Thursday, October 16, 2008

How I landed my alternative career in science writing

When I first started talking to people and reading about alternative science careers, I quickly realized that there is no set path. People find themselves in editing, writing, or policy positions by any number of round-about ways. Personal contacts are often key. This can make the prospect of “breaking into” an alternative career quite daunting. Academia is hard, but at least we’re all familiar with the setting, and we have at least some idea of what one needs to do to “succeed” i.e. land that tenure-track job. If you’re a grad student or postdoc, you have a built-in network of academic contacts and support. And you have probably seen, or are seeing right now, colleagues applying to and interviewing for academic positions.

But what if your dream is to go into science policy? To be a science journalist for the New York Times? To be a biotech consultant for investment firms, or to produce scientific documentaries for the Discovery channel? How the hell do you get into that?!

No one follows the exact same path. There isn’t a degree program you can take that will automatically get you the job you want. My own journey to an alternative career has been marked by meanderings and false starts. But I thought that it might be helpful in this forum, to some reader somewhere, to give a detailed account of how I’ve landed where I now am.

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Like probably 90% of my grad school cohort, I thought I wanted to head up an academic lab and spend my life doing basic research. I got Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences and then landed a good postdoc. Unfortunately, that Nature paper never appeared, and my postdoc advisor lost a major source of funding midway through my time in his lab. When I returned to the lab after a maternity leave, I was informed that my contract would be up in one year. Until this time, I had lived in a bubble, humming along at the bench with no real thought for my future other than a vague hope that the next breakthrough experiment was just around the corner. I had given no real thought to my career plan, and certainly had not researched any type of alternative career. But nothing sharpens the mind like the imminent loss of a job.

Option #1: Go into teaching

I knew that I wasn’t competitive for tenure-track research positions, and I didn’t particularly care for doing a second postdoc. So I decided that I wanted to be a teacher. That fall, I applied for tenure-track teaching positions. Saddled with the classic “two-body problem,” I restricted my search to schools that were in commuting distance. This turned out to be a grand total of two. I had a preliminary phone interview with one of the institutions, and it was so immediately clear that the position was unsuited for me that I was quite relieved to let that particular job go. The other job, at a regional state university with masters degree programs but no doctorate programs, seemed far more promising, and I was invited for a campus interview. At this point, I had practically ZERO college teaching experience (aside from eight weeks of TAing in grad school). I knew nothing about the environment at a teaching-oriented school or regional state university. And some snotty, elitist part of me still saw this path as second best.

I interviewed for the job and SURPRISE! I loved the school. I adored the people and environment. I loved it that people seemed excited about my research, and that I would have lab space and funding to continue my interests (even if only at a level that would be laughable to those at an R1). I decided that this was my dream job.

I didn’t get the dream job.

Option #2: Frantically apply for any other science-related jobs in the area.

I found a grand total of two. Postdoc School was not exactly in a biotech hub, and industry positions were extremely limited. I applied for one position in technology transfer and one position in medical writing. Didn’t get interviews for either.

Option #3: Drop out and get knocked up.

Um, this is the one I went with.

Seriously, my husband and I wanted a second baby. And it seemed that this was a good time to “opt out” and re-evaluate what I really wanted out of a career and life.

While working on the “knocked-up” part and caring for my toddler daughter, I kept exploring career options. Realizing that I needed more teaching experience if I actually wanted to be competitive for teaching positions, I signed on to teach a course at Regional State University, the same school that I had interviewed with and loved. And a friend at a medical communications company promised to send freelance science writing/editing jobs my way.

I learned that Regional State University was indeed a great place to work and teach. I also learned that I didn’t particularly care for teaching. I found the pressure of preparing new lectures each week, week after week, trying to master and present myself as expert in a new subfield each time . . . tiring and stressful. I liked getting to know students, and I liked working with them one-on-one. But I couldn’t see myself teaching full-time for a living, for years on end.

