Science Writing as a Career Path
Have you thought of pursuing a science writing career, but are not sure where to start? Do you enjoy writing and reviewing papers more than pipetting? Then keep on reading! We interviewed Dr. Mike May, owner of TechTyper, a company that provides technical writing, editing and project management services. Dr. May has a B.A. in biology from Earlham College, an M.S. in biological engineering from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell University. After graduate school, he transitioned into an Associate Editor position for American Scientist magazine. Since 1998, Dr. May has been a full-time freelancer and works with clients such as Biocompare GEN, Lab Manager, Nature, Science and Scientific American, including serving as the editorial director of Scientific American Worldview.
He shares his story with us, skills needed for science writing and where to go for opportunities.
What is your current position?
I am a freelance writer and editor, working almost exclusively in healthcare, science and technology. I also manage large projects, such as custom publications or event-related programs.
How did you decide on your field of study in graduate school?
During my master’s program, I got interested in bat-insect interactions. In addition to my interest in bat-insect interactions, biomechanics caught my attention. I put that all together and completed my thesis on the aerodynamics of crickets evading bat-like calls, or ultrasound.
Why did you start thinking about a career in science journalism? Was there anything that stood out in graduate school that made you consider that pathway?
I turned to science journalism as a lifestyle decision. About halfway through my Ph.D., I started thinking about what kind of life I wanted to live. Three things were important to me: I wanted to run my own business, work from home and do something that could make a difference in the world. Based on those lifestyle goals and my background, I came up with the idea of being a freelance science writer. Although I didn't know a single freelance science writer at that time, this career turned out to meet my goals beyond my expectations. Honestly, I got lucky.
What was your first position after you completed your dissertation?
I jumped right into freelance writing. Financially, though, I only survived the first year by writing a data acquisition program for neurophysiology data. The very day that I turned in that computer program—wondering what I’d do next for money—I ran into a former Cornell student who suggested that I write an article about my thesis work for American Scientist. I suspect that the value of connections in my career is apparent by this point. If it is not, let me add this: strong connections, real personal relationships—and not some giant networking list of people that I didn’t really know—made the difference in my success or failure at every step. The connection that triggered submission of my article to American Scientist, for instance, created a success, because I ended up being hired as an Associate Editor.
The work at American Scientist served as a 7-year paid apprenticeship in science journalism and editing. During those years, I also did some freelance writing. In combination, those experiences left me more prepared for full-time freelance work than I had been right after completing my Ph.D. And how did I get my first good freelance gig? It came from a connection at American Scientist. Even now, most of my work comes from someone I know or someone who knows someone I know.
What are some important skill sets needed to excel in this career?
For me, it is more of a people business than a writing one. Lots of people can write well enough to have a career like mine and make a living, but the real challenge is generating enough work. That is a continually complicated task, especially in an ever-changing field. So, the key elements are people skills and being a professional, which means doing good work, delivering it on time and being reliable. Some business and marketing skills also come in handy. Having a diverse skill set is also an asset. My computer background, for example, comes in handy when I am working on websites.
What are some pros and cons of this career path?
The cons are no paid vacation and no benefits. That is about where the cons end for me. It is a short list. As for the pros, some of the top ones are working from home, interacting with some of the leaders in science around the world and always working on something incredibly interesting. Keep in mind, not all assignments are incredibly interesting, but I am usually working on at least one thing that really grabs my attention.
You happen to have your own business, TechTyper. Where would one launch a writing career if not interested in starting their own business?
I would try to get an internship at the type of place where you hope to work, such as your favorite magazine or journal, and contact the editor about internship possibilities. It is also possible to get a head start with a degree in science writing, although I did not take a single journalism course. It's also useful to become a member of the National Association of Science Writers, which offers a student membership and a job list that notes internships now and then. I've even mentored a few starting writers, and I consider that on a case-by-case basis. There is always more than one way to solve a problem!
What advice do you have for someone wanting to transition to a scientific writing/editing career?
Be persistent. Your confidence might be tested. Your drive might run lean at times. But if this is the kind of career that you really want, don’t give up. Plus, that persistence must, well, persist. This is not a career for coasting. At all stages, you need to keep spinning your gears because things change and you need to keep proving yourself.
Do you have an inspirational/motivational quote for aspiring science writers?
"Your current ability is a starting point only; what counts isn’t where you begin, but where you finish.' — Jon Franklin
Dr. Mike May can be contacted for further career-related questions via email (mike@TechTyper.com) and Twitter (@TechTyper).
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