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Looking for work as a scientific communicator?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2002. Looking for work as a scientific communicator? http://www.writing-world.com/tech/techwork.shtml

Many technical writers recently found themselves looking for work in the wake of September 11th and the dot-com meltdown. Members of the techwr-l discussion group for technical communicators (http://www.techwr-l.com) discussed this problem a few months ago, and having worked in the field of scientific communication for nearly two decades now, I contributed fairly heavily to the discussion. This article is based primarily on my own inputs to the discussion, supplemented by additional material inspired by the comments of other participants.

Writing popular science

Many technical communicators read magazines such as Discover, Scientific American, Science News, and New Scientist. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's wondered whether our own work experience would qualify us to write such "popular science". It may very well. Publications such as the annual Writer's Market guide list writing opportunities in a wide variety of genres, including science and nature. Most libraries have a current copy of this book, and you can use it to develop a list of possible markets and research their specific requirements. Reading a few sample issues or checking a publisher's Web site for guidelines to contributors can help you focus your query and hone your writing style. Two annual compilations, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing, contain samples of the best articles published each year and give an idea of what publishers are currently publishing.

Writing science textbooks at the elementary, high school, or university level may be another possibility, though the larger scope of the project makes the work more difficult than magazine writing, and the pay may not always be the greatest. (Publishers of these texts also hire freelance editors—another possible source of work.) If you enjoy the challenge of writing book-length material, your expertise in certain areas might inspire you to tackle a topical issue in those areas for the mass market. (That's particularly true if you've already written several articles in these areas.) Where there's considerable public interest, you might find your efforts amply repaid. Again, check Writer's Market and your local bookstore for publishers that would be interested in your book idea.

Finding more lucrative writing gigs require you to think outside the print "box". Radio and television are two of the "glamor" areas, and both can be open to new scriptwriters or screenwriters. Contact your local community stations to see what their needs are and whether they can refer you to documentary filmmakers who might be interested in your services; large media sources such as National Public Radio (http://www.npr.org) are also good places to look if you're casting a wider net. Networks such as the Public Broadcasting Service group of stations (http://www.pbs.org) tend to buy shows produced elsewhere rather than producing their own, but watching science shows on these networks will tell you whom they're buying from. Contact the producers of these shows and inquire whether there are any opportunities.

The National Association of Science Writers (http://www.nasw.org) provides inspiration and a list of resources, as well as discussion forums in which you can talk to other communicators. A Web search with judiciously chosen keywords should reveal many other resources, such as the D.C. science writers association (http://www.dcswa.org) and, of course, Writing-World itself (http://www.writing-world.com).

Employee or contractor?

If you're looking for a career as a wage slave, contact the major organizations that employ scientists and engineers to investigate their needs and the prospects for full-time employment. Of course, budgetary constraints have led many of these organizations to offer opportunities for contract or other freelance work rather than full-time employment, and that arrangement is more attractive to many writers.

The federal governments of most countries sponsor scientific research via organizations such as the Canadian (http://www.nrc.ca) or U.S. (http://www.nas.edu/nrc/) National Research Councils. The U.S. also has a network of National and other laboratories (http://www.er.doe.gov/Sub/Organization/Map/national_labs_and_userfacilities.htm) that provide links well worth exploring. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the main research institutes in your chosen field, then look them up on the Web and contact them directly. Try talking to their communications or publications directors first, but don't stop there; striking up a correspondence with individual researchers or research directors sometimes leads to employment.

Keep an eye on local and national newspapers, since you'll periodically see articles about scientific research or development that suggest leads. Researchers named in these articles often need help obtaining funding or publishing the results of their research. For example, I currently do freelance editing for a client in Japan who sends me journal manuscripts written by Japanese authors who require help polishing their text; my edits ease the journal's peer-review process by letting reviewers focus on the science, not the language. Many science journals now formally require authors with languages other than English as their native language to seek editing help, and contacting these journal editors may lead to interesting and profitable work. [A look back from 2005: I'm not a full-time freelancer, with clients from a wide range of countries and most continents.—GH]

Similarly, many researchers need help with "technology transfer" (communicating research results to those who can use them); I earned my current full-time job by noticing that a local research institute was expanding into a new building; that led me to ask whether this expansion indicated a need for more writing assistance. It did. Now, I work with a group of English and French researchers helping them publish the results of their field studies. The fact that I'm bilingual and have a university degree in the subject lets me edit in both languages and even translated the French reports into English. If you have advanced skills in a second or third language, consider looking for journals that attract authors who speak those languages. If journal-level editing is beyond your skills, yet you still work effectively in another language, don't restrict your search to English sites; many foreign research institutes may need the skills you can offer.

Many researchers funded by federal programs need help convincing the government to keep funding them or help explaining the results to the public to demonstrate that the tax dollars were well spent. You may be able to help these people directly, or find local companies that write proposals on their behalf. Medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies can be particularly good potential clients because they have deep pockets. These companies also outsource a lot of their communications work to freelancers, who help them explain what they do to the general public in simple language.

Other places to look for work

The Internet provides enormous numbers of discussion groups on a bewildering array of topics, and these groups can provide fruitful ground for hunting up job opportunities. A Google search using the keyword "science discussion group" turned up more than 600 hits; more restrictive searches would narrow down the list to focus on your specialty or area of interest. Others have, of course, already culled some of the lists for you; in addition to Yahoo (http://groups.yahoo.com) and Google (http://www.google.com and click the "groups" link, or http://www.dejanews.com for Usenet discussion groups), http://www.liszt.com [link no longer active], and http://www.paml.net [link no longer active] are two more good places to start refining your search.

Attending annual meetings and conferences in specialized fields is an excellent way to network and market your skills. If you can arrange to speak at these meetings or host a discussion session on aspects of scientific communication, you'll have many opportunities to meet potential clients. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org) offers useful resources and holds an annual meeting; more specialized groups such as the American Chemical Society (http://www.acs.org/portal/Chemistry) do much the same. Most science specialties have comparable professional conferences.


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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