Obstacles that may get in the way of meeting a deadline are many, but one you should be aware of is being so keen that you overburden yourself. Try and work out what is a realistic output for you while maintaining your day job, and sanity. Still, if you haven't been given official deadlines, set them yourself. It's amazing how fast "I'll do that next week" turns into 6 weeks later (by which time the editor has given up on you), particularly if things get hectic in the lab or real life gets in the way.
Another personal skill to develop is a thick skin and the ability to accept editing graciously. As scientists we are used to having our papers criticised for content, but it can be somewhat disheartening to get pieces of writing back covered in red pen because someone doesn't like your grammar or your style is inappropriate. Just grit your teeth and learn from it for next time.
However probably the best advice of all is to just get out there and start digging. It will take effort and persistence, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
Kat Arney is currently wandering round the lab whistling the theme tune to The Great Escape ...