Writers Write, Part II: More on the Science Writing Field from an Editor-in-Chief

December 20, 2010

penHappy holidays, everyone!

Last month, OITE hosted an online chat on careers in science writing with Mariette DiChristina, the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American. The chat was attended by over 400 people, and some questions remained unanswered by chat’s end, so Ms. DiChristina graciously offered to answer those remaining. Here are her responses to your questions:

Q: I would love to hear about what steps one should take while in grad school – i.e. prepare for a postdoc? seek out writing opps?

A: Definitely seek out writing opps if you want to be a writer. As I probably said during our e-chat, find ideas and propose them to publications. Proposals should be just a page long and should include everything the editor needs to know about the story idea: why it is important, why it is new, how long you want to write it, what art would there might be, etc. Or look for an internship. One that you can consider is the AAAS Media Fellowship, which is explicitly created for scientists who are working on a Ph.D. but are now at a point where they want to explore journalism.

Q: How competitive is the field of science writing, and how realistic is it to expect job opportunities, etc?

A: If you’re thinking ONLY of the world of consumer publishing, it’s hugely competitive, and it just got turned inside out by electronic publishing. If you’’re very entrepreneurial, and you’’re interested in running your own business as a freelance writer, you can make a go of it. You need to arm yourself with info about how to do that— and one way would be to at least use the free listserv at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) exit icon1 to ask steady questions. There’s also a listserv just for freelancers, but you have to be a member. If you’’re looking for a staff job, there aren’’t that many opportunities unless your plan is to be an editor.

If you’re thinking outside the world of consumer publishing, your opportunities are much greater. But my expertise is only in consumer publishing.

Q: Articles published in the New York Times science section, for example, vs. Popular Science are quite different. As a researcher, I find that in the NYT things are often exaggerated vs in good science magazines, it’s “sold” to the reader but more realistically. Is there a difference in backgrounds of these various writers? Would a research background be applicable more to one, or not necessarily?

A: The difference is the readership and what the readers expect. Your background makes less of a difference than your ability to connect with those readers. If you have a research background, great. But that background only gives you expertise for a particular area. The art of being a science writer is to cover the entire spectrum, and to make a connection with your readers: what they need, what they know. Science magazines, unlike daily newspapers, can count on the fact that their readers are at least interested in science. In a daily general publication, however, that’’s not a given. That’’s part of the difference behind the tones that you’’ve noticed. The publications are serving their readers; —they are not serving scientists per se or serving people of particular backgrounds per se.

Q: We all hear about journalists’ jobs disappearing. What do you do to keep your work unique in the digital age?

A: I make sure I keep up with things. I am now tweeting. I blog from conferences. I carry a BlackBerry, an iPhone and an iPad— usually, all at the same time—, so I can use them and think about what Scientific American should look like on different devices. (Yes, I need to play with an Android phone and other stuff but even I am only human!) I make sure my mind and eyes are open, —but I needed those skills to be a journalist anyway. Imagine doing something for a living where you will NEVER be the expert. You are always the novice, always the student when you are a journalist.

Q: If I’m a current PhD student, what actual steps can I take (aside from blogging) to wet my feet? Any internships, programs, or jobs that could break me into this world?

A: Yes, lots of them. NASW exit icon1 has a list. Another thing you can do is forget the list and simply write directly to places that you’’d like to work for. If they can’’t use you as an intern for whatever reason, you might at least be able to visit for an informational interview. If you get one of those, you can ask all the questions you want. But you’’d better bring lots of questions; —don’’t expect the editor to give you a lecture like an academic.

Q: What kind of “job track” is typical of someone working their way up to a science-writing job at Scientific American or Nature or Science?

A: I don’’t think a typical job track exists. Some people have research backgrounds. Some people have journalism backgrounds. Science writing includes both. More frequently these days, science journalists have at least a Bachelor’s in a science discipline and probably a Master’s in science writing. By the way, there are no science WRITING jobs at Scientific American. Most consumer monthlies have only editing jobs. If you want to be a writer, you’ would most likely be a freelancer.

Q: What is the best way to encourage kids in middle school (ages 12-15) to write about science?

A: I wish I knew that! I have daughters who are 10 and 14. They think science is cool, because it’’s always been in my house. I think one thing that encourages kids is to keep having fun with science. When my girls ask me a question that has some scientific answer, a lot of the time we make a game out of it. What are the questions we need to ask to find out? How would we do that? Or I walk them through the logical chain of events, instead of simply saying the answer.

Q: How should you choose a topic to write about? How do you know what the latest in the field is – by reading peer-reviewed journals?

