The idea of working on science documentaries really came to me from nowhere.
All through graduate school at the University of Washington genetics department, I had been thinking about nonresearch careers because lab work had never felt like a good fit for me. Research requires you to focus on a single topic for years, and I just don't have that long of an attention span.
Throughout grad school, I had had a number of ideas about other careers (high school teacher, textbook editing, marrying well), but nothing felt right. I was, however, an avid public television/radio consumer and had thought about volunteering at a television or radio station someday.
In the last year of my dissertation work, I started to consider moving to the Boston area, close to where I grew up. I'm not the fastest thinker in the world, but, one day, I suddenly realized that the PBS science series NOVA is produced in Boston at WGBH-TV. What if I got a job at NOVA? After that, I couldn't think about anything else--it was like being in love. I had to work for NOVA. I realized, of course, that I was being ridiculous; I knew nothing about working in television. That fact probably would have been enough to stop me had I any talent at all for lab work. Instead, I put together a resume ( The Idiot's Guide to Resume Writing is a great resource, no kidding) and applied for an internship at the Seattle PBS television affiliate, KCTS. A few weeks later, I got a call for an interview. After dropping $300 for a power suit at Ann Taylor, I showed up and answered a bunch of questions about why I wanted the internship and what I was studying in school. Luckily, they didn't ask me about the electrophoresis gel I had run backwards earlier that day. Then they offered me an internship--I'm not sure why, but they did. Maybe being in graduate school (and supposedly a more serious student) helped.
The team at KCTS was involved in an incredible number of different projects, both in making documentaries and in studio production. I really lucked out. The team thought it was important to involve me in all aspects of production, so I got to do research (phone, library, and Internet), run the teleprompter during studio shows (harder than it looks!), pull together audiences for studio shows, scout for remote shoots, and, of course, help with all the administrative tasks that came our way. The highlight was getting to go on a 1-week shoot in Idaho as a production assistant. This mostly meant that I ran out to get lunch for the crew, but I also got to see what television is all about: creative solutions to problems, team work, and good organization. I was hooked.
I was still in school during the internship, and my lab work, of course, did not go away. Trying to fit in 60 hours a week of lab work, 20 hours a week for the internship, plus commuting between the two was tough. I was also performing a series of experiments that required me to sleep in my lab for quite a few weekends in a row. I would never want to go through that again, but it was extremely important to me to get enough experience to confirm that I wanted to be in television. It actually didn't seem that awful at the time because I was so excited about all the possibilities open to me.
My lab work and my internship finished up at about the same time. I moved to Boston, wrote my dissertation , defended it, and then set out to find a job. My plan was to network as much as possible, so I spoke to anyone who might know someone working in science programming. I actually found that there were a great number of production companies making science documentaries in the Boston area.
Of all my contacts, one turned out to be the most important. My mother had a friend whose sister's friend was a producer at NOVA. After speaking to this producer over the phone about my experiences and goals, she asked me to send in a resume, which I did, and she passed it to a number of people at NOVA. She then e-mailed me the names and contact information for these people and then gave me advice about who might be willing to give me an informational interview. This producer was probably the best person I could have contacted. Her advice was impeccable and within a few weeks I had set up an interview with the business manager for NOVA. This woman was also extremely helpful and let me know about an entry-level job that was opening up at NOVA. The job was perfect for me because half of it was acting as an assistant for a senior producer for NOVA (filing, writing letters, making travel arrangements) and the other half was assisting on productions. I knew I'd be able to perform the administrative tasks right away, which was comforting, but I'd also have the opportunity to learn more about documentary making from the production half of the job. I sent in my resume, followed up with a phone call, and was extremely excited when I was called to come in for an interview ... and then a second interview. They offered me the job a week or so later, and I have to say that I'm still kind of shocked and amazed. All I had going for me was the science Ph.D. and a slightly obsessive enthusiasm for NOVA. (Secret: about a year after I was hired, I accidentally came across a sheet of paper listing all the candidates for my position. It was the Ph.D. and the enthusiasm that got me the job. So, don't underestimate the power of really wanting something.)
I've been working as a production assistant at NOVA for almost two and a half years. I've moved away from the more "secretarial" tasks and now work primarily with producers and editors on documentaries. It's fun: I research topics, organize and work on film and video shoots, find stock footage and stills to add to shows, and gather information from scientists. It can also be, of course, a pain: unlike lab work, you don't get to pick what you're going to do on any given day; there is a tremendous amount of paperwork that goes along with documentary making; and it can be stressful work because there are always deadlines looming. For me, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I can't tell you how exciting it is to see a program that you've worked on air on national television (with your name in the credits!). I love the chance to move from project to project, always learning new science. I truly enjoy being part of a team. Above all else, I find the work deeply satisfying.