The term “alternative careers” in science is becoming wildly outdated. The majority of scientists now seek jobs outside of academia, and the interest in science communication in particular is growing. Fortunately, the pool of science communication careers is also expanding. But for the recently graduated, knowing what to search for is a challenge. This post will explain the types of science communication careers out there and how to prepare yourself for them. Scroll to the bottom for a table comparing different scicomm careers on the basis of job security, compensation, competition, and potential for working remote.
Science education and curriculum development
We all know at this point that there are lecturer positions at major research universities, small teaching colleges, community colleges, and K-12. But did you know there are also curriculum development jobs?
Both public schools and private education service providers hire science communicators to support teachers and tutors. Large, private companies sometimes also hire curriculum developers to create resources to train their team. These roles involve creating, managing, and recommending educational content.
Prerequisites include subject matter expertise and education experience, ideally including development of scientific lesson plans. This can include formal experience as a TA or informal experience teaching science lessons on a volunteer basis in your community.
Teaching and curriculum development jobs can pay moderately well and are typically stable unless tied to particular grant programs.
Science journalism and medical journalism
Science journalism jobs are considered the holy grail by many fledgling science communicators. Science journalism is exciting, sexy, and obviously appeals to aspiring science writers. Science journalism careers can also be incredibly rewarding, especially if you can land a full-time staff writing position that ultimately grows into news editor opportunities.
However, landing a science journalism job is challenging. They are highly competitive, and the pay is often marginal. The best way to prepare yourself for a science journalism career is to score a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship or attend a science writing/journalism masters program. Both are competitive and require some savings.
You can help your odds of getting a staff science journalism position by writing as early and as often as possible. This includes personal blogs, blogs at any institutions or scientific organizations/societies you are affiliated with, or via The Conversation. Writing about your own research or issues you care about at the interface of science and society is a great way to start. You’ll want to be sure to practice interviewing sources (experts) and working quotes into your writing as well, as this is a key differentiating feature of news writing.
One great thing about science journalism, is that editors are always looking for freelance work. So, if a career in science journalism is out of reach, you can still scratch that itch via freelancing. Many publications even have guides as to what they’re looking for in a freelance pitch (example).
Science policy and science advocacy
Many science communicators are motivated to advocate for science-based practices and policies. One of the most effective ways to do this is in a science policy position in the local or federal government, funding agencies, or non-profit advocacy organizations.
Networking is incredibly important in advocacy/policy positions, so it’s best to get involved with any government or government-adjacent organizations that align with your interests early, often on a volunteer basis.
There are also several opportunities for science policy internships. These include the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, regional science policy fellowships, internship opportunities in technology transfer offices or offices of research at your university, and policy internships associated with scientific societies. Start by meeting with people in your research and tech transfer offices to learn more about what kind of local opportunities might be available.
Science policy and advocacy jobs are hard to come by, and typically geographically limited, but they can be rewarding, stable careers with competitive salaries.
Scientific editing, technical writing, and grant writing
Though not as sexy as science journalism, technical writing and editing can be an appealing option for science communicators who love writing and value the potential for remote work.
There are an increasing number of small companies devoted to technical writing and editing, particularly grant writing and publication editing. Their customers are often international scientists who wish to publish, but do not have a strong command of the English language. There are also opportunities for consultant work in technical writing and editing, but you’ll have to hustle up your own work.
The most lucrative technical writing careers are positions at pharmaceutical or large tech companies, which hire technical writers to help prepare documents for regulatory review, manuscripts, standard operating procedures, application notes, manuals, and technical training materials. Smaller companies will also often hire contract writers on an hourly basis to meet these needs. These positions can be very high paying and flexible, but they typically require a very specific area of expertise, which can make the pool of jobs smaller.
University communications and press office
Every university has a communications office that is responsible for outward and inward facing communications, including promoting the scientific work of their institution. University press officers are responsible for monitoring ongoing research and identifying work that is likely to attract media attention. They write press releases about publications, partnerships, and funding won by university researchers.
The best way to prepare for a PIO (press information officer) job or a similar position in a university communications office is to build relationships with those people at your institution by requesting informational interviews, telling them about your own research, and volunteering to write blogs. The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship or formal science journalism training will also help, as the best press officers understand what motivates journalists to pick up stories. PIO jobs let you stay tapped into the academic community, and they typically have decent pay and stability.
Some universities may also require communications work for specific science or science-adjacent programs. These are often large, multi-year, multi-investigator grants or endowments that require some extra coordination and administration, typically by the office of research. Communications positions within specific research programs can be exciting, but their longevity is often tied to grant renewal.
Commercial science marketing and content management
This is the single largest category of science communication jobs and also the least well-known. As the internet has ushered in an “attention economy,” marketing and sales are increasingly shifting from proactive sales outreach to more passively drawing in potential customers with compelling content.
The sciences are no exception. Tech and pharma companies, science journals, and scientific associations all need to attract an audience of potential “buyers.” For tech and pharma, those buyers are typically scientists at other businesses or universities, for journals, they are researchers who would submit work or subscribe, for associations, they are members.
To get the attention of buyers, companies and organizations are creating and promoting ever more content. This includes web pages, videos, webinars, infographics, blogs, white papers, case studies, and more. Someone has to produce and manage all of that content. Trained scientists with communication skills are the best prepared to do so, because they understand the technology and the audience.
Though not as flashy as science journalism or science policy jobs, science marketing and content management jobs are ample, high paying, and many now offer opportunities for remote work. To prepare for these jobs, practice communicating about science in as many different ways as possible, including blogging, social media, and presenting at conferences. A little bit of business training can also help, and many universities now have specific training programs or crash courses for science students interested in entrepreneurship.
|Scicomm jobs||Security||Compensation||Compensation||Remote Opportunity|
|Science education||Low if grant-dependent, high with tenure||Generally low, some exceptions||Moderate||Moderate for curriculum development, low for teaching|
|Science journalism||Low if freelance, Moderate if staff||Generally low, some exceptions||High||Moderate|
|Science policy/advocacy||Typically high||Can be high||High||Low|
|Technical writing||Low if freelance, Moderate if staff||High, often hourly||Low||High|
|University comms/press||Moderate, low if grant-dependent||Moderate||Moderate||Low|