A: That’’s one way, and a great way. But another is taking advantage of your location to visit scientists who are working on different things. Whenever I take a trip, I try to visit a local institution or two. I ask the public information officers to see if they can get me time with some scientists who are doing interesting things. Another idea is to go to conferences. But the best is to keep your “story idea” cap on at all times. I know a writer who got a great feature idea while sitting at the vet’’s office and listening to an exchange between doctor and pet owner. You can find stories everywhere, if you are open to them.

Q: Is it common for those enthusiastic about science to write about health policy issues?

A: Not all that common as a narrow category, I suppose, but there’’s a lot of call for health writing in general.

Q: Given you take the normal scientific career path, what is the optimal time to apply, i.e. after PhD, after postdoc?

A: Not sure what you’’re applying for here. If you mean for a position as an intern, then I would do that while you’’re still in school. If you’’re applying for a consumer magazine, anytime is fine. If it’’s a journal, they’’ll want you to have a Ph.D., but I don’t think they will expect a postdoc.

Q: Who are some of the big science writers that you admire?

A: Gosh, lots. If you look at Scientific American, you’’ll see them in our pages. I love people who’se curiosity and enthusiasm lights up the pages. I recommend picking up the two Best American Science Writing books each year; —the top writers are in there. One of them is best science writing and one is best science and nature writing.

Q: Back to the day-to-day description, if you’re working for deadlines, how many deadlines per week, etc., are typical?

A: Depends on the job. When I was a daily newspaper reporter in the Stone Age, it wasn’’t unusual for me to write three or even four stories in a day. As a monthly magazine editor, I have different kinds of deadlines—; each element in an article has to move along. So every little piece of art, all the blocks of text, the pieces that then are going online as the online components, etc. Basically, every day there are three or four things that need to happen, sometimes more.

Q: What do science writers typically get health insurance? Is it offered through an organization like the National Association of Science Writers, or do people generally get it individually?

A: If you are a freelance writer, you buy your own. The NASW exit icon1 offers group discounts, just because of the number of members who are freelancers, but they’’re really still individual purchases. If you work for a corporation as I do, the company has to supply it if you work over a certain number of hours – —and you’’ll typically pay at least one-quarter to one-half of the total expenses, which are considered part of your compensation. If you’’re a freelancer, you should charge rates that take all of your costs into account: —for office space, healthcare, supplies, travel, etc. NASW exit icon1 members have access to a database called Words’ Worth that documents what people have been paid for different types of jobs.

Q: What about writing from an office, not from home? Are you still paid “by deadline” and by word count?

A: If you’’re a freelancer, you’’re paid by word or by job. If you’’re in an office as a full-time employee, you’’re paid by week or hourly. I am an “exempt” employee, which means it doesn’’t matter if I work 80 or 100 hours a week, I still get paid the same. And sometimes I do pull really, really long hours.

Q: Would I need to do a postdoc to become a Nature editor?

A: I don’’t think so. But a Ph.D. is the minimum requirement.

Best of luck with your writing!


Money, Money, Money: Where It Is and How to Get It

December 16, 2010

MoneyFellowships, grants, awards…all of these words may run together in a blur for you, even if you are aware that they each represent some type of funding.

Whether you are a postdoctoral scholar looking for additional training, a postdoc or clinical fellow looking for a transition grant, or a graduate student looking for a postdoc opportunity, it will be critical for you to understand the different types of funding available to you, guidelines and restrictions for different funding mechanisms, and how to write effective proposals for funding.

DEFINITIONS

For starters, let’s review a few definitions. I found the following distinction between fellowships and grants from the Hamilton Collegeexit icon1 website quite helpful:

Grants typically represent any money given in exchange for a purpose or project.

Fellowships support post-graduate projects and are typically funded by a foundation, institution or other organization to support academic work, research, independent projects or community service activity.

And any fellowship or grant may also be referred to as an award.

WHERE $$ CAN BE FOUND

An outstanding place to look if you are seeking funding is GrantsNetexit icon1. Funded by Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), GrantsNet is a comprehensive database of awards available to individuals and institutions. Using GrantsNet, you can search all awards by educational/experiential level, area of research, deadline dates, keywords, and more. Another useful feature of the site is Express Alerts, where you can sign up to receive weekly email updates listing new awards and fellowships. Take some time to explore this amazing resource.

While GrantsNet will give you a comprehensive list of grants, you may not be eligible to apply for some of them as an NIH intramural graduate student or postdoc. To explore grants and fellowships available to graduate students and postdocs at the NIH, take a look through some of the programs listed under Getting Grants on the OITE website. The two Grants and Fellowships links in this list are compiled by OITE and contain fellowships that might be appropriate for current NIH trainees.

If a particular award appeals to you, read through the rules and regulations for applicants and check in with the Training Director of your IC, as well as with your funding agency, to determine eligibility. If you know of or have applied to a fellowship not listed here, please contact OITE to let us know.

