This is the second post in a series of blog posts about the process of moving from research to science communication. The first post had tips on changing your writing style from academic to a more popular voice. This second installment will help you find science communication opportunities while you’re still in research.
Finding science communication opportunities without experience
If you think you might want to move into a science communication career after your PhD or postdoc, you’re going to need some experience in science communication. It seems like a Catch-22: How can you get experience in something you don’t yet have experience in? If you end up doing a science communication degree, they will hook you up with placements and opportunities, but for the purpose of this post I’m going to assume you’re moving straight from research into a science communication career (which a lot of people do!). So, where will your experience come from?
All of the opportunities below are either targeted specifically at PhD students or researchers, or are available to anyone. They are also mostly unpaid, or they just cover transportation costs. In the next post I’ll cover how to get paid for freelance science communication gigs, but the paid gigs usually require some experience on your part. So you can start with some of these voluntary unpaid gigs, and move your way up.
What kind of scicomm?
When I used to do a lot of career talks, I often got questions from PhD students who asked what they should be doing to prepare for a science communication career. It’s a difficult question to answer, because there are a lot of different kinds of science communication jobs.
Do you want to write about science? Talk about science? Do demos? Coordinate projects or events?
There are more ways to split the field, but I used those categories to sort the opportunities below. All of these are either specifically for early career researchers, or open to anyone who wants to start in science communication.
If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments or contact me and I’ll update the list of science communication opportunities.
Science communication opportunities
These are mostly unpaid opportunities, open to people starting out in science communication with no experience. However, if you’re contributing to a publication or event where others are doing the same work and getting paid for it, do NOT offer to work for free. More on that in the next post in this series.
Write about science
If you’re serious about science writing, try to get bylines (articles with your name listed as the author) in a number of different places. Preferably places where someone else has edited your work, so not just your own blog. I’ll expain more about that in the next post.
- Write for a student newspaper or university magazine. If they don’t have a science section, offer to start one!
- Keep an eye out for writing competitions run by scientific societies in your field. Usually only the winners will get published, so consider it practice rather than publication.
- Start your own blog, or offer to write guest posts for others.
Talk about science
There are a lot of opportunities to practice talking about science beyond just giving a talk about your work. These all have different styles and speakers will have varying levels of speaking experience. Check them out and familiarise yourself with their styles and requirements before signing up.
- Pint of Science (science talks in pubs, global, annually in May)
- PubhD (science talks by PhD students in pubs, UK/Europe)
- Cosy Science (science in a pub, UK)
- Bright Club (comedy by researchers, UK)
- Fame Lab (talk about your research or another science topic, UK and international)
- The Story Collider (storytelling about science, mostly USA)
- Science Showoff (science-themed cabaret – anything goes, UK)
Besides these science-themed series of talks, you can also think about joining something like Toastmasters or improv groups to work on your speaking and stage skills. It all depends on what style you’re going for.
The series of events above are very much located to larger cities. If you’re based somewhere else, you can try to set up your own opportunities by contacting a local library, for example, or tap into some of the science demo opportunities below, and see if they’re open to talks rather than demos.
You can also look for volunteer opportunities at science or nature museums or at zoos.
Do science demos
If it’s hands-on science demos you want to get more experience in, there are more likely to be opportunities near you.
- Check if your university has opportunities for PhD students to help with school visits or science festivals. This is often run through a dedicated public engagement contact person, or via the communications office.
- Some scientific societies are also actively organising events for schools and festivals, and regularly need volunteers to help out.
- Let’s Talk Science in Canada has a nationwide network of graduate student volunteers who do science activities even in remote parts of the country.
- The British Science Association has a network of volunteers in the UK who help out with local events or visit schools.
- Science centres and science museums often recruit volunteers, and provide training. (Tip from Liz Albertorio Sáez on Twitter)
Note that in many countries you will have to undergo a (simple) police check before you can visit schools and work with kids.
Coordinate projects or events
You can get volunteer experience with science-themed events, either aimed at a very broad audience or events for scientists.
- The British Science Association (mentioned above) also has volunteer opportunities to help out with the events their local branches organise.
- Science festivals often need volunteers to help out with various tasks other than demos itself. You can get an idea of how such events are run.
- Large scientific conferences run by socities might use local volunteers. If a big conference in your field is heading to your town, check with the organisers if you can help.
- Startup companies in the science publication or digital science field often rely on word-of-mouth by a network of brand advocates to spread the word. One of the things they can provide you with in return is help and funding for you to run a science event in your area, as long as it ties in to their brand. While the companies are usually in London, SF or NYC, they always need people anywhere in the world. (Real talk: you are doing their marketing, so only join programmes for companies you really like and support.)
But when it comes to organising events, you don’t necessarily have to have experience organising a science event. You can volunteer with all kinds of other festivals or events and it will be similar to helping at a science festival.
You can also set up your own event! Several of the talk series listed above were started by graduate students who wanted to connect with their communities. If there is nothing in your area, and you think there should be, setting up something yourself will be a lot more impressive than just giving a talk once. In an older blog post a few years ago, I described how to organise a science unconference.
Other science communication opportunities
There are a few other opportunities that didn’t easily fit in the other categories:
- I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here is an online competition connecting school classes with scientists. The kids decide who gets to go on to the next round, or who gets voted off. (UK, USA)
- Voice of Young Science is an opportunity to get involved with science policy (UK)
- Social media! Get on Twitter or Instagram, and use the platform to share science. It’s less time-consuming than writing blog posts, and you can really give people a look behind the scenes of your work as a scientist.
- Judge a science fair! Your local or district science fair needs judges, and the kids would love it if a real scientist came to help out.
Tracking your scicomm projects
It can be fun to volunteer for all these science communication activities, but if you’re ultimately thinking of using the experience to build a science communication career, it’s a good idea to start keeping track of all your projects. One option is to regularly update your “scicomm CV” (more on that in a future post), but you can also use a project management tool to update how much time you’ve spent on different projects.
FreshBooks has a feature that will let you easily track activities, and works especially well if you’re doing lots of different projects. They’re ultimately meant for people who get paid for their projects, but you can use the toold for volunteer activities as well, to see how much time you spend on them, and to analyse where you should be focusing your energy.
The next post in this series will be about freelance science communication (mostly writing, as that’s what I know most about) and then I’ll also share my very favourite FreshBooks feature.