From PhD to Science Reporter

Have you ever felt like you love reading, writing, and talking about science more than actually doing science? Then science reporting might just be the right career for you, according to Dr. Angie Voyles Askham, a science reporter for Spectrum. Our paths crossed at a neuroscience conference when she wrote an article for Spectrum on my lab’s research. In a recent seminar for Beyond the PhD, Angie talked about her journey, and what made her transition from working at the bench to reporting about it.

Like many of us in undergrad, Angie was undecided on a major, and after much deliberation, her love for biology led her to choose neuroscience. Since she loved science and the research she did as an undergrad, graduate school was an obvious next step. Alas, at the thick of her PhD research at NYU, Angie realized that as much as she loved learning about science and all the cool, new techniques and developments that come with it, she did not enjoy doing them as much. Her circuitous path, as she liked to call it, eventually led her to her current job as a science reporter, a job she loves. However, Angie wishes she had realized what her true passion was much earlier, and without as many detours. Some advice she gave right off that the bat was to ask yourself, “What do I like to spend my time doing?” For Angie, that was writing- a thing she enjoys, and has always enjoyed doing.

While contemplating her next career move as a PhD student, Angie decided to take a science communication workshop through the journalism school at NYU. Not only was she reminded at this time how much she loved and missed writing, but the workshop also helped her understand how to write effectively without using science jargon. Pro tip #1 from Angie: If you are considering a career in science communication, workshops are a great environment to improve your communication skills, as well as get valuable feedback for your work.  

While it can be daunting to make a career change, Angie’s advice was to break down the skillsets you would like to acquire and look for jobs or internships that would help you build those skill sets. Prior to joining Spectrum as a science reporter, Angie dabbled in many different aspects of communication- an internship at WYNC, radio journalism in Seattle, academic publishing, and even freelancing. She spoke at length about how internships were a confidence booster, and that even freelancing, while it did not pay much, was valuable experience. Her advice was to think about the kind of communication or writing you would like to do- radio journalism vs editing vs academic publishing vs reporting etc. Pro tip #2 from Angie- check for internships at your local radio stations. They can help you understand how to pitch your story and think outside the box. However, many of these internships might require you to be a student or a recent graduate, so plan ahead.

So, what exactly does science reporting entail? Angie broke it down into 2 parts- finding a story and writing the story. Both parts of the job involve attending conferences, talking to researchers, reading papers, looking through Twitter, reading more papers, fact checking, and a lot of editing. And, of course, writing. Yes, it sounds a lot like graduate school- just minus the actual lab work. She also mentioned that despite being an introvert, she enjoys talking to people and learning about exciting new research from them. You can refer to Angie’s unofficial checklist to know if science communication is the right career for you.

  1. You like attending classes.
  2. You like to write and talk about science more than you like doing science.
  3. You like diving into past research.
  4. You like learning a new topic every week.
  5. You are kind of a nosy person (in a nice way).

While Angie’s path to science reporting was a little unconventional, her valuable advice could make your path more straightforward.

  1. Apply to the AAAS Mass Media fellowship– a competitive, 10 week long summer program for an opportunity to work at NPR, Wired, NOVA among other media organizations.
  2. Enroll in science communication workshops, especially if your university has a journalism school.
  3. Apply to internships at Spectrum, STAT, etc.
  4. The most straightforward way would be through journalism school, but, as Angie mentioned, it costs money. SHERP at NYU is highly rated.
  5. If you are unsure but still want to give it a shot, try freelancing. Reach out to media outlets like Spectrum or STAT if you have an idea or a story you want to cover.

Although science reporting might seem like a completely different career from the one you have in lab, I loved that Angie reminded us that we all have a ton of transferrable skill sets. In graduate school, you learn how to get things done, develop a knack for sorting through large amounts of research, you probably know the history of the subject you are writing about, you know how academia functions, and although you will not be using scientific jargon in your writing, you can understand it. In short, according to Angie, do not take your PhD for granted. You already have many of the skills you need to be good at science communication.

Below are a few book recommendations from Angie, if you are looking to improve your writing skills.

A Tactical Guide to Science Journalism

Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Poynter Courses on Reporting and Editing

Apart from scientific reporting, Angie contributes to an early careers’ newsletter. Check out Spectrum Launchfor more pro tips form Angie.

Recording of Angie’s seminar can be found here:

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