Editor’s Note: Many paths lead to a career in science writing, but one of the most common is to go back to school. This post marks the launch of a new series that will highlight graduate programs in science writing. Each installment will feature basic information about the program and an interview with the program director. Prospective applicants should plan ahead: Most of these programs have deadlines in January or February.
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The science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been training science writers for more than 30 years. Each year’s cohort consists of 10 students, and the program requires applicants to have a degree in science and some experience with research.
Award-winning science writer Robert Irion directs the UCSC program. For more advice from Irion, read his essay in the June 2010 NASW newsletter ScienceWriters on applying for graduate school in science journalism.
How should a prospective applicant prepare for the UCSC program?
It always helps to try to publish some writing for a general audience. For instance, many of our applicants work as interns for campus news offices or as staff reporters for student publications. It’s easy to start a blog about a topic of interest, but it’s best for such blogs to feature original reporting — not just a litany of opinions or observations. Some students take a science writing course; a few start to freelance for regional or even national editors. We’re looking for students who are convinced this is their passion in life, not just dabblers. What they’ve done in the year before applying should reflect that.
Does a typical student in the UCSC program already have an advanced degree in science?
We accept applications from anyone with a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering and at least six months of research experience. On average, about 40% of our students have PhDs and 30% have master’s degrees.
More than half of the 600+ respondents to a recent survey by the National Association of Science Writers self-identified as freelance writers. How does your program help prepare graduates for a freelance career?
The director and several of our lecturers are freelance journalists, so we walk the students through the entire process. Throughout the year, they develop story pitches for national editors and respond to edits. In spring quarter, we hold seminars on contracts, fee negotiations, invoicing and taxes, ethics, and journalistic writing vs. contract work. Many of our speakers for those sessions are members of SciLance.
How does your program’s curriculum incorporate multimedia like podcasts and videos?
We require the students to produce podcasts to accompany their feature stories for our online magazine. The multimedia course also includes portraiture, online slideshows, and short video productions that we post on Vimeo. The students shoot and edit their videos, some of which are commissioned by Bay Area research groups. For each project, we focus both on learning the hardware (which we provide) and the editing software.
Do students write blog posts or tweet?
Our students blog throughout the year at outfog.com, focusing on Bay Area stories with national potential. Many stories are cross-posted at Scientific American, CNN, mongabay, and other outlets. The blog posts require original reporting and interviews, often combined with photography. We use the blog as a platform for students to test story ideas, develop their voices for online followers, and keep regular deadlines. We also encourage the students to tweet daily and to follow the journalists whose work interests them.
Any tips on your application process?
For us, the essays are really important, especially the reasons for switching from science to journalism. We look for fluid and inventive writing, both in the essays and in any clips the student would like to provide. I spend a lot of time reading letters of reference. I encourage applicants to seek letters from people who have worked with them in different capacities, not just academic advisors. We require the GRE general exam, and those scores carry weight. Finally, I’m always impressed by applicants who take the time to contact me with questions or to arrange a visit.
Does your program offer financial aid? How many students receive some sort of financial aid?
All admitted students receive a fellowship or scholarship offer as part of our admissions package to offset part of their tuition. Most students in the program earn a few thousand dollars at our internships and by selling stories written for class.
Are students required to complete an internship as part of the program?
We require several internships to complete our training. These part-time placements are just as important as our courses. We’re on the academic quarter system, so each student can work at three very different internships in fall, winter, and spring. Each student must complete at least one internship at a daily newspaper to learn interviewing, reporting, and writing on deadline. The other school-year internships span many of today’s job markets: online news, university news offices, radio and podcasts, online multimedia, and public education. We have partners in California and nationally who work directly with our students. When our classes conclude, each graduate must complete one full-time summer internship in science writing anywhere in the country. Those last from ten weeks to six months.
Are students required to complete a large project, such as a thesis or master’s project, to graduate?
We do not require a thesis-length project. We emphasize building up diverse and thorough professional portfolios of work through the internships and through stories for class that our students pitch to regional and national editors. Most students emerge with several dozen published articles.
How have you seen the field of science writing change in the last few years?
I’m encouraged by the variety of career options; our alumni get jobs across a broader spectrum of positions than a decade ago. Within journalism, it’s no surprise that few of our grads report for newspapers, but the profusion of online news venues in science, health, and technology has largely made up for that. Specialty venues — for instance, Chemical & Engineering News and the Alzheimer Research Forum — have solid resources to hire reporters. The growing longform ecosystem is nice to see, but the economics seem pretty shaky. Staff jobs at the legacy science media are still there, but you’ve got to have a publication track record to stand a chance. Across science communication more broadly, there are now more jobs at federal agencies, universities and medical centers, national labs, scientific societies, and major public education venues. For those gigs, multimedia and social media skills really matter. Overall, we’re working harder than ever to help forge connections for our grads through internships and our alumni network.
What advice do you offer people who tell you they’re thinking about becoming science writers?
You’ve got to love it. And, to be frank, you’ve got to have a knack for it. There’s no rush to get started, so focus on work that excites you, whether it’s in science or journalism or public outreach. Our best students have explored all of these things and have worked with a wide range of interesting people. Editors absolutely notice those real-world skills. Be detail-oriented in what you do, too. This profession requires passion, but it also requires craft and a commitment to accuracy. Show that you have those traits. Read lots of great science stories by writers whom you admire. When you decide you’re fully ready to emulate them, good mentors can help you get there.
Image credits: NPS (banana slug); Rob Irion