It’s a little known fact that when I entered college, I wanted to double major in biology and journalism. I had made a slight oversight, however, in that my college didn’t offer any journalism courses! It would be another seven years before my two passions reunited.
When faced with a similar lack of formal science journalism courses, David Barnstone, a recent graduate from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, took matters into his own hands and created a science journalism degree through his campus’ individualized major program. Now working in a temporary post as a press officer for engineering and science at the University of Rochester, in New York, he shares how he set up his curriculum and why he recommends this do-it-yourself approach for others wanting to explore both science and journalism.
Explain the UMass individualized major program to me a bit—does it essentially let you ‘design your own’ major?
That’s exactly right. The program is called Bachelor’s Degree With Individual Concentration (BDIC). It’s been around since the 1970s, and is part of a trend of individualized major programs.
It is like any other college major—minimum of 12 classes, 36 credits—except instead of ticking off a sheet of required classes, you propose your own curriculum. One of my favorite concentrations was titled Brewery Management. Who would have thought you could major in something like that?
BDIC allowed me to effectively combine my interest in the science of early childhood development with journalism and writing. I didn’t think I wanted to pursue a research career or be a general assignment reporter. Science writing was the perfect way to get the best of both worlds.
You took a mix of courses from the Psychology, Biology, Anthropology, Linguistics, English, and Journalism departments. How does it work?
About half of my coursework was in science and the other half was in reporting and writing. I was interested in human development, which is not a specific department at UMass. This is actually one of the problems that individualized degrees solve. Human development encompasses psychology, education, anthropology, and biology and BDIC encourages this kind of interdisciplinary study. In fact, the program requires that you take courses from at least three different departments.
Were there advantages to creating your own science journalism major instead of choosing a straight science or journalism degree?
I spent the better part of my first two years debating this very question! My impression is that many science writers come to the profession from one side of the aisle.
I came marching down the center of the aisle, which gave me a fundamental understanding of scientific research, while developing my journalism skills—both essential for a science writer. Being able to think like both a journalist and a scientist helps me see a story from different points of view.
On the downside, I didn’t come out with as much research experience as my straight science classmates, or as many published clips as the journos.
What have you been up to since graduating in May?
I stayed in Amherst and continued working for the UMass Center for Research on Families. I applied for a bunch of communications and research assistant jobs, didn’t hear back from most of them and got rejected from the others.
Then, Rochester contacted me the day after I applied for a position to fill in for their physics press officer’s maternity leave. They had an understandable concern about my lack of a formal physics background. My main pitch to them was that a little naivety can be an asset when communicating highly technical science. I have no choice but to filter everything through the mind of a non-expert.
What has it been like covering physics and engineering?
Incredibly difficult. Exciting. Frustrating. Profoundly interesting. Intimidating.
Ironically, my very first class on my first day of college was a physics course, Energy and Society. It was one of these broad survey courses for freshmen who have no intention of majoring in the hard sciences.
I think it’s important to venture out of your comfort zone as a writer. I would like to go back to writing about the social sciences, but I think this experience will sharpen my skills for writing about any topic.
Any tips or advice for those in college now considering a DIY science journalism degree?
Write science stories for the student newspaper. I learned so much by just hitting the ground running and figuring it out as I went. Cover science that interests you, but also take a chance on something new and exotic. Like quantum physics.
Pick up skills in multimedia journalism and web development, both of which are huge assets as more and more jobs are going online.
Take advantage of the array of resources offered to you as a college student. For me, that meant using the BDIC program as a launching pad to explore a variety of departments. Once you get going, opportunities have a funny way of finding you.