Being a science writer is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding professional careers today. To begin with, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree, although a graduate degree is more common and will make you much more competitive in the job marketplace. I personally recommend earning both a bachelor’s and graduate (either a master’s or Ph.D.) degree in a scientific discipline.
Earning an additional master’s degree in either journalism or science writing will, in the long run, make you much more competitive than most. In my view, earning a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline will endow you with a much greater breadth of scientific knowledge.
However, ironically, in some cases, you may need to prove to potential employers that having a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline does not render you “too knowledgeable to write for the lay public.” Doing so won’t be easy, especially in particular professional settings that prefer master’s level science writers. Once you do, though, you have the potential to be a top contender for just about any science writing job on the market.
Once you have your degree(s) in hand, then you will need to identify your subject matter of interest. In other words, what do you want to write about? You may have had this in mind already, especially during your graduate level education.
However, you may find that, over time, your writing interests may vary somewhat across scientific disciplines or may ultimately include more than one of them. In the long run, you may find that your interest in writing about one scientific discipline or another may wax and wane at first and subsequently become more solidified as you gain more experience both reading and writing.
For example, I have always enjoyed Robert Sapolsky’s writing and his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers solidified my interests in writing about biology and, particularly, neurobiology. Regardless of your specific writing interests, I highly recommend reading a few instructional books about science writing, as well as The Best American Science Writing.
The first rule of science writing is to know your audience. It is very important that you tailor the content and style of your writing according to the interests and level of expertise of your intended readers. What and how you write will differ greatly if, for example, you are writing scientific journal manuscripts than if you are writing about science for the lay public.
When writing for scientific experts, you should assume that your readers are well-versed in the subject matter, and you will need to use scientific terms consistent with the language of the discipline. By contrast, when writing for the lay public, you should assume that your readers are not very familiar with the subject matter and a good rule of thumb is to “write about things as if you were explaining them to your grandmother.”
The most common places to find meaningful employment as a science writer are the pharmaceutical industry, universities, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and trade publications. Each can be highly lucrative and enjoyable.
If you are hired to write for a drug company, they will most likely hire you to be a “ghost writer.” When you work as a ghost writer for a drug company, you will write scientific journal manuscripts in order to publish results of the company’s clinical trials. You will likely not be listed as an author on the manuscripts, but everyone at the company will know that you wrote them and will credit you with their success upon their publication in scientific journals.
You may be able to find a similar job at a university, working as a science writer for a specific laboratory or sets of laboratories. In this case, you may have the potential to be listed as an author on some or all of the manuscripts, even if you did not conduct the experiments. Working as a science writer for a government agency, non-profit organization, or trade publication will most often entail writing about science for the lay public.
When working as a science writer, it is very important that you continually hone your craft. This means that you should practice, practice, practice. You should also read every piece of science writing that you can get your hands on.
The two often go hand-in-hand to facilitate the development of your interests, skills, and writing style. It is also helpful if you have at least one science writing mentor who has more knowledge, expertise, skills, and experience in science writing than you do. A science-writing mentor can significantly enhance your professional development as a science writer. However, try not to feel obligated to adopt your science-writing mentor’s specific writing style or even to write about the same subject matter. A science-writing mentor, ideally, will help you to find your own voice and will allow you to express it in your own way.
Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD has a BS from Carlow University and a graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh on the kinetics of Kinesin motor proteins. In her Postdoc at Penn State University, she examined the kinetics of DNA polymerases. She has since formed her own company in scientific and medical writing services. Dr. Hoverman’s largest long-term Client is the Microsoft Health Solutions Group where she serves as one of three Senior Grant and Proposal Specialists as part of the Business Desk in Sales.
Copyright Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD
Published with permission