Unreported research is like the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest: if no one is there to write about it, did the experiment really happen? Clear and effective communication of scientific advances is an essential part of a successful research program. If you want to stay connected to science but have had enough of lab work, can you leave the fume hoods behind and make a career out of science writing?
I met with a freelance writer who had been a postdoc in my first rotation lab to talk about her transition from research to writing. As a postdoc she was awarded a grant that would have funded the establishment of her own lab, but came to the realization that the life of a new principle investigator would not be compatible with her growing family (studies indicate she is not alone in this conclusion, but more on that in a later post).
So she decided to leave the lab and focus on a longtime strength of hers: writing. She enrolled in a nonfiction writing certificate program at the University of Washington and soon began to look for outlets for her short pieces on science related happenings.
Aspiring freelance writers need connections to editors, and she wisely heeded advice to seek these first connections at the local level. She approached editors at local publications like Crosscut with story ideas and soon filled an unmet need for locally based science news. She now writes on assignment for a variety of research forums and advocacy groups, covering everything from notable studies to the latest conference news, and is taking on more features writing for publications like Scientific American Mind.
Her favorite part of freelance science writing is the exposure it gives her to a wide range of topics. She still employs the critical thinking skills she developed as a lab scientist, but now applies them one day to a new development in schizophrenia research, and the next day to the science of chocolate. Since she often pitches her own story ideas, she can pick pieces to research and write that genuinely interest her.
Flexibility, another defining feature of the job, may fall into the pro column for some and the con column for others when assessing the fit of a freelance career. As grad students our work schedules are largely structured by the policies of our labs: some operate like a 9-5 workplace, while others stash sleeping bags in the corners for experiments that run through the night. If too little structure in your workday leads you to the wonderful world of YouTube-based procrastination, freelance writing may not be for you. But if you are highly self motivated and want a job that can fit around other responsibilities in your life, freelancing may be a good choice.
Freelance writing is not without its downsides, though. The job has so little structure that it can be difficult to know what’s needed for success. Working alone means relying on one’s own judgment for everything from how to pitch a story to how to pursue an important contact, which can be quite taxing. And for some, the absence of the kind of team found in a lab can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation.
Becoming a freelance writer presents another major challenge: how to turn writing about science (which we’ve all done for years in school) into getting paid to write about science. In other words, a freelance writer must be not only a writer but a business manager as well. The woman I spoke with relied on a writing coach she and a small group of writers hired to answer questions like:
How do you decide how much to charge for a story?
Do you set your price per word or per hour of writing?
How do you deal with billing, contracts, and taxes?
Besides the requisite strong writing skills, a career in freelance science writing requires a high level of self-motivation, the ability to self-promote, organizational skills, and a fundamental interest in communicating a broad range of science-related happenings. Check out the Links page for science writing resources, including a very cool collection of over 100 science writers describing how they got their start.