Am I Too Science-y Or Not Science-y Enough? The Problem With Science Communications

Media jobs are notoriously difficult to break into, but at the end of January, the competition got much steeper. Buzzfeed, Vice, and other outlets laid off a reported collective 2,200 workers on their staffs. Unfortunately for me, an early-career science communicator, the spate of lay-offs has also coincided with my attempt to break into the field.

Undoubtedly, having 2,200 more experienced writers and editors vying for the same jobs as me is frustrating. But the more I search for my dream job and send out applications, the more I realize that possible competition from workers thrown back into the job search is hardly my biggest hill to climb as a science communicator hopeful.

I am caught in a Catch-22 where I am both too science-y and not science-y enough.

The first time I realized I could be a science communicator for a career was when I got an internship in the NASA HQ’s communication office. I was thrilled! I had quickly realized during undergrad that research would never be the path for me, but I wasn’t ready to leave STEM. I loved learning about science and I also loved writing. Science communications seemed like the inevitable, perfect marriage of the two for me to pursue.

I had quickly realized during undergrad that research would never be the path for me, but I wasn’t ready to leave STEM.

Post-internship — and post-grad — as I searched for the next job, I started to wonder if my physics degree was a detriment. People had always expressed surprise when I told them I was working in a communications office as a physics major.

Each application I sent out was almost an apology for getting a degree in science and not thinking to go to journalism school, hoping that someone would take a chance and believe I could write.

The communications office at a national lab believed me and took me on as a science communications intern to write for their newsroom on lab research. I loved it and learned a lot but a weird flip occurred when a few scientists I came across didn’t seem to understand my background. One I interviewed made a comment about what it must be like for me to learn all these science concepts with no background.

“I got my degree in physics,” I countered. The tables had turned and suddenly having a science degree was a phrase of defense I seemed to be using a lot.

Other than that, I came out on the other side of the internship completely overconfident. I had a science degree and the clips to prove my abilities. I felt more than qualified for the next gig.

Until, when applying for a writing internship with a science magazine, where I had fit the job qualifications and then some, I did some research and found that the current intern was a science PhD student. I was horrified. How could I compete with that? And why was a PhD student a science writing intern?

If you go searching on the internet for a list of the top science communicators, well, first you’ll have to do a little digging because science communications is still a little-understood field. But when you do find a list, it will be comprised mainly not just of men, but men with PhDs in science. Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox. If you want to find more women, you would have to look to at one of the specially curated lists of “women science communicators” as though being a woman somehow sets you in a separate category.

But when you do find a list, it will be comprised mainly not just of men, but men with PhDs in science.

Of the 20 years that the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding has been presented, only four times has a woman won and only twice has she won without being named alongside a man.

When you learn a word for the first time, it suddenly seems to be everywhere. Once I saw that I would be competing with PhD science students for jobs, a PhD in science suddenly felt like a brand-new prerequisite I was not warned about. I began to notice just how many science communications opportunities were exclusively for science PhD candidates.

I would like to clarify that I believe it is of the utmost importance that scientists learn how to communicate their work. But seeing how many people found success in science communications only after getting their PhD was discouraging to say the least.

I am now at an impasse where this new insecurity about not having a higher science degree has joined my long-held insecurity for not attending journalism school. All jobs I am interested in are entry-level communications jobs with at the very least a slant towards science. Half make me wish I had gone to journalism school, the other half all but disqualify me for lack of higher science education. All are entry-level.

It is easy to want to throw my hands up in the air and just give up or, more tempting, point my fingers at the employers looking for science writers of any capacity and say that their standards are way too high.

But I think the real answer lies behind the fact that science communications is still forging a path as its own discipline. There’s an extremely good chance that any outlet that informs a general audience on science via media platforms is either run by a bona fide journalist or by the holder of a PhD in science.

Science communications is still forging a path as its own discipline.

And that leaves any early-career science communicator like me between a rock and a hard place: having realized they wanted to be a science communicator after going through a Bachelor’s in science but before they could make it to a science graduate program.

I don’t think these Catch-22s facing young science communicators can be resolved until science communications is seen as a traditional, mainstream path for young people interested in STEM careers to take. Many scientists who I have encountered still do not fully understand science communications and its significance.

It’s time we view science communications as a mainstream part of a STEM curriculum. In the meanwhile, I and other young science communicators will have to continue to forge our own paths.

Allison Gasparini
Allison Gasparini

Allison Gasparini is a science writer who has previously been published by NASA and Brookhaven National Lab. She has a physics degree from Syracuse University and just really wants to talk to you both about interstellar space and creating a space for women in science.

3 thoughts on “Am I Too Science-y Or Not Science-y Enough? The Problem With Science Communications

  1. This is such a powerful well written piece. Wherever you end up, people will be lucky to have you. Keep it up and don’t give up!

  2. Hi Alison, As a science writer who began at newspapers, I sympathize with your frustration. But there is a corresponding confusion about what education contributes to the “translation” ability of writers in many fields. Very few sports writers, for example, have played the sports they report. Very few business writers have started or led business empires. It is a fallacy to believe that explaining well is best done after pursuing an academic career in the same field. Some journalists have academic degrees in journalism, but many do not. I think it is mysterious why the craft/science of helping other people understand complex ideas is not always teachable. Or, perhaps better, it is an apprenticeship that is best acquired by serving in the trenches and explaining over and over.

  3. Hi Allison. I just read your article on “fossil water” and the state of aquifers in California. (East Bay Times 1/17/21). I was impressed. This paper does not usually print articles with this level of complexity, and I wondered about the author. I had to google you to find a way to let you know–it’s an excellent article, not too sciency and not too simple.
    I hope my thoughts will be encouraging! We need that kind of article and more so badly, to counter the anti-science attitude of our current time.
    Thanks and good wishes for your career!

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