Science Communication: Making the Switch
Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Kirk Englehardt (@kirkenglehardt). Kirk is Director of Research Communication and Marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology. He blogs about strategic communication & #scicomm on LinkedIn and The Strategy Room. He also curates and shares #scicomm content, which can be found on Flipboard, Pinterest, Google+ and Facebook.
Changing careers isn’t easy. Neither is giving up on one dream to pursue another, but I’ve done both with no regrets.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve made myself available for several informational interviews by students on the Ph.D. track considering diverting from their planned destination. I easily related to them because I understand the internal struggles involved when deliberating about a career change.
In working through their own deliberations about trading in a career in the lab for one outside – in science communication – these students asked me some excellent questions about how I started in research communication, and sought advice for getting started along their own path in science communication.
There were many similarities between their stories and mine.
While I never pursued a Ph.D., I did pursue a dream career only to find out it wasn’t as “dreamy” as I’d imagined. I remember being an excited undergrad, thrilled to be chasing my dream of becoming the next world-famous radio talk show host. I studied the art, listening to endless hours of Neil Rogers, Phil Hendry, Howard Stern – and sadly – even Rush Limbaugh. They were my heroes back then. They made me laugh, and made me think.
I worked as a sportscaster at my college radio station and, as a student intern, I even co-hosted a Sunday morning talk show on a local commercial AM station. Admittedly, my partner and I were “let go” from the volunteer gig after five shows. It seems we were a bit too edgy for Sunday morning “on-the-way-to-church” radio.
While it discouraged me, it didn’t deter me. I got my degree and, before long, I was working as a nighttime news producer for Miami’s top news radio station. I learned from the veteran reporters I worked with, and I gradually moved into the roles of daytime street reporter and fill-in anchor. Yet something was missing.
I stopped liking the industry I once couldn’t wait to be a part of; it was no longer something I was passionate about. I wondered how reporting on car accidents and murders made the world a better place. I felt as if I was expected to make the news exciting by sensationalizing it, even if the story wasn’t exciting at all. Was I providing value to anyone? Was I making a difference? Did I feel fulfilled? I couldn’t answer “yes” to those questions, so I decided to make a change – from media to communications.
‘This is why I left radio news.’
Making that switch was, in many ways, like transitioning from academic research to science communication. I was asked, for instance, why I was going to be a “flack.”
In spite of that type of negative feedback, I remained resolute in changing course and got my first communications job as a media relations specialist for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. That experience led me to a master’s degree and some other great jobs with bigger titles, bigger teams, and bigger responsibilities. Today, with 16 years of experience, I find myself in my ninth year working in research communication at Georgia Tech. It took a while, but I can finally answer “yes” to those important questions I’d asked myself before I turned in my microphone.
If you’re considering a move to science communication, here’s my humble, unsolicited advice:
- Don’t listen to anyone who tells you communication is a “lesser” career than research. Communication is a science, an important one with real-world impact.
- Don’t ever think that an advanced STEM degree is a detriment. Some of the finest science communicators I know have advanced degrees, and some have gone on to become outstanding communication directors in major organizations. Your curiosity and research methods are transferrable. Your subject matter expertise gives you an edge.
- Science communication positions can be found in many different places. Look at universities, independent research institutes, government agencies, national labs, nonprofit advocacy and professional organizations, media, and even industry.
- Build your portfolio by writing as much as you can. Start a blog, be active on Twitter, engage with – and learn from – other science communicators. Don’t be afraid to become part of the community. We’re a friendly group.
- Talk to others who have made similar career transitions; you’re not alone.
- Follow your passion so you’re doing something that excites you and makes you feel like you’re contributing to something greater. You’ll be happier in the long run.
Over the past couple of months, I have read a number of enlightening blog posts and articles looking at non-traditional careers for academics and the challenges those in academia face when they consider jumping ship. Here are some of my favorites. I encourage you to contact the authors directly, too!
- Why Would You Go and Do THAT? by Paige Brown
- What Does it Mean to Be ‘Good Enough’? via Speakers of Science
- Academia as an Unwieldy Vortex by Matthew Russell
- How I Ended Up With an Alternative Academic Job by Alex Bond
- Sorting Out Your Career is Nobody Else’s Job by Lauren Tedaldi
- Where Do Ph.D. Scientists Work? by Beverly Lieff Benderly
- Academics Anonymous: Why I’m Leaving Academia by Anonymous Academic
- How Smart Ph.D.s Use Their Transferable Skills to Get High-Paying Jobs via Cheeky Scientist
- Ready for the Third Generation of Science Communicators by Sabine Louet
- The Curse of the Multi-Faceted Scientist by Plos Labs and Karen James
I know it’s corny, but it seems fitting to wrap up with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go!