HOW TO GET IT

Once you have found an award that matches your background and criteria, the next step is to craft the best application you can. Be sure to take a grant-writing workshop, either in your IC or with OITE, or both. Past OITE events include “Writing a Research Proposal,” “NIH K99/R00 Grants,” “Demystifying the Grant Review Process,” and “Strategies for Writing Effective Training and Research Plans.” Slides and/or videos for these programs are available by searching OITE Prior Events and using the keyword “grant.”  Another outstanding NIH resource is the All about Grants podcast series developed by our colleagues in NIH Extramural. Although you may apply to a variety of funding agencies, much of the information in these workshops and in these podcasts is applicable.

Before submitting your application, share your draft with as many scientists as possible. You should start with your PI, but also consider getting input from other scientists in your lab, collaborators, scientists in your Branch, and colleagues in your field. Of course, you want to send them a polished application, and remember to send it early enough that you can make changes in response to their feedback. You may also sign up for a meeting with the OITE grant consultant who visits the Bethesda campus and “virtually” meets with fellows on other campuses.

You need to appreciate that everyone who reads your grant will have his or her own opinion about it, and it will be up to you to carefully consider the input you receive as you put together the final application. The more people you share your application with, the better your chances of crafting a well-written, compelling proposal. You are writing for experts in your field and scientists peripherally related to your work, so remember to write an application that is accessible to a broad audience.

Using these steps may increase the likelihood of securing funding in your field of interest. Good luck with your search!


Back to Basics: How to Prepare for an Interview

December 2, 2010

interview picGreat news! You have been invited to interview for a job that is a strong match for your educational level and past experiences. In order to enhance your chances of securing the job, it is critical for you to prepare effectively for the interview. Here are few tips to get you started.

1. Know thyself.

Print out your CV and be prepared to discuss anything on it in great detail. Think through your past experiences, projects, accomplishments, and be ready with stories that go beyond what can easily be found on your CV.

To prepare for interviews, I will print out the job description, highlight skills I think are key to performing the job successfully, and then peruse my résumé for evidence of using those skills. I might even jot down a few keywords that will help me to recall certain situations, actions I took, and outcomes that emerged.

2. Case the joint.

When preparing for an interview, it is essential that you investigate your potential employer and the job at hand as thoroughly as you can. Most employer websites are well-organized and will contain the basics for any organization, including the institution’s history, its products, services, or focal research areas, and perhaps even the structure of particular departments.

I would encourage you to go even further with your research than the employer website, though. Be aware of what is happening currently in the field. Be able to discuss pressing issues, and find out whether the organization has been in the news lately. One source of information on the state of the field generally will be the website of a related professional association or society. Read up on changes and big happenings.

Another way you can learn more about the culture of a potential employer–and by extension, its fit for you–is through a current employee. Use LinkedIn exit icon1 to find people who are working at a particular organization or institution. You can do this by using the search box at the top of your LinkedIn screen–just be sure to change the drop-down choice from “People” to “Companies.” You can narrow this search further by using keywords, or by looking at New Hires, which is a tab that appears after you’ve searched “Companies.” (And remember that all organizations are found under “Companies,” including colleges and universities, non-profits, etc.) For more help on using LinkedIn in your job search, click here.

3. Practice, practice, PRACTICE!

Use all of the information gathered about the organization and your fit for the position to respond to interview questions. You can practice with a friend over coffee, a colleague during lunch, or with a family member or friend in the evening.

I would also encourage you to schedule a mock interview with a career counselor in OITE. These situations simulate the interview environment and will undoubtedly prepare you well for the actual process.

For your practice, use the sample questions asked by employers on this handout. You can do this yourself in preparation for a mock interview, or hand this to whomever you will be practicing with.

4. Don’t blow it.

A few final tips on interviewing:

  • Know where you are going in advance. Print out maps for driving, tickets for flying, and/or the schedule for your visit provided by the employer.
  • Make sure your clothes are clean. (I just noticed that I need to have my favorite suit dry cleaned.)
  • Bring extra copies of your CV/resume with you. (It is also a good idea to bring along a printed list of questions you have for an employer.)
  • Be EARLY–or the least, don’t be late.
  • Be enthusiastic. Remember that employers are looking for a colleague with whom they’d like to spend time, so be sure to smile and express your interest in the position and organization.

5. Follow up.

Send a thank-you note via email immediately, or at least within the first 24 hours after the interview. You may follow this up with a hand-written card if you’d like, which would surely be appreciated.

If you do not hear back from an employer within the time stated at the close of the interview, send a follow-up email or call to determine the status of the search.

On the day of the interview, try to relax, have fun, and remember–the organization needs to be a good fit for you, as much as you need to be a good fit for the organization. Good luck, and be sure to post any further questions you might have on this topic!