If you know you want to write for a living, few people would advise the arduous journey of PhD work in science. Many SciLancers pursued the PhD with the goal of becoming professors or researchers. The six of us who completed those degrees discovered science writing either late in our graduate work or sometime after finishing our degrees. When lab work lost its luster, we made a career move. (A seventh SciLancer, Robin Mejia (bio), is currently working on a PhD in biostatistics at UC Berkeley.)
Just as writers with no science background may feel out of their depth with some science topics, science writers with PhDs often have to be careful about questioning our science insider status.
I half-jokingly refer to my PhD degree as “the three magic letters.” When I was in the midst of finishing up my PhD in chemistry while making my move toward journalism, a wise journalist offered me a piece of advice that stuck: “Some people in this business will be scared of your PhD.” She warned me that editors might be intimidated by the degree or might assume that I couldn’t write jargon-free prose. Rather than scaring me off, her words helped me focus on proving my worth as a writer, knowing that my PhD wouldn’t clear a path to writing success.
We definitely don’t need a PhD to write about science, and we don’t always make it obvious that we have the degree. SciLancer Jill U Adams (bio) used PhD in her email signature initially to establish a comfort level when she was reporting for outlets such as Nature or The Scientist. But she eventually dropped it because she wanted scientists to avoid using jargon during interviews. “I almost never tell sources that I have my PhD,” says Bryn Nelson (bio), who studied microbiology. “Invariably, the moment I do they raise the level of what they’re saying so high – chemistry, physics, whatever – that it’s basically unintelligible.”
Robin Mejia fell into this trap on her own recently when she interviewed a statistician who has similar research interests. Robin’s source asked whether she should simplify her answers for the audience, and Robin said, “Don’t worry about it. This is great.” But, in retrospect, she says, “I realized that while I understood everything she’d said, we’d both been using a lot of jargon. And it was totally my fault.”
Though her PhD helped Anne Sasso (bio) discover stories that were important in her field (geology), she also found that she was sometimes blind to an angle that a non-specialist built into a great story. “I just skimmed over them because it was basic and no big deal to me,” she says.
Graduate school in science was a plus overall for understanding scientific culture and finding sources, says Jennifer Cutraro (bio), who started out in a PhD program but chose to leave after a master’s degree. Bryn adds: “Writing my dissertation and then having to defend it really helped me learn how to organize my thoughts, back up assertions with evidence, and deal constructively with criticism.”
In the 10 years since I defended my PhD, I’ve found that I rely more and more on the project management skills I learned in graduate school: prioritizing tasks, organizing workflow, and managing deadlines, issues that both scientists and writers deal with every day.
Would we do the PhD all over again if we knew we’d become science writers? Maybe not. But the experience has shaped us so that we can’t imagine our careers any other way.
Image credit: a member of the Webb family