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Science Writing Jobs – Where to Start?
I haven’t met anyone who told their teachers and relatives they wanted to be a science writer when they grew up. Science writing career paths are not obvious. There are some programs and courses about science writing, but most people who get science writing jobs don’t take a direct route.
Folks interested in science writing may not know what jobs are available, how to get them, or who might be suited for these careers. This article will answer all these questions! In fact, there are many different roles available depending on the writing you would like to do. This article provides a detailed look at five jobs that give a sense of the possible jobs.
Let’s jump right in! What are the top careers for science writers?
Science news is important! Science reporters write about discoveries, controversies, and curiosities and will have opportunities to interview the folks doing some of the most impactful research in the world. Every major news outlet, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Vox, has a science desk.
I honestly didn’t realize science journalism was a career choice until I was well into my university studies. Hopefully, you aren’t as naïve as I was, but if you are, don’t feel like you are on your own.
What about outside of mainstream news? There are also popular science outlets. Scientific American, Popular Science, and National Geographic are examples that are well known, but there are plenty of smaller digital publications.
You could also become a journalist at a trade publication. You likely haven’t seen these if you don’t work in industry, but there are magazines and online outlets for almost every type of business. Unlike writing for the general public, this content requires both specialized knowledge and business sense, which would be great for someone who wants to write more technical content.
Is science journalism a good career choice? It can be, though it isn’t an easy road. Journalism is competitive, with embarrassingly low pay for entry-level work. I get the impression that science journalism isn’t as crowded as politics or culture reporting, but it is still challenging.
One advantage of journalism is the ability to freelance. Almost all news outfits, including the most prestigious in the world, work with freelance writers. Freelancing is a broader topic than we can explore here, but it is easy to dip your toe into science journalism, even if you have a day job or are a student. You can use a site like Fiverr and Upwork or start pitching organizations that accept freelance work.
What about journalism school? Don’t you need to study journalism to get a science writing job? Nope! In fact, plenty of highly successful reporters did not go to journalism school. There is nothing wrong with journalism school (as far as I know, as someone who hasn’t gone), but for anyone who already has a graduate degree, you may be worried you need to complete more courses. This is not the case!
If you are a student or are early in your career and considering science writing jobs, I would encourage you to try freelancing as a science journalist. You will build valuable skills such as pitching, interviewing, and working with an editor. Having a couple of published pieces on your resumé will help you get any of the jobs on the list, so working with even a modest publication will help you get the ball rolling.
I am incredibly biased here, but I think science marketing is a blast. Business-to-business (B2B) science marketing involves writing blogs, eBooks, flyers, and social media posts. If you have solid writing experience, in-depth knowledge of science, and some interest in business strategy, science marketing is a great place to be.
It is worth explaining the structure of the marketing profession since this is relevant to why science marketers are in high demand. Most companies that are large enough to invest in marketing use a blend of in-house marketers and agencies. The mix varies by the business, but many major companies have a surprisingly small internal marketing team, with most of the horsepower coming from external agencies.
But there is a catch: most advertising agencies do not have the scientific knowledge to do effective science marketing. My day job is marketing chemical software used in pharmaceutical and chemical development. I need to be familiar with a good deal of complex science for my position. An unspecialized marketer would have a hard time getting their head around what my product does or how it works, let alone how to communicate that to others.
Science-heavy brands often have a well-staffed internal team of scientists, or work with agencies with science marketing specialization. While most marketers have a bachelor’s degree in English, communication, or business, those who work in science marketing generally have an M.Sc. or Ph.D. Ultimately this means that there are few people with the right mix of skill, interests, and education, so if you fit into that overlap, you could be hugely in demand.
What do science marketers do, though? It depends on the company and the specifics of the position. Smaller companies tend to employ “jack-of-all trades,” marketers who mix social media, blogging, online events, and other sales support activities. Larger companies will specialize further, where each team member focuses on a given type of work – social media, blogging, event planning, video content, etc. Overall, there is a lot of variation of what this work looks like on a day-to-day basis.
There is no set career path to becoming a science marketer. A graduate degree – especially in the life sciences – is a big help, but it is not required. You should have some experience writing, though it doesn’t need to be in marketing. Informal experience, such as running a personal blog, building a social media following, or managing a YouTube channel, is also a plus.
Technical Writer (and Regulatory Medical Writing)
Ever wonder who writes manuals, help guides, and other technical documentation? It’s technical writers! This content may not be out in the open or attention-grabbing as the others on this list, but it is essential for any serious business.
Who should be a technical writer? You need to be extremely detailed oriented. Every job description says you need to be detail-oriented, but they usually don’t take it seriously. Here, I genuinely mean it. You need to be the kind of person who gets into the fussy minutiae. Inaccurate technical documentation can become grounds for a lawsuit, so one of your jobs is to protect your company from legal liability.
