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To science! Finding my place in science communication

by Eva Amsen

I’ve had a bit of a weird week.

I was in London last Monday, for a job interview. I didn’t get the job, but I did get to see Jenny and Stephen for a few minutes after their Fiction Lab, so it was still a worthwhile trip.

I’ve been looking for work since I came back from vacation this summer, and it’s hard. I’ve been doing some freelance work in the mean time, but that hasn’t been enough to live off, and I had to give in and admit that I qualified for Employment Insurance. I don’t like living off government money for doing nothing, and I’d much rather work.

When I defended my thesis in December, I told myself that I’d take one year of freelancing to figure out what I really want. At the time, I said I didn’t want to do a postdoc, but I was afraid that it might have been too inspired by a lack of data and frustrating experiments during my PhD, rather than a real desire to do something else. A year should be enough to get some perspective, and was still short enough that I could find a postdoc if I changed my mind.

When you’re in grad school, there is this one path laid out in front of you, and that path leads to a postdoc, and then probably another postdoc, and a tenure track job in the far, far, foggy distance. Leading off from that path, left and right, are scary, dark alleyways. “Teaching”,”med school”, “business”, “law school”, “editing”. There are stories of people who strayed on these paths. Many of them are never heard from again. They “left science”.

And I “left”, too. But people have some vague idea what I’m doing right now, and the kind of jobs I’m applying to. I got an e-mail a few weeks ago, from someone I used to do volunteer outreach stuff with. I had run into her at graduation, and told her I was looking to move to science publishing. She e-mailed to tell me that she heard a rumour that someone from my old institute got a job at Nature. The rumour was so vague that it didn’t come with a name, and she had to ask me “Was that you?”

Sadly, no, that wasn’t me. But it says something about the culture of “people who left” that these stories are passed on from person to person, losing information like a game of Broken Telephone. It’s special, and it needs to be talked about. Who cares who it was, someone got a job at Nature! It can be done!

In the alleyways off the brightly lit path that leads to postdocs, is a rogue gang of deserters looking for alternative ways to science happiness. And we’ve got each others’ backs.

Another girl that I also ran into at graduation e-mailed me this week to say that a medical writing company she worked for is looking for more freelance writers. That came just a week after I got a contract for about 70 hours of work with the writing company of the husband of one of my exam committee members. Meanwhile, I’m still applying to science editing jobs, I’m networking a lot, and Jenny is casting her editorially trained eye on my CV.
Everyone has just been really helpful. I was in a slump about not finding work, about being bored, and feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, but I do belong somewhere – I just don’t have a permanent full-time employer right now.

The real turning point came, as turning points so often do, on Friday night.

I had been invited to a friend’s birthday. I know this girl through a group of local blog friends who since scattered all over the place, and I didn’t know any of the other people at the party. I sat down at a table with a group of her coworkers. They were all media professionals, but with an entertainment angle rather than science. (My friend writes sarcastic reviews of TV shows for a living.) Of course they asked what I did, and I said “I write about science.”

Earlier this year, I had a minor panic attack every time someone asks me what I did, but I found that the common feature of everything I do is some form of writing about science. Whether it’s a thesis or comments on a student essay or a press release or a job application – I write about science.

“Science, cool! What kind of science?”
“Well, my PhD was in Biochemistry, but now it’s more general. Mostly biology.”
“Wow, you have a PhD?”

Another guy joined the conversation, and pulled his chair up a little closer so he could ask me all about the H1N1 vaccine. Did I, as a scientist, think it was a government conspiracy? “No”, I said, “I think they’re just being very careful about pandemics these days.”

The waitress brought more beer, and we raised a glass: “To science!” my table mates cheered.

When they all went out for a smoke, I moved my chair to the next table, and met one of my friend’s former classmates from her journalism program. She and her boyfriend were also excited to hear about what I did.

“Cool, science! Did you hear that, she’s a scientist!”

I explained what kind of jobs I was interested in, and to her, it made perfect sense to look for something in publishing. To most people, I am no less of a scientist if I am pursuing a career outside of the lab. Science is science.

And with that, and two new writing assignments to work on, my week changed for the better. I left the birthday party confident that I was doing the right thing.

Just then, I heard glasses clinking at the other table. The smokers had come back inside, and cheered amongst themselves:

“To science!”

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Michael Nestor November 9, 2009 - 3:32 AM

You are first-class and I wish you all the best. What a great post Eva!

Anna Vilborg November 9, 2009 - 7:19 AM

I agree with previous speaker.
To science! 🙂

Bob O'Hara November 9, 2009 - 8:58 AM

Yes, great post.
Around here, I think “to science” is preceded by “one nature”.

