Getting a PhD to become a science writer

Nov 29 2012 Published by under Academia

Last night, while doing the classic late night science (timepoints happen to us all), I saw a conversation around the topic of getting a become a science writer. It turned out that the conversation was based around this post over at SciLogs, where Jalees wrote that getting a PhD, in order to become a science writer, is a reasonable thing. I have to say that, as someone with both a PhD and a good bit of experience as a science writer, I strongly disagree. And I'd like to lay out why.

But first, let me be clear: There is NOTHING wrong with being a science writer who also has a PhD (after all, I do it!). There is also nothing wrong with being a science writer without a PhD. But I think, if you want to become a science writer, pursuing a PhD with that in mind is daft not the best use of your time.

Jalees lays out the pros and cons of doing a PhD to become a science writer, but I think that many of his pros...are really cons in disguise. Let's go through this point by point.

1. Actively engaging in research gives you a first-hand experience of science

I think this is a good point, and is something that I think that science PhDs really bring to the table when they become science writers. We have a deep, gut understanding of the daily triumphs and frustrations, and we know where things go wrong. We know how papers end up getting put together (answer: often haphazardly and never in the lovely way they finally look), and we know which figures were the result of reviewer requests (probably). So I think this is something that we can bring to the table.

But I don't think it's necessary.

2. PhD students are exposed to writing opportunities

By this, Jalees means that we have to write our own dissertation tomes and our own papers. We are often expected to write grants in grad school as well. And he notes that there is the mentorship of a more experienced writer (your boss) throughout this process.

Me, I don't think that this experience offered is as helpful for becoming a science writer as he thinks. First, most of the time, writing a grant, paper, or dissertation is not at all good preparation for science writing. Note though, that there ARE exceptions to this rule. For example, becoming a technical writer requires expertise at this kind of writing. But writing for the public? Writing policy? Writing...anything that's not in the passive tense and full of acronyms? It's terrible prep for that.

Secondly, in most cases (again there are exceptions), the mentorship you receive writing as a graduate student is not really something that can help you as a science writer. Most PIs learned to write by trial and error, by reading papers and getting their own stuff covered in red by their PIs, and they mentor their own students the same way. Unlike people who are trained as writers, they have never been trained how to systemically analyze and improve their own writing and come by their expertise piecemeal (and I say this as a science writer who learned that same way, and I'm now trying to become more systematic to help myself improve). If you are looking to become a science writer, I think you would be much better off training as a writer, or in a science journalism program, where you can receive the benefit of trained writers.

3. Presentation of one’s work

Jalees points out that budding scientists need to present their work and learn science communication very early on. This is fine, but is there any benefit to this OVER just...becoming a science writer who has to write for the public and present themselves very early on? If anything, going straight into writing, or a journalism program, would give you MORE exposure to this. I do not think science is better in this regard, and I often think it is worse. We are often trained to be dry, to be clinical, to be highly, highly specific. We are not trained to tell an interesting story, or even not to bore our audience. We are trained to be correct, but not to be interesting.

4. Peer review

This is a pro of being a scientist, we do get a lot of oh god it hurts constructive criticism during graduate school, to constantly improve out work. But again, this is no different from the criticism that you would receive if you started out going straight into writing (particularly in the age of the internet, where experts will find and critique your work), and I don't think it's any better.

5. Job opportunities

Very few writers derive enough income from their writing to cover their basic needs. This is not only true for science writers, but for writers in general and it forces writers to take on jobs that help pay the bills. A PhD degree provides the aspiring science writer with a broad range of professional opportunities in academia, industry or government. After completing the PhD program, the science writer can take on such a salaried job, while building a writing portfolio and seeking out a paid position as a science writer.


It's true that science writing isn't the most lucrative way to pay the bills. But getting a PhD to go INTO science writing is hardly better. And again, if what you WANT is to become a science writer, getting a full time job in academia and doing it in your free time is not the best way to build a strong portfolio (take this from someone who knows). You'd be better off building your portfolio as a full time science writer, supplementing with other types of writing or other work, rather than adding 6 years of grad school before you hit the start line.

6. Developing a scientific niche

Jalees notes that many successful science writers have a niche (say, neuroscience!) that they have expertise in, and that scientists have the added "cred" of their niche from having published in it. But I'm not so sure. Rather than "cred" this could also translate to conflict of interest, especially if your field is small. And with good, solid work, many excellent science writers (examples include Laelaps, Maryn McKenna, Deborah Blum, Jennifer Oullette, I could go on) have developed a niche without having to get an advanced degree. They learned and developed expertise as they went along.

As for the cons that Jalees mentions, well they are all definitely cons. Problems with mentoring, lack of respect for the field, and the fact that graduate school is far more than a full time job.

But this is the take home: if you want to be a science writer, be a science writer. I don't think you need a PhD to get there. If you ARE getting a PhD, and have decided that you want to become a science writer, that's GREAT, and absolutely you should! I hear I've done some of that, it's been incredibly fun, amazingly rewarding, and I think it's helped me a lot (and I'm going to keep at it as long as I can). But it's not reason enough, on its own, to get a PhD. Get a PhD if you want to be a professor, if you want to go into pharma, if you want to do heavy hitting science policy. Get a PhD if you have a burning curiosity for science that you need to satisfy with your own two hands. But if you want to be a science writer? Start writing. Keep writing. Start learning. Keep learning. But a PhD shouldn't be your goal.

6 responses so far

  • David Manly says:

    I came from science and went into journalism instead of pursuing my PhD in zoology. I made the decision because I wanted to move away from the bench and focus on science outreach and communication, and sharing my psycopathic love for science with others.

    Not to say I won't go back to do my PhD one of these days, as it is always an option. But it is not the way to become a science writer. Do what I did: Leave the bench, (optional: go to journalism school), get some writing mentors and write, write, write!

  • DJMH says:

    Yeah, wish I had gotten this advice before I went to grad school with the goal of becoming a science writer....

    It all worked out, just not the way I expected.

    I would also add, to your excellent advice, that if you really really want to know more about science, you can enter a PhD program and drop out after getting the M.S., so you don't have to pay for it and you get a bit more exposure to science life. But really, just as reasonable to be a tech for a couple of years instead.

  • Luluk Suhada says:

    Hello, A cool writing...I am interested in science and its local application. Writing it for a wider and various audiences is only small part of science communication. Now I have something to think about today 😀

  • if you want to be a science writer without PhD, it should be vey difficult... Not impossible, this is about ability.

  • As a Ph.D. drop-out and writer, I've been a flibbertigibbet for most of career. My passion is learning, but not creating knowledge-- the essence of science. I'm insanely curious about so many things and must write something to understand it. But spending 6, 9, 20 years on one line of research is not for me. Sometimes, I think of myself as a parasite to the real work of science, in that I profit from your labor. But I am genuinely curious and interested and that passion was nurtured in grad school. So perhaps grad school is good in that it gave me an affinity for the research community, despite bailing from it.

Leave a Reply