Many of my colleagues earned science PhDs in their twenties and then became writers. At 39, I’m doing the reverse. In 2010, I went back to school. As I described a couple weeks ago over at The Last Word on Nothing, I recently finished a masters in public health and am now working on PhD at UC Berkeley.
Barbara Abrams is one of my favorite professors here. She’s a mentor and a friend. That’s why, last fall, I found myself in her office helping draft a letter to the science section of The New York Times.
She’d stopped me in the hall, agitated about a column in the paper’s health section. The writer had said that a recent study showed that some obese women could safely lose weight during pregnancy. In truth, the study found that healthy diet and exercise programs could help obese women avoid gaining too much weight during pregnancy. The two ideas may sound similar, but the difference is huge. While gaining too much weight during pregnancy can be problematic, especially if you’re obese to start, almost no woman should try to lose weight while gestating a new life.
I was nervous about editing one of my professors at first, but Barbara turned out to be a very collaborative writer. In fact, it was a fun morning; it gave me the chance to think like a journalist again. We have room to make one point; which one matters most? Do we have to qualify that statement? Action verbs, please – we don’t want passive voice.
The effort also threw the spotlight on a tension I’ve been feeling lately. This is year three of grad school for me. I love what I’m doing, but I also miss writing.
As a number of writers point out in The Science Writers’ Handbook, writing for a living is a job. If you want to pay your bills, you need to remember that you’re running a business. But, not to go all California on you, writing is also a calling. Most of us learn to make a business of it because we love doing it.
Grad school provides part of what I loved about being a journalist. I’m constantly learning new things and talking to fascinating people. What I don’t get out of school is the specific and deeply pleasurable experience of figuring out a story structure and crafting sentences that makes people say, “Wow, that was creepy.”
Most folks I know tell me to think of my joint interests in writing and research as a strength. Recently, I’ve spent a good bit of time pondering how my proximity to important health research will affect my ability to cover it once I free up a bit more time to write. I know I can’t do research and be fulltime news reporter. But some of my favorite magazine writers cover the fields they work in. Perhaps once I graduate, I can find a position where I analyze interesting health problems and publish the results–and then also write about those problems for magazines and newspapers.
But, right now, the mix still feels awkward. My journalism training taught me to report my stories as an outsider, maintaining an appropriate professional distance from sources.
In February, I went to the AAAS meeting in Boston for the first time since going back to school. I was on a panel on careers in science and human rights – my first as a scientist. However, I booked the trip long before I got that invitation. I go to AAAS because it’s an annual reunion for science writers. I was happy to find that my friends and colleagues still consider me a writer, despite the recent quiet spell for my byline. One editor asked me to think about doing a statistics blog. Another was interested in the idea of human rights careers for scientists.
Perhaps my problem is more one of finding my own (well-disclosed) comfort zone than it is an existential crisis.
Image by flickr user Life as Art.