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 continues an ongoing series that highlights graduate programs in science writing. Each installment will feature basic information about the program and an email interview with the program director. (The first featured the UCSC science communication program.) Prospective applicants should plan ahead: Most of these programs have deadlines in January or February.
“See the stuff most people don’t”: Tips on studying science writing with Tim the Beaver
The one-year graduate program in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, typically sends 8 burgeoning science writers out into the field every year armed with a Master of Science degree. The 11th class recently completed the program.
How should a prospective applicant prepare for the MIT program?
Prospective applicants should know that we value two things above all. First: genuine passion for/commitment to/interest in the narrative of science, medicine, technology/engineering (by which we mean passion for any subject or discipline or topic within that very broad umbrella). And second: genuine passion for/commitment to/skill at writing.
In an application we pay closest attention to the two set essays and the writing samples, and that’s where prospective students should focus their energy. Our students bring with them a very wide range of educational backgrounds, with roughly half of them doing their undergraduate work in the sciences and half in the humanities.
Does a typical student in the MIT program already have an advanced degree in science?
While some of our students have advanced degrees, more than half do not. Technical training is always a good thing, but it doesn’t substitute for skill and eagerness to grow as a journalist and/or non-fiction writer. You need both. Many of our students have one or a few years of experience either working in a STEM setting or in journalism, and some of those students, with just a BA in hand, have been among our best.
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?
We are increasing the amount of career focus each year, with a particular emphasis on preparing for life as a freelancer. We discuss pitching, finances, organization/planning, software and hardware tools, more pitching, and relationship building with editors, publications and colleagues.
How does your program’s curriculum incorporate multimedia like podcasts and videos?
We have a required semester course in video and audio documentary production, the end result of which is a professional quality film. Students learn the basics of audio recording, videography, and non-linear editing, along with intensive instruction in the construction of stories for these media.
Do students write blog posts or tweet?
Our students are required to write a limited number of blog posts, and we include several sessions on social media. They are not required to maintain an active Twitter account. We do discuss the role of social media for journalists, as both a networking and information gathering tool. But we don’t require specific production targets for our students’ social media presence. Student work is published on the GPSW student publication, Scope, and we also encourage them to pitch class assignments to outside, paying venues.
Any tips on your application process?
Read (or watch, or interact with) the forms of science communication that most spark your imagination. Be prepared to talk about the work that inspires you as part of the application process. Your writing samples don’t have to have been published, and you can write material specifically for your application if you want to showcase a particular interest or expertise. Make sure we know if a piece has been edited, and what the editing did for the work. Make sure your recommenders know you and why you’re applying to a science writing graduate program. Evidence of genuine, personal enthusiasm for a candidate is an important component of a recommendation. Get in touch with our office with any questions and do so EARLY ENOUGH to allow our Graduate Administrator or faculty to actually help you. All our applications are online now, and everyone should remember the first law of computers: they can smell your fear. Waiting until the last minute is not recommended.
Does your program offer financial aid? How many students receive some sort of financial aid?
Yes. Most years, all of our students receive some form of aid.
Are students required to complete an internship as part of the program?
Students are required to complete a ten-week internship in the summer [after coursework]. Some students do additional internships during the term, but that’s strictly optional (and can be done for course credit).
Are students required to complete a large project, such as a thesis or master’s project, to graduate?
We require a thesis. The thesis is a ~10,000 word work of popular science writing that can take any form — a single “long read” piece; a series of news stories or essays; a chapter in a book, etc. Multimedia work is acceptable too, if the project is of equivalent scale. The students spend the first six weeks of the fall semester developing ideas and workshopping them in a formal seminar setting, and then, working closely with a faculty advisor, produce the project through several defined milestones (with real deadlines), resuming the workshop-seminar for the final charge through the last six weeks or so of the school year. It’s an intense and very fruitful process.
How have you seen the field of science writing change in the last few years?
This question is too large to answer in a single sitting. The biggest change in science writing as a career over the last several years is the same as the change in journalism in general: traditional media venues are under great pressure; staff jobs at newspapers and magazines are going away. New media outlets are proliferating, and with them new formats for journalism have emerged. These are often though not exclusively shorter, faster, and much more community/audience savvy/specific than the older general interest publications. Add to such changes the whole volunteer ethos, most manifest in the blog end of the media ecosystem. Lots of very talented people are writing well about all kinds of subjects, science and related disciplines most certainly included. These changes reward readers, while putting pressure on the ability of professional journalists and writers to make a living.
At the same time, there has never been more science writing being done, and never more being paid for — though often at rates that are much lower than the national magazine per/word rates that many of us fondly remember. Freelance work is becoming — if it is not already — the dominant form of employment for science writers. Freelancing gives writers license to pursue stories they care about, within the often scary reality of having to scramble to make the monthly nut that such freedom entails. That said, almost 90% of our graduates in the 11 classes that have completed our program to date are still in science communication, many in staff jobs, more as freelancers, so careers are still being pursued, and pursued well.
There’s lots more to discuss here. Obviously, one of the biggest changes in the coverage of science, engineering and medicine is the way video and audio and computational media are becoming ever more important. (By computational media I mean everything from graphics and interactives to data journalism.) But that’s the subject of a multi-day conference, not an email interview….
What advice do you offer people who tell you they’re thinking about becoming science writers?
I’d ask you what you love. If it thrills you to clamber around the basements of museums — seeing the stuff most people don’t, in the company of someone for whom a fascinating idea, a great experiment, some new way to see the world is just the best thing ever, then science writing could very well be for you. If you like coming home after such an expedition and telling everyone you meet about it, then the probability that science writing might be your calling just went up. If you can tolerate or require solitude as well as company, then the writing will get done, and you may have discovered your profession.
That is: a lot of people get into science writing because they think it’s important… and it is. Our society and our democracy get stronger when more people know both facts and the habits of mind of science. But a writer has no control over what people do with what she or he has written — or even if the folks who might really need a bit of news will find it. So the work itself had damn well better be rewarding for you. If it is, then all the other good stuff will follow.
Image credits: Stata center by joiseyshowaa;Tom Levenson