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 features basic information about a program and an email interview with the program’s directors. (Previous installments featured the programs at UCSC, MIT, and BU.) Prospective applicants should plan ahead: Most of these programs have deadlines in January or February.
NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program: “Never take yourself out of the running without taking your best shot.”
Nearly 400 students have graduated from New York University’s intensive, 16-month Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP). A typical SHERP class has 12 or 13 students. “We think it’s the perfect size,” says science writer Dan Fagin, who directs the program. “Small enough to allow for intensive one-on-one instruction, but large enough to allow for extensive publishing and a wide-ranging curriculum tailored to entry-level science reporters.” In general, every SHERP student receives some sort of financial aid.
Fagin, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, offers an inside look at the NYU program, located in what he calls the “global epicenter of science journalism.”
How should a prospective applicant prepare for the program?
We get excited about applicants who have demonstrated a love of science and a passion for storytelling, and who have sought interesting opportunities and made the most of them. There are many ways to do this, so we don’t have any hard-and-fast rules about eligibility.
Research experience is a major plus. Published clips are helpful but definitely not essential, and the same is true about an advanced degree in science and work experience in science or journalism. A key to admission is to demonstrate that you are committed to science journalism as a career, because SHERP isn’t for dabblers. If you share our view that science is too important to leave only to scientists, and journalism is too important to leave only to the scientifically illiterate, we want to hear from you!
Do most students in your program already have an advanced degree (master’s or higher) in science?
Some of our students have doctorates or masters degrees in a scientific discipline, but most do not. A keen understanding of how science works is more important than deep knowledge in any particular discipline, though the latter is certainly very helpful.
Any tips on the application process?
Every year we receive more applications from qualified students than we are able to accept, so it’s important to take the application process seriously. We look closely at your essay, writing samples and transcript, as well as your letters of recommendation. We look at GRE scores, too, though they aren’t as important. The best advice for applicants is to demonstrate commitment, communicate enthusiasm, sweat the details, and never take yourself out of the running without taking your best shot. An in-person visit is always helpful, but not a necessity.
Are students required to complete an internship as part of the program? If so, when does the internship occur?
Internships are a crucial part of the SHERP experience, and an important reason for our success in job placement. (Don’t take my word for it: Visit us online and see for yourself where almost every one of our nearly 400 graduates is working.)
All students must complete two for-credit internships; some complete three. SHERP has its own internship adviser who works closely with students throughout the internship application process and makes sure that the internship experience is valuable for the student in advancing her or his career goals. We’re able to do this because we have close, longstanding relationships with dozens of New York-based media organizations, most of which employ our graduates as editors and producers.
Are students required to complete a large project, such as a thesis or master’s project, to graduate?
In their final semester, SHERP students complete a “capstone” feature-length magazine piece prepared under the tutelage of Adjunct Professor John Rennie, the former longtime editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Many of those stories are subsequently published in professional science media.
In fact, a typical SHERP student graduates with a portfolio of several dozen pieces of work that have been published professionally in places like Popular Science, Scientific American and The New York Times and on Scienceline.org, the popular website run by and for SHERP students that attracts an astonishing 1.8 million visitors per year.
More than half of the 600+ respondents to a recent NASW survey self-identified as freelance writers. How does your program help prepare graduates for a freelance career in science writing?
We tweak our curriculum every year to make sure it fully reflects the needs and realities of our rapidly evolving industry, so of course we have paid close attention to the growing importance of freelancers as content providers. We have a required course in Entrepreneurial Science Journalism that stresses business skills, and we also bring in dozens of successful freelancers every year to meet with the students and share tips on everything from how to juggle multiple assignments to how to self-market effectively. Our goal, always, is to make sure our students are maximally prepared for careers in science journalism, whether they want to be staffers or freelancers – or, most likely, both.
How does your program’s curriculum incorporate multimedia like podcasts and videos?
Our students pick up a video camera just two weeks into the first semester. By the time they’ve graduated have produced at least two polished videos, and often more. We teach audio podcasting starting in the first semester as well, and introduce data visualizations and coding in the second semester. Our multimedia training emphasizes the craft of storytelling, not learning the latest software, but we also recognize that effective online journalism requires mastering the most important digital tools, so we teach them.
Do you require students to blog or tweet?
We think that blogging is almost certainly going to remain be an important skill for science journalists, so it’s part of our curriculum and we teach our students to do it well. Twitter and other social media are important, too, as essential tools for reporting and for building an online presence, so some classes do indeed incorporate tweeting into class assignments.
How have you seen the field of science writing change in the last few years?
We could spend hours talking about this because so much has changed. The rise of digital platforms, and concurrent decline of print advertising and circulation, has created huge challenges and opportunities for entry-level science journalists. Business models for science media companies are changing at light speed, as are the ways we journalists tell our stories. My favorite analogy is that digital revolution has forced our industry to migrate to a new and unfamiliar landscape; journalists nimble enough to adapt speedily and creatively to the new environment are finding exciting opportunities to do great work and to thrive. Our most important job at SHERP is to make sure our students have the skills to meet this challenge.
What advice do you offer people who tell you they’re thinking about becoming science writers?
The most important thing is to look before you leap. Yes, science journalism is a blast. It’s an intellectual adventure that is rarely dull and serves an important societal purpose when done well. But it’s definitely not for everyone; there are certainly much easier ways to make a living.
A wonderful benefit of blogging is that it’s now possible for anyone to try journalistic writing and see whether they like it before committing fully to our profession. Similarly, graduate programs in science journalism can be hugely helpful in boosting your career but are not a good fit for everyone. Remember also that the various grad programs all have different philosophies and track records, so it’s important to weigh your options carefully. You should approach the process of choosing a grad program the way a top science journalist reports a story: by doing deep research, keeping an open mind, conducting interviews with a broad array of sources, making in-person visits where possible, and always looking for solid data to validate your impressions. Enjoy the journey!
Image credits: Washington Square Arch by David Shankbone (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0) and courtesy Dan Fagin