When stability starts to feel stifling, it may be time for a fellowship or a boot camp.
Most freelancers wrestle with the question of how far to settle into a specialty. (See recent post from SciLancer Adam Hinterhuer (bio) for his take.) There are upsides to developing a beat: it’s easier to recognize and report stories, and it can be good for your bottom line to be the go-to person for infectious diseases or environmental regulation. But, over time, stability can start to feel like a rut. After all, many of us who left the lab for a pen did so because we wanted to explore more than one major question per decade.
In the Science Writers’ Handbook, I talk about fellowships that allow journalists to develop assess their careers and develop new expertise. I focus mainly on big opportunities: residential programs at MIT and Harvard, year-long reporting grants like the Alicia Patterson or the one I got from the Open Society Institute. These programs fund journalists to be onsite for months at a major university or to research a massive project. These programs are amazing, but they are highly competitive. Many require significant life upheaval, even a move across the country.
Not every moment of career angst requires such a large-scale shake-up. Sometimes all a writer needs are some new ideas and sources. Many organizations offer opportunities for just that kind of re-charge. Short-term fellowships or boot camps can last from a long weekend to a couple weeks. Reporting grants can fund travel or cover research time to pull together an investigative story.
Several current and former SciLancers recently shared their experiences with such programs.
Liza Gross (bio): I did the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) fellowship in 2004 to learn about ocean sciences and spent the week learning about everything from marine ecology to physical oceanography. It was a stretch for me, because I usually wrote about environmental health, molecular biology and terrestrial wildlife at that time, but a week’s immersion in a field can do wonders, and it got me up to speed quickly. I met several sources, one of which ended up being a driving force in this story.
Lindsay Borthwick: I received the NASW travel fellowship to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in Doha in 2011. I was re-entering the workforce as a freelancer after a maternity leave. A trip to the conference seemed like a good catalyst, in terms of stimulating ideas, reconnecting with a network of writers and editors, and honing my skills through workshops. Plus, it was an all-expense paid opportunity to travel to the Middle East! The main thing I got out of it was a renewed enthusiasm for the job. It was inspirational to be among journalists from the Middle East who had been involved in the Arab Spring, meet some of the stars of our trade and hear their stories, and hear about some really great science happening beyond the borders of North America and Western Europe. It was also very useful in terms of making contact with new editors.
Susan Moran (bio): They’ve really helped me build knowledge, confidence and contacts. The most fun and fruitful mini-fellowships I went on were the MBL Polar Hands-on ones — at Toolik Station, Alaska, and then Palmer Station, Antarctica. I think the first I did was Great Global Crises, in 2007, one of the MIT Knight mini-boot camps (where I met dear Michelle Nijhuis (bio)!). Then the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resource’s (IJNR’s) Energy Country Institute. I had already covered some energy development/Indian Country/Western land-use issues, but doing the boot camp helped me come up with fresh story ideas and contacts. I did a IJNR Puget Sound Institute in 2009, knowing zip about fisheries but wanting to know and write about marine ecosystems. I didn’t write about the issues until recently, when I drew from that trip and what I’d read and seen since to help fuel my coverage of Antarctic krill fisheries, Arctic fisheries and climate change.
Several other SciLancers also cited the value of fellowships involving travel – of seeing research up close and in person, often in exotic locales. However, some good opportunities can be within driving distance. I’ve learned a lot about reporting and story structure at professional development workshops offered by the Northern California Science Writers Association (full disclosure: I’m a NCSWA board member), and other regional science writing groups host similar events.
These programs can be competitive, but all are open to freelancers. Some SciLancers report applying several years in a row to get into extremely popular programs, and most note that it’s important for freelancers to stress their publication record. And sometimes it helps to be open to serendipity.
“A couple years ago, I was waitlisted for the Knight Food Boot Camp,” says SciLancer Emily Gertz (bio). “Months later, the Knight people called and offered me a place in the Nano Boot Camp — which I hadn’t applied for. Someone had dropped out near to the last minute, apparently, and they had remembered me, and seemed pretty happy to offer me the spot. Although I haven’t done much reporting on nano since, having backgrounder on the topic has helped my reporting in other ways, such as asking better questions, and having some new sources to turn to.”
Image credit: Tyler Bolken on Flickr