For 30 years, the Writing Seminars Department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, has offered scientists and science-minded journalists the opportunity to hone their writing and communication skills through its master's degree in science writing. The program was one of the big five graduate science-writing programs in the United States. (The others are the University of California, Santa Cruz; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; New York University; and Boston University.*) Graduates of John Hopkins University's program have gone on to staff positions with Scientific American, Science News, New Scientist, Time, USA Today, NPR, Radiolab, NASA, Science, and many others—including Science Careers. (That would be me, your humble correspondent.) On Monday, the science writing program's director, Ann Finkbeiner, e-mailed alumni of the program to announce that there would be no 2013–2014 class. The program is shuttering.
Science writing has long been considered one of the main "alternative" science careers, ideal for scientists with strong writing skills who have tired of spending their days in the lab running experiments. Some science writing graduate programs, like the one at the University of California, Santa Cruz, offer their degree exclusively to applicants with at least a bachelor's degree in science, while others, like the Johns Hopkins program, are open to anyone who demonstrates sufficient aptitude in science and writing.
The Hopkins program isn't the first to go. In 2009, Columbia University announced that it was closing its earth and environmental science journalism program because of "current weakness in the job market for environmental journalists." While the job market for science journalists is indeed crowded, due in large part to the downsizing of staffs at newspapers and magazines, Finkbeiner doesn't believe that's the reason why the Johns Hopkins program is closing. Apparently, she tells Science Careers in an interview, the primary motivation for ending the program was the low ratio of number of applicants to class size—in other words, the fact that the program isn't selective enough, which reflects poorly on the university's reputation as a competitive institution. Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, confirmed that as the reason that she decided to close the program.
Finkbeiner, who resigned from the university after learning the program was ending, says that the program typically received between 20 and 30 applicants per year and accepted four to six. Over the past few years, though, the number of applicants has been at the lower end of that range, she says. The same is true at other major graduate science writing programs, she says, citing conversations that she's had with other program directors.
Because science writing is a small niche and the number of graduate programs catering to science writing is small, the programs tend to share the same pool of applicants, Finkbeiner says—which leads her to believe that fewer people are applying to such programs than in the past. Whether that's a reflection of would-be applicants' awareness of the weak job market in science journalism, Finkbeiner isn't certain, but she thinks it might be a factor.
Finkbeiner believes that the program's closure is tied to a larger university initiative emphasizing its undergraduate curriculum and deemphasizing its graduate programs.** Newman disagreed with that characterization, but confirmed that the School of Arts and Sciences is working to expand and improve its undergraduate programs. There are plans to expand science writing courses for undergraduates beginning this fall, she says, with the goal of building up an extended undergraduate science writing program that would award a master's degree after an extra year of study, with concentrations in brain science, environmental science, and public health. Eventually, the standalone graduate program may be restored. "I consider this to be a hiatus more than anything else," Newman says, adding in an e-mail that it "is a considered decision to build where we think we have the greatest strength and then reconstitute our Master’s program at a more competitive level."
Finkbeiner chose to step down instead of overseeing this transition, contending that an undergraduate degree would be insufficient for a science writer to succeed professionally.
* Since posting this article, we've received a number of e-mails (and seen several tweets) from alumni and writing-program directors objecting to being left off the list of top programs. We also heard from the director of another Johns Hopkins science-writing program, the online program based in Washington, DC, which isn't closing. We're comfortable with our list of top programs—but there are many excellent science writing programs in the United States and beyond. No disrespect was intended in leaving them off our short list.
** When this article was first published, this sentence read, "Finkbeiner believes that the program's closure is tied to a larger university initiative emphasizing its undergraduate curriculum at the expense of its graduate programs." Finkbeiner contacted us to request a change, since she felt that this was a mischaracterization of her views. We decided to honor her request.
Michael Price is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Master of Arts in Science Writing Program.