The PhD Route To Becoming a Science Writer

If you know that you want to become a science writer, should you even bother with obtaining a PhD in science? There is no easy answer to this question. Any answer is bound to reflect the personal biases and experiences of the person answering the question. The science writer Akshat Rathi recently made a good case for why an aspiring science writer should not pursue a PhD. I would like to offer a different perspective, which is primarily based on my work in the life sciences and may not necessarily apply to other scientific disciplines.

I think that obtaining a PhD in science a very reasonable path for an aspiring science writer, and I will list some of the “Pros” as well as the “Cons” of going the PhD route. Each aspiring science writer has to weigh the “Pros” and “Cons” carefully and reach a decision that is based on their individual circumstances and goals.

Pros: The benefits of obtaining a science PhD


1. Actively engaging in research gives you a first-hand experience of science

A PhD student works closely with a mentor to develop and test hypotheses, learn how to perform experiments, analyze data and reach conclusions based on the data. Scientific findings are rarely clear-cut. A significant amount of research effort is devoted to defining proper control groups, dealing with outliers and trouble-shooting experiments that have failed. Exciting findings are not always easy to replicate. A science writer who has had to actively deal with these issues may be in a better position to appreciate these intricacies and pitfalls of scientific research than someone without this first-hand experience.


2. PhD students are exposed to writing opportunities

All graduate students are expected to write their own PhD thesis. Many PhD programs also require that the students write academic research articles, abstracts for conferences or applications for pre-doctoral research grants. When writing these articles, PhD students usually work closely with their faculty mentors. Most articles or grant applications undergo multiple revisions until they are deemed to be ready for submission. The process of writing an initial draft and then making subsequent revisions is an excellent opportunity to improve one’s writing skills.

Most of us are not born with an innate talent for writing. To develop writing skills, the aspiring writer needs to practice and learn from critiques of one’s peers. The PhD mentor, the members of the thesis committee and other graduate students or postdoctoral fellows can provide valuable critiques during graduate school. Even though most of this feedback will likely focus on the science and not the writing, it can reveal whether or not the readers were able to clearly understand the core ideas that the student was trying to convey.


3. Presentation of one’s work

Most PhD programs require that students present their work at departmental seminars and at national or international conferences. Oral presentations for conferences need to be carefully crafted so that the audience learns about the background of the work, the novel findings and the implications of the research – all within the tight time constraint of a 15-20 minute time slot. A good mentor will work with PhD students to teach them how to communicate the research findings in a concise and accurate manner. Some presentations at conferences take the form of a poster, but the challenge of designing a first-rate poster is quite similar to that of a short oral presentation. One has to condense months or years of research data into a very limited space. Oral presentations as well as poster presentations are excellent opportunities to improve one’s communication skills, which are a valuable asset for any future science writer.


4. Peer review

Learning to perform an in-depth critical review of scientific work is an important pre-requisite for an aspiring science writer. When PhD students give presentations at departmental seminars or at conferences, they interact with a broad range of researchers, who can offer novel perspectives on the work that are distinct from what the students may have encountered in their own laboratory. Such scientific dialogue helps PhD students learn how to critically evaluate their own scientific results and realize that there can be many distinct interpretations of their data. Manuscripts or grant applications submitted by the PhD student undergo peer review by anonymous experts in the field. The reviews can be quite harsh and depressing, but they also help PhD students and their mentors identify potential flaws in their scientific work. The ability to critically evaluate scientific findings is further enhanced when PhD students participate in journal clubs to discuss published papers or when they assist their mentors in the peer review of manuscripts.


5. Job opportunities

Very few writers derive enough income from their writing to cover their basic needs. This is not only true for science writers, but for writers in general and it forces writers to take on jobs that help pay the bills. A PhD degree provides the aspiring science writer with a broad range of professional opportunities in academia, industry or government. After completing the PhD program, the science writer can take on such a salaried job, while building a writing portfolio and seeking out a paid position as a science writer.


6. Developing a scientific niche

It is not easy to be a generalist when it comes to science writing. Most successful science writers acquire in-depth knowledge in selected areas of science. This enables them to understand the technical jargon and methodologies used in that area of research and read the original scientific papers so that they do not have to rely on secondary sources for their science writing. Conducting research, writing and reviewing academic papers and attending conferences during graduate school all contribute to the development of such a scientific niche. Having such a niche is especially important when one starts out as a science writer, because it helps define the initial focus of the writing and it also provides “credentials” in the eyes of prospective employers. This does not mean that one is forever tied to this scientific niche. Science writers and scientists routinely branch out into other disciplines, once they have established themselves.


Cons: The disadvantages of obtaining a science PhD


1. Some PhD mentors abuse their graduate students

It is no secret that there are a number of PhD mentors which treat graduate students as if they were merely an additional pair of hands. Instead of being given opportunities to develop thinking and writing skills, students are sometimes forced to just produce large amounts of experimental data. 


2. Some of the best science writers did not obtain PhDs in science

Even though I believe that obtaining a PhD in science is a good path to becoming a science writer, I am also aware of the fact that many excellent science writers did not take this route. Instead, they focused on developing their writing skills in other venues. One such example is Steve Silberman who is a highly regarded science writer. He has written many outstanding feature articles for magazines and blog posts for his superb PLOS blog Neurotribes. Steve writes about a diverse array of topics related to neuroscience and psychology, but has also developed certain niche areas of expertise, such as autism research.


3. Science writer is not a career that garners much respect among academics

PhD degrees are usually obtained under the tutelage of tenure-track or tenured academics. Their natural bias is to assume that “successful” students should follow a similar career path, i.e. obtain a PhD, engage in postdoctoral research and pursue a tenure-track academic career. Unfortunately, alternate career paths, such as becoming a science writer, are not seen in a very positive light. The mentor’s narcissistic pleasure of seeing a trainee follow in one’s foot-steps is not the only reason for this. Current academic culture is characterized by a certain degree of snobbery that elevates academic research careers and looks down on alternate careers. This lack of respect for alternate careers can be very disheartening for the student. Some PhD mentors or programs may not even take on a student if he or she discloses that their ultimate goal is to become a science writer instead of pursuing a tenure-track academic career.


4. A day only has 24 hours

Obtaining a PhD is a full-time job. Conducting experiments, analyzing and presenting data, reading journal articles, writing chapters for the thesis and manuscripts – all of these activities are very time-consuming. It is not easy to carve out time for science writing on the side, especially if the planned science writing is not directly related to the PhD research.


Choosing the right environment


The caveats mentioned above highlight that a future science writer has to carefully choose a PhD program. The labs/mentors that publish the most papers in high-impact journals or that happen to be located in one’s favorite city may not necessarily be the ones that are best suited to prepare the student for a future career as a science writer. On the other hand, a lab that has its own research blog indicates an interest in science communication and writing. A frank discussion with a prospective mentor about the career goal of becoming a science writer will also reveal how the mentor feels about science writing and whether the mentor would be supportive of such an endeavor. The most important take home message is that the criteria one uses for choosing a PhD program have to be tailored to the career goal of becoming a science writer.


Image via Wikimedia Commons(Public Domain): Portrait of Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev wearing the Edinburgh University professor robe by Ilya Repin.