So technical writers are acting as pseudo-lawyers? No, there is a balance. The documentation must be readable enough for users to understand your product’s use. You may work with the legal department on some projects, but you would probably work closely with the company’s engineering team.
You will need to dive into the technical side, not just the scientific. For example, there are a lot of scientists that are familiar with how chromatography works. Suppose you are working as a technical writer at a company that sells chromatography equipment. In that case, you will need to go beyond the general theory and learn the operations and construction of major components. This will often mean some cross-disciplinary knowledge.
Truthfully, I would hate this kind of work. Writing technical documentation would be simultaneously tedious and stressful. Others seem to love it, though; if you are one of those people, I am sure there are plenty of positions available.
The route to get into this is probably more from customer support or customer success, so your writing resume does not need to be as robust. I know there are some courses or programs that exist for technical writing. I don’t know how useful these are, and I doubt they are required for most organizations, but a graduate degree is probably helpful for many technical writing positions.
Regulatory medical writing is a field that is closely related to technical writing. These folks generally work in pharmaceutical or medical device companies and prepare the documentation relevant to clinical trials. Regulatory writing has lots of demand, though I don’t know much about it, and it is tightly regulated, so I won’t speculate. This blog post about medical writing careers is an excellent resource to learn more about the subject and other writing careers within the pharmaceutical industry.
Want to do work that is technical but not as stuffy as technical writing? Academic writing offers a middle ground, though the term “academic writer” seems to mean different things within different institutions. Academic writers are involved in writing:
- Academic papers
These are actually five different jobs, so it is hard to describe them all at once. What they have in common is you need to be comfortable doing a lot of reading and research. Academic writers are also often connected to the education system, but this is not universally the case.
It is possible to get into academic writing by directly applying to jobs. A reasonable number of full-time positions are available and can often be remote-friendly. You will probably need some writing experience to be considered, so make sure you have a portfolio of relevant work.
You can also get into academic writing through freelancing. There are a lot of textbook companies or writing agencies that use contract workers. The wages are not stellar, so you will need to build up a resume before getting decent quality rates.
I have done a tiny bit of freelance academic writing. It was strange – it felt that the client couldn’t make up their mind, or the editor I was working with wasn’t communicating expectations. I wouldn’t be surprised if entry-level academic writing work feels somewhat amateurish.
This job is for you if you are a teacher or lecturer looking to get out of the classroom. Your experience as an educator should be enough to get some work (though it won’t be glamorous, as described above). This is particularly true for textbook writing.
In terms of long-term career growth, you can probably get into editing or publishing. There are also opportunities to build your own academic writing service, possibly starting from full-time freelancing work. You could also take this experience and transition to become a writer-researcher at a think tank or a grant writer at an institute or non-profit. This will all be heavily influenced by what your academic writing looks like.
What if you don’t want to work for anyone? What if you prefer to work for yourself, writing about whatever you are interested in? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news isn’t just a fairy tale – it exists. The bad news is this line of work is brutally competitive.
Content creators are folks who make any form of content – written, audio, video – and put it out into the world. Most creators are amateurs and enthusiasts, but some can make a living through a combination of ad revenue, sponsorship deals, and selling products.
Some popular science creators include SciShow, AsapSCIENCE, and Veratasium. You might have noticed that these are YouTube channels, but writing skills are necessary for scripted video content, so the connection should be obvious. While it is possible to make a living entirely based on independent science writing, most successful creators develop a mix of skills, including video editing, podcast hosting, graphic design, or managing websites.
Becoming a content creator is dead simple: write something, put it on the web, and you are now a “content creator.” Getting paid to be a content creator is an entirely different question. You will need to put out a ton of content before you will build a following substantial enough to make any money. Scaling that to the point where you can live off content creation for your full-time job typically takes years of consistent work on evenings and weekends.
It might be strange to read a list of top science writing careers where one of the sections is full of reasons not to get a specific job. I am doing this because many underestimate the challenge of becoming a creator. Unless you are blessed with natural good looks, charisma, or humor (and preferably all three), you will need to work incredibly hard for a long time before you can support yourself as a content creator.
While I don’t recommend planning to start a career as a content creator, it is great to do it as a hobby. In addition to being rewarding and fun, you get the opportunity to build skills for another writing career, such as journalism or marketing. If you find a loyal audience, you can consider making this a career. Following the “if you build it, they will come” logic often leads to disappointment.
There is no roadmap for making it as a content creator. You are your own boss, which is not for everyone.
Science Writing Jobs – Final Thoughts
There are so many possibilities and specializations within these science writing jobs that it is challenging to discuss them coherently. Hopefully, this overview provides a useful starting point for understanding all available options.
Even if you don’t pursue one of these science writing jobs, every career in science has some connection to science writing. Whether you are a professor, research scientist, or laboratory assistant, science writing experience will benefit your career. Developing these skills now is a worthwhile investment, no matter what.