The Lesser Spotted #SciComm Career
When I started my little mission to talk to PhD people about their careers and life choices, it started to bring up some fairly negative feelings for me – and it seems now that it’s something I should have realised before I got started. Let’s go and find out about all the fields you’re NOT in, and the places you’re NOT going to go, and the great projects you’ll NEVER be involved with. A perfect place to find yourself in the midst of all those New Year ‘what the hell am I doing with my life anyway’ internal assessments.
Throughout some of these interviews, I would worry away on the other end of the phone line, ruminating on how my career looks nothing like the person I was talking to and therefore maybe I’m doing mine ‘wrong’ somehow. Thanks, brain! So after several (lovely!) phone calls with people in different fields than me, it came as quite a relief to talk to someone whose story I could relate to.
Neil studied for his PhD in the US, and did a couple of years of post-doctoral work in the Netherlands. While he was very much tied up in the identity of “being a scientist” (whatever that means), he’d never really stopped to consider what else he wanted, or what his values were.
“There’s not a lot of self-reflection in academia, because the assumption is you’ve already decided what you want,” he told me. For example, even though he’d enjoyed theatre throughout his undergrad study, once he started his PhD, he tucked that passion away into a little box marked ‘hobbies’.
One of Neil’s major milestone moments came while he was watching a colloquium presentation. At that time in his life, he’d been listening to some juicy podcasts, and was thinking a lot about the concept of storytelling and engagement. But here he was – sat listening to a person whose job it was to research and understand the way memory and the brain work – completely bored out of his mind.
It’s when he started to think more critically and creatively about the ways scientists communicate with each other. He’d delivered some workshops on effective PowerPoint presentations, and started to expand on that idea: that he could specialise in training people how to communicate better.
Neil then entered a stage of his career that a lot of us are probably familiar with. He was putting his hand up for as many of the things he had the capacity to do, none of them quite being a job, but none of them quite “just a hobby” either. He managed social media accounts, delivered some workshops, helped out with some science themed projects, and even spent some time working in a friend’s flower shop.
Eventually, some of those conversations and gigs did lead to longer-term opportunities (paid opportunities!) which aligned with Neil’s interests, skills, and specialities. One of those conversations was with an improv-workshop group in California – they worked with scientists to help them creatively and effectively communicate with each other. Guess where Neil’s love for theatre came in handy?
It still took time and work to get to a place where Neil was not only making use of his skills, but being paid for his time, AND doing something he was passionate about. “There was a lot of trying things out: lots of things didn’t work, lots of collaborations didn’t work,” he remembers. “I learned to be choosy. You’ve got to know your bandwidth.”
It’s a pattern of work culture which no doubt resonates with a lot of us, not just those of us who like to call ourselves science communicators. One of my favourite quotes from Tina Fey’s autobiography is, “Say yes and you’ll figure it all out afterwards.” I’ve repeated that little mantra to myself and (smugly) to others in times of career fog – but I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like career fog is almost just a perpetual state of being. When periods of uncertainty and reassessment can drag on for months and years (or forever if you’re freelancing!), saying “yes” to everything isn’t a sustainable approach.
The alternative: know when to say “no”.
As simple as it might sound though, that still takes work. This constant flux of decision making, weighing up the pros and the cons, seeking advice, combing the internet for some higher state of wisdom you can trust more than your own measly self: it takes energy and time. It’s difficult (sometimes impossible) to distinguish an opportunity from a time-waster, and that’s because they’re all cleverly disguised as ‘little favours’ and volunteer gigs.
In a field like science communication, where full time jobs are few and far between (and are rarely actually described as science communication jobs – though that’s a note for another time), it’s safe to say that this period of ‘opportunity spotting’ can drag on for a while. This pattern of work isn’t exclusive to people with post-graduate training, nor to people seeking work in communication. It can start to feel overwhelming: there’s no predictability or security, there’s endless decision making involved, and it’s all topped off by the fact that everything you do, and everything you don’t do, bleeds into your identity. Or, in more modern terms, your ‘brand’. It’s all tied up in a neat little package of anxiety and self-consciousness.
That’s what I’ve come to find anyway.
I guess one of the things we can do to reduce the anxiety is to give ourselves credit for this work: because that’s what it is.
If you came to this blog anticipating a how-to on careers in sci-comm, I hope you’re not too disappointed – there aren’t really any ‘hacks’ (that I’m aware of anyway).
Alternatively, if you came here as a seasoned sci-commer, curious as to what I’ve found so far on my little research expedition, I’d like to take the opportunity to tell you – while I have you: just take care of yourself, OK?