Sitting in the lab, day after day, I plodded, unthinking, down the well-beaten academic path—until my PhD imploded. Kaboom! Time to, finally, have a long overdue conversation with myself about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I liked to write and I liked science, but I finally had to admit I didn’t want to be a scientist (a common refrain amongst science journalists). If only there was some easy way to make the leap from the ivory tower to black and white print?
Luckily, there is! The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship is a ready-made way to pole vault out of academia and into journalism.
The fellowship is unique in that applicants must have (or be in final year of securing) a science, engineering or math degree. Graduate and doctoral students are also encouraged to apply. Once selected, fellows are placed at newspapers, magazines, or radio and television stations to learn firsthand how the media machine works.
I was placed at the Oregonian newspaper under the tutelage of award-winning science reporter Richard Hill, who made sure I cranked out stories and got field reporting experience. For one story, I backpacked through wilderness with scientists measuring the underground gases fueling ground-bulging volcanic activity. For another, I got seasick watching researchers pour dye into the ocean to trace subsurface water movement. But learning to make even the most esoteric stories—for example, the unspoken chemical language of plants—come to life was just as exhilarating.
In 10 weeks, I went from science journalism-curious to fully-fledged fanatic. I proved to myself that I could find a story, get the details and write on deadline. Any doubts that this career would make good use of years of scientific training were gone. And I was convinced that, as a science journalist, boredom wasn’t an option.
I’m not the only one who used this internship as a career pivot point. Over 500 fellows have gone through the program since 1974. Several SciLancers– including Tom Hayden (bio), Kendall Powell (bio), Sarah Webb (bio), Helen Fields (bio), Rob Frederick (bio), Monya Baker (bio), Andreas von Bubnoff (bio), and Gisela Telis (bio)– found it life-altering as well.
Kendall Powell, who interned at the Los Angeles Times during her fellowship, puts it well—the newsroom was “trial by (friendly) fire.”
“It was actually quite terrifying (but also exciting) that they let me handle big stories—even page 1 material—almost immediately after my arrival,” says Andreas von Bubnoff, about his fellowship working around the infectious passion of Pulitzer-prize winning reporters at the Chicago Tribune.
Leaving an internship with a portfolio of clips from a high profile media outlet is simply priceless. You have to have clips to get more clips. But clips aren’t everything. Finding your niche in the media ecosystem is just as valuable.
Sarah Webb worked at WNBC-TV in New York City. She wasn’t ready to make a career out of television, but she still learned a lot and developed important relationships. “I learned a lot about health reporting in general,” she says. With a couple of breaking stories, she got the adrenaline rush of pulling together an important story with very little time. “There are a lot more moving parts to pulling together a short piece for television than covering a comparable story in print.”
In that regard, the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship may be the single best way for a would-be scientist to network (yes, I hate the word too) with “the media.” Rob Frederick counts those connections made while a fellow at KUNC in Greeley, Colorado—to media outlets, other fellows and alumni—as one of the most important long-term benefits of the fellowships.
When Kendall faced her own daunting decision whether or not to continue her PhD in a new lab, four years in–knowing she, ultimately, wanted be a journalist–she sent a panicked email to Mass Media alumni for career advice. Tom Hayden, having faced a similar situation, responded with the clarity she needed: in essence, a science PhD isn’t necessary for journalists, she’d already made the leap. Or, as he often says, “Onward!”
Did you do a Mass Media Fellowship? Share your experiences in the comments.
Image credit: hisks