This post was inspired by @SciCommClub on twitter, who asked the twitterverse how folks got started in science communication, so here’s my story! Whilst I very much fell into the work that I do now, looking back it should have seemed more obvious where my career passions lay.
I fell in love with science at high school, I had some wonderful biology and chemistry teachers who made me excited about class, and I was good at those subjects. I was also part of my school’s fast track triple science programme, where I did more science lessons that other in my year, so studying science beyond GCSE felt like the natural next step.
In sixth form, I chose Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Psychology for A Level. Chemistry and maths were suddenly a lot harder than at GCSE, and I ultimately dropped maths after A/S after scrapping a B grade. But biology… just clicked for me. I got it, I loved it, I was fascinated by it. I was so good at it that I ended up running biology revision sessions for my classmates in our free periods.
I always thought about being a teacher, but going to an underfunded and over-filled high school in South London really put me off – especially after my chemistry teacher got a lab stool thrown at her.
For university, I knew I wanted to study biology – specifically molecular biology or genetics – and I wanted to get away from London and any built up area (I remember google mapping universities and crossing them off my list if they were too built up). I visited the University of St Andrews in Year 12 and fell in love, I knew that was where I was meant to be. I was shocked and thrilled to even be offered a place, and evenmore so to actually get in.
One of the reasons I picked a Scottish university (I had also looked at Stirling and Aberdeen), was the four year course structure and ability to take lots of different courses in the first two years. Living again in England now, and working with A Level students, the English university system still baffles me!
I loved my classes – I took a mix of astronomy, chemistry and psychology on top of my compulsory biology courses. But as much as I loved learning about science, I wasn’t so great in labs. I just wasn’t sure what was happening, I couldn’t understand how to make the experiments work, and never knew why mine hadn’t worked. I think this story rings true to a lot of scicomm-ers who got into scicomm after a BSc in a science subject.
In my second year, I came across a very small student science magazine and thought that might be a way to combine my love of science with my enjoyment of writing, with none of the labs. I joined the writing team first, then took up editing – which I ended up being better at than writing – and was Editor-in-Chief in my final year. Finally, I’d found a way to be involved in science without doing lab science.
Between my third and fourth year, I was lucky enough to be accepted to do an internship in the editorial department of the Wellcome Trust in London. I got to edit and write for their educational biology magazine for 16-19 year olds, and I had the best summer! My previous two summers had been spent at AQA in Guildford, processing exam papers (boring, but amusingly still education related).
In my final year, I had realised that something in science communication was where I wanted to be, but I wasn’t really sure what. My partner was looking at business grad schemes, and I was looking at sci comm grad schemes (which are few and far between), so London was where we presumed we needed to be. The whole of first semester this was the plan, but a number of failed job applications (on my end) later, I started to look at masters options. Then my partner was thrown an amazing curveball – a fully funded MA and PhD at St Andrews. Luckily for me, Edinburgh has a great MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement, which had come highly recommended by the head of PE at St Andrews, so I applied and got into that.
Living in Edinburgh for a year was a dream (other than being back in halls which was… not a decision I would make again), but I knew I would likely be moving back to Fife to live with my partner after my MSc. So I decided to make the most of being in Edinburgh whilst I was. One of the main reasons I liked the MSc I was on is that it had integrated work placements, so I could apply the theory and ideas I had learnt in classes immediately in a real work context. I did placements at the University’s department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, and Edinburgh Zoo. I loved my Edinburgh Zoo placement so much that I ended up staying on as a volunteer for months after.
On top of my MSc and placements, I took on work as a Student Ambassador – both for a bit on income and to build up public speaking skills, which wasn’t something I was very experienced in – and volunteered for EUSci (Edinburgh University Science Magazine), for the Student Union as a Peer Proofreader (helping international students with academic English) and as an Event Co-orindator for Pint of Science. Looking back, I’m not sure how I fit it all in, and wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to current students, but I built up so much experience.
As the end of the academic year suddenly appeared, it was back on the job application train again. I interviewed for a fair few positions, and I think I was ‘runner up’ about three times in a row. I applied for everything from a Comms position at the Zoo, an internship at the Zoo, an Education Officer at a fisheries museum (despite being vegan…), a Widening Participation officer, a student comms officer… the list goes on. I still hadn’t really worked out which bit of science communication was the bit for me (other than policy work, which I hadn’t enjoyed the course for).
Eventually, I got a job as a Science Communicator at Dundee Science Centre, which was handy as we’d just signed a lease on a flat about half an hour away from Dundee. I worked part time, minimum wage on a zero hours contract because I knew I needed the experience. All the feedback I was getting from my many interviews was that the person who they’d gone with had more experience than me. I bit the bullet, and was lucky that we had very cheap rent and my partner had a decent stipend.
Whilst being a science communicator, I got to know the Education team (I had actually interviewed for a job in the team, but was beaten out by an ex-teacher). Because I was flexible on when I could work (in comparison to lots of the other Communicators who were also students), and could drive. Their team of 3 only had 1 driver, which was limiting for Outreach, so I got to do a lot of schools Outreach with them. I really enjoyed it, and was pretty good at it. I liked the structure of having a class for a set amount of time, the set-up of a classroom for activities, it clicked with me. Luckily for me, a spot in the team opened up a year after I joined the Centre, and I got it.
It was after about a year in this role that I knew that this type of scicomm was what I wanted to do, for now at least. We saw over 10,000 students from across East Scotland in a year, and I managed and organised an Outreach programme that saw thousands of students in remote areas in Angus and Perthshire.
An organisation restructure and a pandemic later, and I knew the organisation was no longer a good fit for me. I was furloughed for 6 months, and felt very disconnected from scicomm. I had placed all my worth as a communicator into my work, so when I wasn’t working I felt like I couldn’t do science communication. I also reflected on what I wanted to do in life. I loved the variety of topics that I got to teacher at the Science Centre, but I missed the in-depth biology, and felt like (in the wake of a viral pandemic) that was where I could make the biggest ‘difference’.
I had been keeping my eyes peeled for job opportunities for a while (see my Getting Started in SciComm for my favourite mailing lists and places to find jobs). My partner was coming to the end of her PhD and working remotely, so we were no longer geographically restricted. We both love Scotland, but being so far from family in England had become impossibly hard over the pandemic, so we knew a move South was on the cards. And then, just like that, a job popped up on psci-comm mailing list.
I’m not usually a big believer in fate, but I think some things do happen for a reason. This job ad popped up at a time when, if there hadn’t been a pandemic, I would have been on my honeymoon. I had time whilst furloughed to work on my application, call in a favour from an ex-boss, and prep for the interview in a way that I wouldn’t have if I had been working. And just like that, I was the Education & Learning Officer for Wellcome Connecting Science.
I’m not sure how to end this blog, other than a pinch of advice. Along my career journey, I always asked others that I worked with (especially people doing jobs I thought I might want to do) how they got into the role and what they liked about it. Every scicomm-er I’ve met has been more than happy to answer questions or chat about career stuff, so go forth and pester! I’m always happy to chat about job/career stuff – so feel free to get in touch!