Educating outside the classroom

Isabel Hawkins took the idea of aiming for the stars literally: She became an astronomer. At the age of 16, she moved from her native Argentina to the United States because, at the time, Argentina didn’t have a telescope. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and master’s and doctoral degrees in astronomy, completed two postdocs, and became a researcher at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied the interstellar medium.

As her career progressed, though, her work “became too specific, and it was hard to explain what I was doing to other people,” she says. “Relevancy was an issue.” She moved on. Now she works with museums to help others reach for the stars as she did. “I felt that through the science-museum world, I could inspire a whole bunch of other people.”

When you find that amazing person who has that really strong science knowledge and skill set, and they can work with a variety of different audiences and are really strong communicators, those people are amazing to have in science learning institutions. I would love to hire those people.

The wide world of informal education

Informal education is better defined by what it is not—traditional classroom education—than by what it is. Informal science education can occur anywhere, but the most obvious venues are museums. Such institutions, Hawkins notes, offer much more than meets the eye. “Museums are like icebergs,” she says. Visitors “just see the little top, and that’s the exhibits, but underneath there’s this huge infrastructure of other programs and other activities. … There’s endless stuff that goes on in a museum.”

People with strong science backgrounds often help design exhibits and provide written material to accompany them. Museums may employ scientists to plan and run public programs or teacher-training sessions or to write educational materials that they post online. Some even work as traditional researchers while also contributing to education and outreach efforts.

Informal educators also work at television and radio stations, after-school programs, and any organization that has educational science content on its website. Responsibilities could include working directly with the public, creating content, managing projects, or working on policy.

“I think you could find a role for almost any type of personality in informal education because there’s so much to be done and so many different ways to support the field,” says Anita Krishnamurthi, who, like Hawkins, completed a Ph.D. and postdoc in astronomy before she left the lab. She is now vice president of STEM policy at Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for quality after-school programs. “If you want to be working on the front lines, you have to like people, and you have to have patience,” Krishnamurthi says, but other jobs call for other traits and for skills in writing, design, project management, and other areas.

While informal science educators can specialize based on their skills and areas of interest and expertise, they do need to be flexible and multifaceted. Hawkins, who works at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and also as an independent consultant, spends time speaking to the public, developing and delivering Spanish-language programming, training educators, helping to produce live webcasts, and writing online educational materials, among other tasks. As she puts it, “I’m kind of a jack-of-all­-trades.”

A foot in the door

The most valuable thing someone interested in informal science education can do is get out and try it: Volunteer or intern at science centers, after-school programs, or any informal setting. Those activities can help you determine whether informal education is the right field for you, Krishnamurthi says. “Test the waters. Try it on for size, and see if you like the environment, the atmosphere, and the people you would be likely to work with. … You might find you don’t like it when you get into the nitty-gritty of the actual job.”

Moreover, for people who want to transition into an informal education career, such activities are hugely helpful on a resume, says Marilyn Johnson, science director at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland. When a chemist with a Ph.D. applied for an educator position at OMSI, his chances for the job were improved by his experience volunteering at the museum, she says. “That showed a level of commitment and knowledge about the situation. We knew this person had an understanding of the reality of what they were applying for and was OK there. Some experience in informal education is really helpful, and that’s always on our list.”

Carrie Seltzer, who earned her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology in 2013 and now directs an educational citizen science program at National Geographic, thinks the outreach and communication activities she pursued during her doctorate were crucial for getting her job. While in graduate school, she judged science fairs, sought opportunities to share her science with broad audiences, and participated in the ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest (sponsored by AAAS, publisher of Science Careers). “In my interviews here, several people asked me about my ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ video, and nobody asked me about my dissertation,” she says.

That’s not to say that the knowledge and skills researchers usually obtain in graduate school aren’t valuable assets too, says Brian Johnson, director of educational research and program development at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. “When you find that amazing person who has that really strong science knowledge and skill set, and they can work with a variety of different audiences and are really strong communicators, those people are amazing to have in science learning institutions. I would love to hire those people,” he says.

He cautions, though, that applications for such positions need to tell a compelling story. “Sometimes with people applying, the transition seems so abrupt: They did their Ph.D. working in a lab for 5 years and then, all of a sudden, they are sending an application for an informal science education job, and in the cover letter they say, ‘I decided I’m interested.’ I’d like to understand more about where that transition comes from, because that’s a big change in career path. I understand that that happens, but being really clear about why it happens and where it’s coming from is really important.”

Marilyn Johnson transitioned to the museum world, from a Ph.D. in nutrition followed by teaching at a college, by applying for a position developing chemistry lab activities, which drew on her biochemistry experience. “My background really spoke to me being hired into that position and allowed me to gradually come into informal science education,” she says. “I would recommend any door you can get in. It really is about proving yourself once you’re there.”

After she started at OMSI, some new colleagues told her why they’d hired her. “For some people it was because I had a doctorate, and that showed my depth of ability to understand science and that I could stick with something that long, and writing my dissertation showed that I clearly could write something long. But for some people it was that I had volunteered in schools, and that I had taught classes to adults and to kindergarteners,” she says. “It speaks to the eclectic … skills that are needed in the informal area, and that if someone is wanting to get into this field, to let all those sides of yourself shine is a good thing.”

Too many languages

You have a good mind—use it!