On the other hand, I did enjoy the medical writing/editing that I did for my friend’s company. My friend gave me a contract assignment reviewing and editing the text for a course in oncology. It was lucrative (far more than teaching!) and it was fun.

Trailing spouse

Unbeknownst to me, my husband, an M.D/Ph.D, was going through his own career crisis at the time. Out of the blue (it seemed) he announced to me that he was looking for a full-time clinical position. But, but, I sputtered in disbelief. You just set up your own lab! You just got your own lab going this summer! But my husband was disillusioned by academic research, and had been secretly dreaming of an escape hatch.

Luckily, a clinical position in his field of medical expertise opened up at a hospital across the state, in a city very near my parents’ home. Husband interviewed for the job and got it. Do you mind moving? he asked me. Hell, no. We’d be close to my parents, and there was nothing keeping us in Postdoc City. I was heavily pregnant with our second child by this point. We moved to the new city, and I gave birth just one month later.

I became a stay-at-home mother for the next year. During this time, I continued to do occasional freelance medical writing/editing projects for my friend’s medical communications company. I also started to seriously investigate medical writing and editing as a full time career. I read everything I could find on the Web (This article and this at Sciencecareers.org are good places to start). Eager for more work, I haunted the job board at the Council of Science Editors and applied for contract jobs I saw advertised there. Now it happens that there are numerous scientific manuscript editing services out there on the Web (just Google “scientific editing” to see what I mean). One such editing service company responded with interest to my application and asked for some editing samples. Thanks to my work with my friend’s company, I actually had samples on hand. The samples helped land me the job, so I was now a contractor with a second company. Through my friend’s company, I gained experience writing for the pharmaceutical industry. Through the second company, I gained a little more experience editing academic scientific manuscripts and grant proposals.

I had not quite, however, given up that old dream of a life at the laboratory bench. In fact, at the back of my mind, I harbored a fantasy of a triumphant return to the bench. I knew that the NIH runs a program of grant supplements to promote the reentry of women into biomedical research who have taken time out of their research careers for the sake of family responsibilities (These grant supplements are applicable to men as well, despite the name. Also, the sponsoring lab needs to be funded by an RO1 or one of a few other select NIH grants). Our new city of residence had no biotech industry, but it did have an Up-and-Coming Research Institute associated with my husband’s hospital. I regularly browsed this institute’s web site for information on its research labs, and for news and job opportunities. From time to time interesting postdoc positions popped up, but I wasn’t quite ready to apply. And then one day, when my youngest had already turned one year old, a new job posting popped up on Institute’s web page. It was a job posting for a Scientific Writer. And it sounded perfect.

I applied for the job. And I also applied for a postdoc. I still wanted to keep my options open, and why not, as this was just the application stage? I still thought that maybe I did want to head back to the bench, and the research position was in a lab whose research interests were loosely related to the avenues I’d been exploring during my first postdoc.

I received initial interview offers for both the science writing job and the postdoc. Then the postdoc position was eliminated when the PI realized she didn’t have the funds. The interview process for the writing position was delayed as that PI struggled for funds. I went through an angsty period and wondered if I should apply for other postdocs at the institute. But the other advertised postdoc positions were not of real research interest to me, and I didn’t have the stomach to apply for them. I waited. Eventually, I did get an interview for the science writing job. And so here I am today.

I am now a scientific writer and editor for a large laboratory at a private, nonprofit biomedical research institute. My position is unusual in that I do not work for an entire department (like Cath) or institute, but rather for one individual laboratory. My major responsibilities are to edit and help prepare grant proposals and scientific manuscripts for publication. So far, I am truly enjoying the work. I remain close to science—I interact daily with scientists, work with exciting, unpublished data, attend lab meetings and seminars, and read, read, read. To my surprise, I’ve found that I have yet (so far) to pine for the laboratory bench. Although earlier this week I was so bored (we’d just passed on a potential grant proposal, and things were slow) that I did offer to do DNA minipreps for anyone who wanted!

