Beyond Your Ph.D.: How to Break into Science Education, Communication or Outreach

March 4, 2020

Congratulations, you’re *this close* to getting your Ph.D. and are ready to pursue a career in science education, communication or outreach! Do you know how to make your next step a reality? You have options, and each one has its own timeline, process and end goals. 

Get a ‘Real’ Job 

If you have never been in the job market, the idea of finding a ‘real’ job can be daunting. Where do you even start? Since graduate students know when they will graduate a few months beforehand, use this lead time to not only craft a resume and cover letter you can easily tailor to postings (hint: make them modular!), but to also set up your job search. A little bit of legwork up front can save you hours combing through listings when the crunch is on.

One of the easiest strategies is to set up job site filters based on a search like “science education and outreach.” Although there are numerous science-specific sites, be aware that they typically focus on academic and industry research jobs, and aren’t the best resource for science education, outreach or communication jobs. Instead, use broad sites like LinkedIn, Indeed and Idealist. Experiment with various search terms and parameters, like filtering by state or city, to find the combination that yields the most promising results. Then, have the sites email you a daily digest of new postings that match your search parameters. Many of the postings may not be relevant (‘outreach’ means many things, for example), but casting a wide net ensures that you don’t miss jobs that are relevant. Plus, you’ll be able to see what’s out there that you aren’t even aware of. 

Another strategy is to target specific organizations that have science education, communication or outreach staff. Find the job openings section of each organization’s website (usually in the footer or under “About Us”), bookmark it and check it for new postings every week or so. Jobs in science education, communication or outreach are niche, but exist in a wide variety of organizations: 
  • Scientific societies (ASM, Society for Neuroscience, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, American Association for the Advancement of Science) 
  • Science, natural history and technology centers and museums
  • Universities and research institutions, particularly those with Centers for Teaching and Learning or Broader Impacts offices
  • Non-profits (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Society for Science & the Public, Carnegie Science, National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine)  
  • Government agencies (National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation)
  • For-profit companies (Bio-Rad, Discovery, National Geographic) 
If you’ve done all the right things during your time in graduate school, you likely have contacts in the world of science education, communication or outreach as well. These could be staff who managed programs you volunteered for, speakers from career seminars or people you sought out for informational interviews. Reach out to them to let them know that you’re in the market. Don’t be too forward about it (for example, don’t send your resume unsolicited), but ask that they keep you in mind if anything comes across their desk.

One word of caution: don’t start applying to jobs until you’re within a month or so of graduating. Unlike postdoc or fellowship positions, if you get an offer, the organization likely will want you to start within 2-3 weeks, so you have to be prepared to wrap up what you’re doing quickly.

Do a Fellowship 

Fellowships are a great way to get in-depth, paid experience in science education, communication or outreach, and are designed to boost you into your new field. As with setting up a postdoc, it usually takes a few months to find, apply and interview for fellowship positions. You are also beholden to the sponsoring organization’s timeline for the fellowship, and the start date may or may not work for your circumstances. Fellowships tend to be highly competitive, so even if you decide to apply, you should have a solid back-up plan. 

Here are a few fellowships in the science education, communication or outreach space (if you have an opportunity to add to the list, send it to communications@asmusa.org). 
 
Name Placement Timing Notes
AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship U.S. media organizations (NPR, L.A. Times, NOVA, etc.) Apply in the fall for June start  
AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship U.S. federal government agencies, Congressional offices Apply by Nov. 1 for September start Although this is a ‘policy’ fellowship, there are opportunities to work at agencies or with Congressional committees focused on science education. 
ASHG Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), other genetics education organizations Apply in the spring for September start
 
This fellowship has 3 rotations, at ASHG, at NHGRI and at an organization of the fellow’s choosing.
Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) Apply in early September for January start Although this is a ‘policy’ fellowship, NAS has a Board on Science Education and a public engagement unit (LabX) that take fellows. 
The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships Universities in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania 3 application cycles ending in mid-October, early December and late January This fellowship provides training and certification for classroom teaching in STEM subjects at the middle and high school level.

Do a Postdoc in Science Education Research 

Since AAAS published Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education in 2011, biology departments across the country have hired faculty whose research focuses on biology education. Like ‘typical’ biology faculty, these discipline-based education research (DBER) faculty manage research groups, complete with graduate students and postdocs. If you’re interested in how people learn biological concepts, probing active learning techniques and improving pedagogy and assessment, a postdoc in biology education might be for you. These positions set you up to become DBER faculty yourself.

Finding a DBER postdoc is much like finding a bench research postdoc. You have to seek out faculty with open positions, apply and interview, then negotiate your start date. Generally, the process takes several months. For more on how these positions work, see “A Guide for Graduate Students Interested in Postdoctoral Positions in Biology Education Research” by Melissa L. Aikens, et al. The Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research also has a job board dedicated to DBER positions at all levels. 

One final piece of advice: if at all possible, do not default to doing a bench research postdoc if you know the career you’d like to pursue doesn’t require one. Why not? For one thing, you end up wasting prime years of earning potential. We all know that postdoc wages are not exactly competitive, so why relegate yourself to meager pay and benefits for a position that gets you no closer to your goal? Yes, straying from the default path is scary and unpredictable. Yes, you may feel like you’re ‘not ready.’ But remember, you just completed an original scientific research project for which there was no blueprint - you figured it out. You got this!
 

Author: Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.

Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Lontok joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Public Outreach Manager in January 2016, and transitioned to the Scientific and Digital Editor in Feb. 2020.