Chem Coach Carnival – Science Writing
Happy Mole Day, and happy National Chemistry Week! Today, I’m heeding SeeArrOh’s call to contribute a post to his blog carnival, the Chem Coach carnival. The theme is chemistry career paths.
My current job:
I’m a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News magazine. That title is confusing, however. I really am a science writer, not an editor. My home base is the ACS building in downtown Washington DC. (I can see the White House from my office window). I write everything from 1500-word cover stories to 140 character tweets. I also work on videos and other multimedia for C&EN Online.
What I do in a standard “work day”:
I’ve made a pie chart about this for when I give career talks. For someone who makes their living writing, it’s actually not what I spend most of my time doing. I’d classify my most common activity as ‘information gathering’- calling people up, reading the literature, searching grant databases, scanning social media, etc. There is no ‘standard work day’. My week revolves around getting the magazine out, but that’s the basic skeleton around which I fit all my tasks.
What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there:
I could tell you how I became a science writer, but that wouldn’t be very useful information in isolation, because just about every science writer I know took a different path to get there. If you’re really interested in doing what I do, go to Ed Yong’s fantastic Not Exactly Rocket Science blog and read all the ‘how I got there’ tales from science writers there. (I’m number 108 on the list). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that science writing jobs are TOUGH to get these days, especially if you have your heart set on working at a newspaper or newsstand magazine. If your goal is to write for a government agency, university, or institute, you may have more opportunities, though it’s not exactly the land of milk and honey there either. Finally, a lot of my science writer friends have at some point worked as freelancers. Many go back and forth between freelancing and staff gigs. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of running your own business at some point in your career, this may not be the path for you.
How chemistry informs my work:
I once had an editor that likened my chemistry Ph.D. to a language degree. That is the best way I can describe how my training helps me do my job. I’m exposed to corners of chemistry and aspects of chemists’ lives I never encountered in the lab (origin-of-life research, the vagaries of grant overhead, etc.) But at the end of the day I understand the basics of how a lab is run, and how science is done. Great science reporters know these things no matter what their academic background- but I think some chemists I talk to appreciate that I’m “in the club”.
Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career:
Not long after joining C&EN, my dad got a phone call from his mom (my grandma). I hadn’t mentioned my new job to her at that point. Grandma said she’d heard from Eddie, a long-ago neighbor from the 80s, asking if I was writing about chemistry for C&EN. (He remembered meeting 6-year-old me many years ago.) My dad said, “yup, that’s her.” And then my grandma dropped the bombshell– “Eddie” is 1999 ACS President Edel Wasserman. So I can probably say I made contact with ACS at a younger age than any of C&EN’s staff.