A Personally Tested 30-Step Program to Become a Science Writer

1. Attend college intending to study science, but take a variety of interesting writing classes as well.

2. When it comes time to declare a major, decide that biology has more “promise” than writing or literature (because this is what your advisor tells you).

3. Take an expensive MCAT preparation class as you plan to enroll in an MD/PhD program.

4. After months of preparation, decide the MCAT and medical school are definitely not for you and take the GRE instead.

5. Apply to several graduate schools including Stanford.

6. Get a rejection letter from Stanford.

7. Get a second rejection letter from Stanford one week later.

8. Interview at University of Wisconsin – Madison.

9. Wonder if the fact that a large portion of your extended family lives within 20 miles of Madison is a deterrent to choosing that school.

10. Decide that the fact that a large portion of your extended family lives      within 20 miles of Madison is actually a draw to that school.

11. Attend the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

12. Enjoy your graduate classes during the first two years of your program as you realize you really like reading and learning about science.

13. Find a lab in which to do your research and begin a research project.

14. Outline several hypotheses about your project explaining why you may see the results that you see.

15. Perform experiments over the next several years that disprove each one of those hypotheses, one by one.

16. Realize at this point that the research you did as an undergraduate did not adequately prepare you for graduate work and that you may not be cut out for research after all.

17. After a series of experiments that are essentially fishing expeditions, fall upon an interesting result.

18. Recreate your project based on that interesting result.

19. Realize that even after getting an interesting result you still don’t feel cut out for research.

20. Begin to look into alternative career options you may have after completing your PhD program.

21. Continue working on your project that has now become centered on metabolism.

22. Find your college biochemistry book so that you can remember something about metabolism.

23. Attend career fairs and panels and strike gold as you listen to a science writer talk about her career.

24. Realize that you can read about, talk about and think about science without actually having to do the research yourself.

25. Do a happy dance.

26. Begin to apply to science writing programs as you continue experiments and begin to write your thesis.

27. Get accepted into science writing programs and decide to stay at Madison.  (Get no rejection letter from Stanford – but only because you didn’t apply there).

28. Finish and successfully defend your thesis.

29. Begin the science writing program and rediscover the fun of writing and reading about science when it doesn’t have to apply to your PhD project.

30. Start a blog on which you get to write the story of how you became a science writer.

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9 responses to “A Personally Tested 30-Step Program to Become a Science Writer

  1. This is great, Caroline.

    Number 25 is my favorite! I think you highlight a decision that most people interested in science careers face: Whether to make good science or cover it. I considered pursuing a career as a primatologist but decided against it for now. I find that a lot of people make the switch from bench to press.

    By the way, what type of cancer research did you focus on?

    • Thanks for the comment, Marianne! And I agree it’s a tough decision between making and covering science. Maybe someday you’ll find yourself back in the lab!

      I focused on breast cancer in my graduate work. I was looking at a mouse model in which mice lacking a single protein were resistant to breast tumors. My job was to find out why, and it seems to come down to the observation that cells lacking this protein have a different metabolic program. I can’t say I figured it all out, but I made some progress. 🙂

  2. Besides Erin, who I think always had intentions of writing about science, it seems that many of the science writers in the Pro-Track program have, in one way or another, been scared away by the field. I know in your list you give reason to why you wanted to change the direction of your career, but I find it interesting that you aren’t alone in that decision. Do you think that says something about the higher education in the sciences?

    • Interesting comment, Tom. I think the reasons that people move into science writing is due to many factors, and I think it says something about the nature of scientific research (which we get a taste of in graduate school). Scientists have to have an unwavering passion for their work and be able to stomach all of the dead ends that come along with the exciting results. Usually answering one question leads to ten other questions, so scientists have to be willing to focus on a hypothesis for as long as necessary. I couldn’t always wrap my head around these aspects of research – especially the idea that you’re never actually “done” with a project, that there’s always one (or twenty) more questions to ask and answer. Additionally, I really began to recognize the need for more accurate and responsible reporting about science and discoveries. Maybe others have felt that same way about research or science news and decided to redirect their passion for science into writing?

  3. This is great Caroline…I think I’ve been there for all of these steps….Hopefully your steps will help someone else too!

  4. It is true that I have been on a science writing track since my undergrad, but only because I was driven away from pursuing science itself at a very young age (chemistry, physics, calculus… not happening) so I just didn’t try. I give a lot of credit to people that change fields to try to land in a career that will be challenging and rewarding for them, it takes courage. Realizing that you are braver than you think for changing directions (and that you CAN be a science writer) should definitely be one of your steps, but I am still partial to #’s 6 and 7.

  5. Great job, Caroline, smart, funny, and makes a point that I think resonates with many scientists – some of whom turn out to make the best science writers in the business.

  6. Very good read! I can also relate to your initial dilemma as I was set on attending law school after graduating from college, but instead decided a year-long break was needed before going down that path – during which time I ended up getting a job with a Congressman and moving to Washington, D.C. Flash-forward four years and I lost the interest I once had in attending law school and am pursuing an MA in journalism instead. 🙂 Ahh, the interesting path life enjoys taking us down at times. 🙂

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