How do I start?
This week and old friend got in touch with a familiar question and I decided to share my answer here. Have a read and comment with your own thoughts and ideas at the bottom.
The main sections you'll find here are:
What I do
Finding a Job
I didn’t reply right away just because I wanted to find a bit of time to reply properly, it’s a big question! I’m asked about getting started/getting paid/finding a job in science communication a lot so as well as sending this to you I’m going to post this response on my website (don’t worry I’ll not mention your name).
What I do
I’m not sure there is any “typical” science communicator. There are lots of different flavours: People who give talks to schools; TV & radio presenters; journalists; authors; science centre staff and many more. Most people have more than one string to their bow but will have just one or two specialisms.
I have three main strands, Trainer, Consultant and Communicator. My time is spent pretty equally between those three things – though science communication is by far the least profitable.
In terms of my Sci Comm I do a mix of things. I’ve just finished writing a book and I recorded a TV series a couple of weeks ago. Most of my work is on stage though, with people hiring me to give talks, normally science festivals or organisations which do large school events.
If you want to communicate science full time two things are key: Having a diversity of skill and knowing those skills. Also, when it comes to branding, you need a clear idea of self, who are you and what can you offer? I’m a trainer, consultant and communicator – who will you be?
During my PhD I did some training courses on communication which I found super interesting. After these I wanted some practice, so at the weekends would go down to the local science centre and have a little table set up where I chatted to people – this taught me a lot!
Gradually I scaled up, moving from table-top activities to speaking to small audiences. I took every opportunity and as my experience grew so did the audiences. Next, I wanted to do something independently, so I applied to the Royal Academy of Engineering for funds to develop and tour a show. The external endorsement of a funder opened many doors and I was able to deliver my first solo show round the UK about a dozen times.
It was all very stepwise: I learnt about sci comm, I practiced it, then developed my own project. After each step I considered “what next” so I was always working towards something. It might have been to work in a certain place or produce something of a certain scale, but there was always an ambition.
Each new experience opened doors as I was able to point to my previous successes proving I was capable of delivering something of quality.
Four years after starting my (part time) Sci Comm journey I became the University of Glasgow’s Public Engagement Officer. Four years after that, I became freelance. Had I gone from PhD student to Freelancer I likely would have crashed and burned. I needed to grow my experience and profile. The requests for freelance work grew very gradually over many years.
Don’t wait – start now. It will take a long time and a lot of experience before someone will offer you a full-time position. It’s like science, no one would trust you to deliver a research project because you’d once helped out in someone’s lab for an afternoon. An employer wants to see the skills and experience that say you are an excellent candidate.
Here are the steps I’d recommend for getting experience.
Learn: Get some training, do some reading
Experience: Watch how others do it, think critically about what and how they communicate
Take part: Play a small supporting role in someone else’s project. This lets you test your skills in a controlled, low pressure way
Volunteer: Be part of a team organising a project to set some behind the scenes experience
Independence: Lead a small-scale solo project
Lead: Organise a larger project where you take the overall lead
Train: Show other people how to produce their own communication projects
Manage: Curate a large project which will involve multiple strands, ie be the manager of a project from the Take Part stage.
There are of course other routes to go and the above is based on my own experience. More and more people are opting for an academic route and there are universities all across the UK offering Sci Comm Masters courses. This can accelerate and formulise your learning, but it’s still not a sector essential.
A really common question that I can only answer from my perspective... I didn’t start asking for money, I started being offered it.
Retrospectively I see this as being tied in to how I was presenting myself. To the external observer I had transitioned from “enthusiastic PhD student” to “experienced performer”. If you look at my website now I don’t say “this is how much it cost to have me speak” but it is safe to say that people look at my site and assume that my services come with a fee.
So, for me, it is deciding who you are and presenting yourself as a professional. Make sure people understand the experience you bring to each role. They’re not offering me an opportunity, I am providing them a service – an important distinction.
Always value yourself and if the opportunity doesn’t benefit you in some way (enjoyment/experience/financial) don’t be afraid to say “no”. There is a limit to your time and energy and saying No doesn’t close as many doors as you might think.
Finding a job
First question, what job? Back in the second paragraph I noted down some of the common career strands. You should think about what fits you best.
I’m a science communicator and despite writing a book, I’ll never be a full-time author – it just isn’t for me.
I’m a science communicator and despite giving school talks, I’ll never be a full-time school speaker – it just isn’t for me.
I’m a science communicator and despite working in and with science centres, I’ll never be a science centre employee – it just isn’t…. well, ok, this is as much financial as anything…
Once you know what you have your eyes set on have a look at some job descriptions and see if you have the skills that match, if not how will you get them (or convince them that you make up for it in other areas).
The hard part might come when it comes to salary – moving from research to communication is a change in career and with any direction change you may have to start lower down than you’d like.
When it comes to selling yourself there are a few things to remember:
Who are you: What three words or (very short) phrases sum you up? My website opens with “Engagement, Evaluation and Impact” – these are the Outcomes I work on. Further down I describe myself as trainer, consultant and communicator which are my Outputs. So conceptually who are you? And practically who you are?
Experience into skills: You need to record your experiences and, crucially, interpret what they mean. Running a table top activity at a science festival is an output, what are the outcomes? It shows that you have the ability to communicate, to plan, to think creatively, to manage a project. This creates a bank of skills and experience that are incredibly useful for job applications.
CV: You are on a good track for a sci comm career when your PhD doesn’t form the bulk of your experience. I’ve added a redacted version of mine here, the fact that I have done a PhD helps me, but day to day the actual topic I studied doesn’t have much bearing and it is relegated to a single line at the end.
This is probably much longer than you expected or even wanted – but as I said, it’s a big question. The transition from researcher to communicator isn’t easy and it’s not a jump you want to make until you are sure of a safe landing.
I recommend playing the long game. It took me eight years of very hard work to be able to go it alone. It is a competitive world out there – you’ll need to demonstrate your value.
Hone your skills, record your experience and know your destination.
Best of luck!
Do you have advice for those starting out in Sci Comm? Or do you have questions about where you should go next? Comment below.