On my travels, I frequently meet people who are inspired by what I do, rather than the topic I’m covering. As science communication is growing, I hear of people wishing to pursue it as a potential career. Do I have any top tips for getting into it? Maybe.
- Do something. There are many different types of science communication; everything from journalism and writing, broadcast media, design and production of museum exhibits, science theatre and performance. Literally, think of a way of translating the message of a particular science and tell the story well. We recently held the #GreatBrumSciCommBakeOff, which kind of speaks for itself. Using cake to open conversations about science topics. In essence, find what you want to do based on what you are good at and bring your own flair to it.
- Work hard. Don’t expect to make a lot of cash. There are freelance roles that people grow where, like me, they work for themselves. Some manage to fill a full diary, while others have periods where we are not working. I’m lucky in the sense that I also work part time at a university, doing things very similar to what I do in as a freelancer. Much work can come from schools, but their funds are short and you have to be priced fairly. That said, I spend a lot of time chasing work, invoicing, preparing, building and rehearsing. I have to offset that time somehow.
- Find help. There is an awesome network of people who are frankly brilliant and experienced at what they do. Check out BIG, the STEM Communicators Network. They run workshops throughout the year and hold the best event in July. Go and see how others do it; watch their shows, read their work, whatever. If you are a graduate, consider one of the many Masters degrees in Science Communication. Pop along to a SciComm social near you. There you will find like minded ones, eager to share ideas.
- Be brave. Like any career path, there will be times when you feel a little out of your depth. Don’t be afraid to say ‘Yes’ and give something a go. I began by delivering one workshop at the university I worked at. The next time, I had developed an idea. Eventually, that grew into a trilogy of lectures, a bit like the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. Then I stepped out of my discipline and developed workshops for others. Make yourself available to work with people. Sure, to start with, you will probably begin by volunteering to work with someone else. Don’t maintain that for too long as it is not sustainable. Which leads me to…
- Be visible. Keep a public portfolio of what you do. These days, websites are really cheap and good looking too. Make videos, provide pictures, keep a journal of events you have done and plan to do. It’s like a CV that the world has access to. Make sure people can see what you do so they can view you as a professional. You will build a reputation for doing something well. It is worth building your social media profile and linking them together. Think of it as being your brand. Whatever you are doing, recognise it will take time. I recently saw a science researcher on twitter complaining that there were not many of [X] specialism on the platform. There are actually loads! They just weren’t following our eager researcher who was expecting a instant network. You have to build it. Remember that people won’t hang on your every word. If you have something to say, say it. If you don’t, listen instead.
At the end of the day, no amount of chatting on social media will substitute for you getting out there and doing something. If you want to get involved, there are skills you will need to develop, but the good news is that they are also skills you want as a scientist anyway.
Integrity is vital; whether it’s the accuracy of recording your data, or explaining to people an element of science. Don’t bend the truth, be accurate. This doesn’t mean you are dumbing down; you are explaining clearly. There is a difference. Practice explaining what you do to various audiences. Join the STEM ambassador scheme within your local region. They will also look after things like your public liability insurance on the events you volunteer for. If you are a researcher creating a conference poster, plan it carefully. The poster is a lay summary; a hook for a passerby sufficiently simple to get them to stop and speak to you. Remember that you are the expert in your topic, not the piece of paper you’re standing by. The poster will never develop any skills, but you can.
Finally, if you are a scientist, then recognise it as YOUR job to communicate your topic. At some point, you will be strategically planning a public engagement strategy, leading to you communicating with your key stakeholders. Don’t leave it till it really matters before you learn to communicate effectively. Get skilled early.