Seeking Alternatives to ‘Alternative’ Careers

Among the well-established alternatives to careers in academia, for those with science Ph.D.s, is science journalism—or, more broadly, science writing. Now a science journalism group—the D.C. Science Writers Association (DCSWA)—is planning a panel discussion for an April career event aimed at science writers hoping to change careers.

Robert Taylor, a member of the DCSWA board and a cofounder of consulting firm SAGE Analytica in Bethesda, Maryland, is assembling a session for the association’s Professional Development Day “about alternate careers for science writers—what they might do if they want to move on from journalism, book writing, or being a press officer,” Taylor writes in an email to Science Careers. The session is called “Life After Journalism.”

“Journalism, as a rule, isn’t a growth field these days, alas.” —Robert Taylor

Taylor entered science journalism immediately after earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After years as a journalist, he did a stint at the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and then became a consultant.

Why hold a panel discussion on alternative careers for science writers? Taylor puts it this way: “Journalism, as a rule, isn’t a growth field these days, alas.”

Those of us who work in science journalism have been aware for years that our field is shrinking. While it’s still possible for talented writers to enter the field and make a mark, traditional print outlets are closing science desks (and sometimes closing altogether). Online media outlets are struggling to invent a sustainable revenue model that will allow them to pay writers. Freelance work is still available, but permanent staff-writer gigs are scarce.

Meanwhile, many new scientists seek to enter the field: In our current writer search, we have received dozens of applications from recent (and not-so-recent) Ph.D.-level scientists seeking to make that transition.

Journalism isn’t the only nontraditional science career where opportunities are shrinking. For years the pharmaceutical industry has been one of the largest employers of Ph.D. scientists, using them in research and nonresearch capacities. But over the last decade or so, the industry has contracted, laying off tens of thousands—including many scientists. There is still work on Wall Street for the mathematically and computationally savvy, but there are fewer such opportunities since the financial crisis. Even in fields where good opportunities still exist, the competition has stiffened.

In implementing the 2012 recommendations of its Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, NIH embraced nonacademic careers for the Ph.D. scientists trained with NIH funds, as long as those careers are “research-related,” as NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey puts it. One of NIH’s key actions in implementing the report was the Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) awards program, which aims to “introduce students and postdoctoral scientists to the wide array of biomedical careers early in their training, and provide them with experiences in the career they plan to pursue, in addition to their PhD studies and traditional postdoctoral training, ” Rockey writes.  

A science Ph.D. remains an excellent credential, and even better preparation for employment. Yet, scientists with Ph.D.s who seek to transition into other careers usually must make their own way, and such transitions are often difficult and slow. Thanks to their determination, resourcefulness, and versatility—and not because obvious opportunities await them, or because NIH is spending $11 million over 2 years on the BEST program—they almost always succeed, eventually.

Still, as U.S. universities continue to train six or so Ph.D. researchers for every one who finds permanent work in academic research (the jobs most are being trained for), universities submitting BEST applications—and NIH itself, as it seeks to justify continuing to cultivate a trainee-heavy academic research workforce—should take note: Some “research-related” careers are filling up.

By the way, Taylor is seeking ideas for his panel. If you have an interesting perspective on alternative careers for science writers, you can contact him here.

Top Image:  CREDIT: Luc Viatour

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