What are the alternatives to an academic career? Perhaps a job where you are still using your scientific knowledge and skills, but not working in the lab? Somewhere that has a similar culture to the academic research environment? A job where you get to communicate science to a wider audience?
Many PhD students and early career researchers aspire to a career in science communication, as they seek more flexible and creative careers outside of the confines of academic research and the laboratory set up. Probably they have already embarked on this career path, testing out their skills and likely enjoyment of the job by volunteering to get involved in internal and external activities, such as University Open Days, schools visits and on-line writing opportunities during their PhD or postdoc.
However, when people tell me they want a career in science communication, my first question to them is always, “Which area of this career sector interests you most?” For example, do you want to stand in front of school children and wow them with exciting and inspiring demonstrations (e.g. as you would do working in a Science centre or museum, or teaching in a school?). If you’re someone who wants to stay very close to academia, science publishing careers may be most suited to you, but beware that there is little opportunity to write yourself in these jobs. Rather, you will be editing and evaluating the writing of others.
Would you prefer to take a back seat behind the scenes, blogging about scientific events and issues? Or how about being a science journalist or press officer, bridging the gap between academia and the media? Perhaps you are good with your hands and would be surprised to hear that the job of ‘Maker’ exists, whereby you create colourful and educative exhibits for the general public and school children. Those interested in science policy can take a more influential role by collating opinion, formulating consultations and writing position papers aimed at governmental ministers.
For all of these very varied roles, there are particular criteria which will be more appealing to some than to others, depending on personal preferences, such as personality, skills, values and other criteria, such as a preference about where to live. Many science policy jobs are based in capital cities, as are other science communication roles, so this could be a restriction to some people. Extraverts may relish face to face encounters, whilst more introverted types might prefer a behind-the-scenes-role. Creative types might wish to express their artistic and imaginative talents through more free-form media, whilst those of a more conservative nature may feel fulfilled through a more administrative role. Remote working is more amenable in many communication roles, which may be a draw for those who wish to work from home.
Opportunities to gain experience in science communication during your PhD or postdoc is relatively easy compared with industry experience. A really excellent community to tap into the science communication world is the PSCI-COM Discussion list. Hosted by the Wellcome Trust, it has over 2000 members who are always eager to advise and help newcomers. You can find voluntary jobs, internships and employment opportunities, as well as hearing about the latest hot news and developments. Euroscience is an excellent Europe-wide forum and hosts the ESOF meeting every two years with the opportunity to present science to the public. If you’re particularly keen on press work and journalism then STEMPRA is the organisation to join and, finally, look at my blog (under science communication) to see all the other links to relevant information, e.g. medical communications.
Good luck to those aiming for a career in science communication – just remember that your most likely key to success is being able to show you’ve already been doing it during your research or PhD!