The value of internships for non-traditional science careers

One way to find out about internships is through job and internship fairs, such as the one hosted by AAAS every spring. Photo credit: flickr user IPFW.

So I want to be a science writer. But I’m a grad student who has been working in a lab doing research for the past four years. Will I be qualified for a job in my non-traditional science career of choice when I graduate? How can I poise myself to be competitive and market myself as a science writer when the reality is that I’m a bench chemist who has been dabbling in writing here and there?

Bingo. An internship. A real hands-on experience doing the work I want to do. An opportunity to make connections with people in the field. And last but not least, a little breather and some time away from the lab doing the job I can’t wait to do once I’m out of school.

Since the time I started considering science writing as a future career, I have been connecting with science writers—learning about their career paths and asking for advice. I have gleaned all sorts of useful information through these “informational interviews.” Every science writer I’ve talked to seems to have taken a slightly different path to arrive at the same destination. But there was one piece of advice that nearly every science writer gave me: Take an internship.

Internship— sounds great! Now just let me go ask my adviser for three months off. Many advisers, I believe, would not be thrilled. My adviser was supportive, perhaps hesitantly. But in the end he wanted me to do what I needed to do.

So I applied for science writing internships earlier this year and I landed the science writing internship at a high-energy physics lab. I’ve been working full-time as a science writer for nearly a month now. And I LOVE it.

I’m growing as a writer and reporter, I’m learning about all the awesome physics that the lab is up to and I’m exploring the world of web interfaces as I manage the daily news site.

One particularly satisfying aspect of taking this internship has been that every day I wake up and my job is to be a science writer. No more late nights spent writing my stories after a long day in the lab (except for when I’m blogging for JAEP!). It’s awesome.

I could easily spend the rest of this post gushing about how much I love my internship, and how awesome internships are, and how everyone should do them.

But I decided to seek some input from other science writers and hear what they had to say on the topic. After all, everyone’s experience is different. And internships are really competitive—so I wanted to gather advice from different people on how to land one.

I posted a few questions to the NASW listserv and a handful of responses poured in. Granted, these answers are all specific to science writing internships, but I’m fairly certain that many of the principles apply to other non-traditional careers in science. If anyone else out there on a different non-traditional career path wants to chime in, please feel free to leave a comment!

Here are the folks who contributed their two cents:

  • Sarah Webb— chemistry Ph.D.; freelance science writer
  • Don Monroe— physics Ph.D., NYU SHERP program; freelance science writer
  • Aries Keck— studied journalism & biology; executive producer for Earthbeat Radio
  • Emilie Lorditch— studied geography & technical writing; director of AIP’s Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science program
  • Robert Irion—studied earth and planetary science, science communication graduate certificate from U.C. Santa Cruz; Director of Science Communication Program at U.C. Santa Cruz

Q: What is the value of doing an internship?

Sarah Webb: As far as I know, some kind of internship is considered essential for getting any kind of job as a science writer. Right now, I can’t think of a full-time science writer I know who didn’t do some kind of internship.

Don Monroe: Contacts of all sorts. In addition, it helps for an eventual freelancer to understand as much as possible of the parts of the process that they will not see otherwise.

Aries Keck: Invaluable. There’s no way to experience being a writer than to write. Not only do internships give you experience in doing that, and clips that you can use later for job applications, it also exposes you to editors and other writers.

Emilie Lorditch: More professional experience, more contacts, the chance to see how another organization works, and [discover] more possibilities in the field of science writing.

Robert Irion: Internships give writers a formal structure, and close supervision, speeding up a process that otherwise is very difficult to explore on one’s own. You’ll interview real scientists, write articles or file multimedia reports on deadline, and receive detailed feedback from supervisors who care about mentoring the next generation of science communicators.

Internships are competitive-- so you've got to get some prior experience to have a shot at landing one. Photo credit: flickr user The Library of Congress.

Q: Any advice for how to be competitive for an internship?

Sarah Webb: Internships are competitive. Good clips have always been important. The other piece that’s important is showing evidence that you’re committed to science writing.

Aries Keck (advice on how to get connected): Join the National Association for Science Writers and your local science writing chapter [and] go to the meetings. Register as press, see if there’s a ‘shadowing’ or ‘mentoring’ program for writers at the meeting. If there’s not, suck up your courage and ask someone you admire if you could buy them a cup of coffee at the meeting, or even lunch, or a beer. You’re not sucking up, you’re trying this profession on for size, and everyone likes to talk about themselves over a beverage.

Robert Irion: Start on campus with a student publication or, better, the campus news office. Build up a portfolio of published work there first. For national-level internships, one great meeting venue for students, writers, and editors is the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. The NASW Education Committee organizes an internship fair, where current students meet recruiters looking for science writing interns— sometimes for summer positions, but often for revolving spots throughout the year. Science students also should seriously consider applying for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Program. Finally, find professional science writers in your area and connect with them, either at meetings or by asking them to join you for lunch or coffee. We’ve all been mentored in this way, and we’ll gladly offer thoughts on how to get started.

Other useful links:

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune, “Finding the best internship

From About.com, “The true value of an internship

From InternProgram360, “The educational value of an internship

Author: Christine Herman

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5 Comments

  1. Here’s an excellent list hosted by Ed Yong filled with science writers’ own stories about how they got their start. Many of the more senior folks’ tales might not be as applicable today (as my 1st science writing mentor, Mike Lemonick at #86 in the list, points out). But this list is an important reminder that there isn’t one set path to becoming a science writer. I don’t believe science writers should move toward one model, either. FWIW, I didn’t do an internship before starting at C&EN. I had a series of clips and a blog, at a time when chemistry blogs were still pretty rare. But like any job search, there was also a “right place, right time” element there.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Carmen!

  3. Thanks, Christine et al. Here are a few additions. By way of background: I did a AAAS mass media fellowship after medical school, and I now (years later) direct the MS program in science and technology journalism at Texas A&M University. Also, while editor of Science Editor magazine, I regularly hosted interns.

    The website for our program includes a fairly extensive (though not exhaustive) list of internships in science writing and related realms. The list is openly accessible (at http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vibs/stjr/internship-possibilities.

    I suggest not limiting oneself to formal, publicized internships. Sometimes sites create internships for interested individuals. For example, recently a student of ours who was freelancing for a magazine contacted the editor about possibly interning there. The result was a custom-made internship that seemed to suit all concerned.

    Another resource: The AMWA (American Medical Writers Association) Journal has published a pair of articles on internships. Although one of these articles focuses more on the host’s perspective than the intern’s, both might be useful–in part because seeing things from the host’s perspective can aid in landing an internship and making the most of it. One of the articles can be accessed at http://www.amwa.org/default/publications/journal/vol21.1/internships.pdf, the other at http://www.amwa.org/default/publications/journal/vol21.3/v21n3.097.feature1.pdf.

    Enough for now. Thanks again.

  4. I’ve been a chemical information specialist for decades. Since I migrated from lab work to an “alternative” career, for several years I’ve given presentations on careers in chemistry with an empahsis on non-traditional careers, including writing. My chapter on alternative careers needs updating and I’ll be sure to add the concept of internships as a route to careers in science writin. I’d also like to promote coursework and degree paths to science journalism at the college level.

  5. I teach an online writing class geared at science/environment writers (or those aspiring to do more writing for magazines and websites in these areas) and am posting this comment with Christine’s permission! 🙂 If you are interested, you can check out my website on the class: http://www.wendeeholtcamp.com/nature.htm and the class outline is there also. I offer it almost every 6 weeks throughout the year, and it gets consistently positive feedback! You can email me with any questions – email is at the link above. Thanks! 🙂