Mike Fowler November 9, 2009 - 9:09 AM

To science, and scientists!
Or, in Scots:
bq. _Tae us! Wha’s like us? Damn few, an’ their a’ deid._
Heartwarming stuff, Eva.

Heather Etchevers November 9, 2009 - 12:32 PM

Lovely narrative. Makes one smile, and that’s always helpful.

Eva Amsen November 9, 2009 - 4:09 PM

Thanks, guys.
[raises coffee] To science! c(_)

Lee Turnpenny November 9, 2009 - 5:33 PM

Super read!
_”To Eva!”_

Ken Doyle November 9, 2009 - 5:38 PM


Alyssa Gilbert November 9, 2009 - 11:54 PM

_To most people, I am no less of a scientist if I am pursuing a career outside of the lab._
Oh, thank you so much for this post! I am in a similar spot to you, and am figuring out what to do after my (very short) post-doc is done in December. I don’t particularly want to do science, but after job searching and networking for two months and nothing to show for it, I’m starting to get down on trying to find an “alternative” career. You have inspired me to keep looking for what I want!
_To science!_

Alyssa Gilbert November 9, 2009 - 11:56 PM

(ooops – and when I say I don’t “want to do science”, I mean academia)

Eric-Wubbo Lameijer November 10, 2009 - 11:39 AM

Hi Eva,
I’ve been following your blog on and off, first of all because I have been interested in your activities since approximately 1996, second of all since we’re in somewhat comparable situations.
From 2001 to 2005 I’ve worked as a regular PhD-student (and since then, as a very irregular one). Still, I cannot say that my moments of greatest joy, pride and excitement were when doing my official research-related tasks, but when learning things about the world, teaching my students, and writing about things that were important to me.
I’m probably an ill fit to academia. Still, most people outside academia do consider me a scientist at heart: I still love to understand things, think critically, and try to say what is really true, no matter what popular opinion may be.
Some small children think that God lives in a church, and that he does not come outside. Some people think that Science only lives in academia, where stuffy professors give incomprehensible talks. Science can live anywhere. It may have died in the heart of a tenured faculty member who spends his time in meetings and petty rivalries about publications and money. But its flame may burn brightly in a silly young violin-playing puzzle-pouncing female freelance science writer.
Yes, starting as a freelance writer can be hard (especially if you try it full-time). I did informational interviews with two freelance science writers and they both declared they had only been able to make themselves a career in science writing because they had married rich/working wives (you may prefer a rich husband, of course). The logical alternative (if you consult “What colour is my parachute” from Richard Bolles. You can trust him, he’s a scientist too (a chemist even)) would be finding a decent-part-time job for the necessary money while you expand your reputation and network till you can live off writing entirely should you wish so.
Yes, there may be reluctance in academia in letting bright young persons such as yourself go. There are horror stories about those who lost the way and could never find a job again in the paradise of academia (of course, many of those stories are unfounded; I know of at least three people ‘meandering off the path’ and returning to greater glory than they would have had would they have stayed: Henk Timmerman, Bas Haring, and Jos van den Broek). Smart persons leaving science may feel a bit insulting to some sworn academicians: after all, you are doubting their belief that universities are the best and only worthy place to be.
Anyway, I’ll close of here since I really need to return to my own writing now; the last songs of the musical must be finished tomorrow. A last advice, which I hope to be superfluous (and is not mine originally) but which was not listened to by some of my friends who decided to pursue their dreams: do your research. It’s great to have a vision, but if you don’t seek to learn as much as you can about your preferred occupation by reading books and by talking to people, you may have a much longer and much more painful time (and may even be forced to surrender your ideals to a ‘sensible’ job). Please do not be one of those scientists who puts her keen observant and critical scientific brain on her hatstand when leaving the lab and approaches the rest of her life as impulsively and unthinking as George W. Still, I have faith in you that you can make it. Good luck!

Nicole Husain November 19, 2009 - 7:16 PM

I’m late to comment, but I love your description that we’re ‘rogue deserters’…I wish it didn’t have to be true…I’m also realizing that science is just science to most people. I thought I would miss talking to students about my ‘cool research studying blind fruit flies’ but today I had the chance to talk to students and not only did they think it was cool that I used to work with fruit flies, it was cooler that I use my science skills to make video games about biology…it’s nice to know that leaving academica doesn’t mean I can’t awe kids with cool science stories! 🙂
to science!

Eva Amsen November 19, 2009 - 8:55 PM

Hi Nicole! Hehe, video games are definitely cooler than flies =)

Cath Ennis November 26, 2009 - 7:08 PM

The back streets and dark alleyways are where you find all the cool stuff. And I, too, consider myself just to have left the bench – I’ve never left science, and I never will.

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