The key to landing my current position, I think, was the freelance scientific writing and editing work that I had done. Grad students and postdocs get writing experience as part of their standard training, but I had something extra in my resume, something that distinguished me and that suggested a special commitment to writing and editing. You can bet that I played that up in my interview. You can bet that I played up my English minor in college, as well =)

Now, having landed where I am, will I stay here? I don’t know. I might not be done with my meandering ways. But you can bet that, as Cath has suggested before, I will keep looking for marketable experience and my next potential job. Especially in these economic times, I think we all need to stay flexible and always be prepared to look for that next job. In my case, this may be as early as next year. The funding for my position is only guaranteed for one year. But in the meantime, I am making contacts at my research institute and am getting valuable new experience in grantsmanship. I am feeling more hopeful about my job prospects than at any time in the past year, when I really thought my science career was doomed.*

*I guess my “traditional” career as a tenure-track researcher is doomed, but a career in science still is not.*

13 comments:

autumnmist said...

Thanks for sharing the details of your job search. It's really helpful to hear how and where you went about looking for jobs.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great post! It sounds like it was a good thing you didn't get your first "dream job"!

I would love to have more time and motivation for freelance work, but it is so difficult when my day job is so demanding. Of course that's good, I'd rather be busy than bored! But no way do I have the drive to get off my bike at 6.30 pm, make dinner and then start editing... maybe now that the rain is back, weekend days will seem like good writing opportunities.

ScientistMother said...

wow what detail and perseverance. thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

thanks for that - I'm thinking alternatively myself

The bean-mom said...

Cath,
Yup, in hindsight, it was actually good that I didn't get my first "dream job", as it turns out that teaching wipes me out. (although at the time, I was completely devastated.)

And oh, I know what you mean about being too tired for freelance projects on top of a day job. I have all kinds of ideas for journalistic-type articles (and creative writing projects just for fun) but I am just too too tired after putting the kids to bed to do anything at all. Except read blogs =)

Have you used your digital voice recorder yet?

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Yup! Expect a post over the weekend!

Anonymous said...

The funding for my position is only guaranteed for one year.

And what is the source of the funding for a lab's own grantwriter

Anonymous said...

?

The bean-mom said...

Anonymous,

I admit that it's unusual for a lab to hire its own writer.

I'm not going into funding specifics (mostly because I do not know them), but I will say that I work at an unusual institution, at which most of our operations are funded by private philanthropy dollars. Plus, my PI is something of a big guy here.

My understanding, however, is that Ph.D-level science writers are also becoming more common at traditional research universities. Not at the individual lab level, but at the department level or above.

Dr. A said...

Great post, thank you so much for sharing. I don't plan on doing more than one post-doc either and this blog is helping me feel a lot more confident about my "plan b"

I think I will just have to decide on they fly like you appeared to have. I LOVE research, the bench work just as much as the analysis and writing. But I also LOVE teaching.. so academia seems perfect for me, right? Not so sure..

Jennifer said...

Nice post, it was interesting to see your career path. But it seemed as if you were able to break into the science writing field because a friend sent work your way. I am interested in pursuing science writing, but am not fortunate enough to know anyone in the field. Do you have any advice on starting to freelance without such connections?

Anonymous said...

Any idea what the prospects are for an M.D. (well, partial M.D. at this point!) to enter the field of science writing?

The bean-mom said...

Jennifer,

Sorry it's taking so long to reply! I'm working on a post regarding your question...

Anonymouse #2

The chances for an M.D. to enter this field are excellent, excellent, excellent. With that degree you should easily be able to land medical writing jobs for medical communications/medical education companies (writing CME courses and working on projects for Big Pharma) and you'll have a cachet in that particular specialty that Ph.Ds just can't match. I recall reading some stories somewhere on the Web about this path for M.D.s; do a Google search...

In passing, I'll say that there are many different types of scientific writing. But the big bucks are always in writing for industry! (I frankly don't make much in pseudo-academia, but there are other compensations...)