The Entrepreneurial Science Journalist

Author:  Chakma Justin
Date:  December 2008

What most undergraduates outside of the social sciences and the humanities perceive of as science journalism is a passive, fact-collecting affair sifting through press releases and secondary sources. There can be nothing farther from the truth. Becoming a science journalist as JYI can not only enrich your undergraduate education intellectually, but also help you take concrete steps towards finding your passion and the career of your dreams.

The first parallel is obvious. Unlike most undergraduate assignments, as a science journalist you get latitude and choice in what you want to write or learn about. In choosing an assignment, you can either passively accept what your editor has assigned you or the take the opportunity to propose a topic and to learn in-depth and research something you might actually enjoy, while getting extracurricular credit for the effort all the same. And you're not limited to just reading about it.

Live interaction with the leading experts on the topic is probably one of the best parts of being a science journalist. When else can an undergraduate get a one-on-one with a Nobel Prize Winner and ask whatever you want for 30 minutes? Unlimited access to scientists is one advantage of the JI even compared to Scientific American as a result of our non-profit, genuinely educational mandate. Questions to these scientists of interest to you can be phrased in such a way to answer your own career questions. Before asking about the science, you might want to find out how the scientist got into the area, or near the end of the interview, what sort of advice they might have for undergraduates, in which case you might even insert a specific example or anecdote from yourself.

Neither does the interaction with the professor or interviewee have to end there. Several journalists at JYI have personally obtained internships or summer research by either mentioning their strong interest in the area, or following up with the professor. Writing extended commentaries or review articles on a scientific topic that you are passionate about can be one of the best ways to get your foot in the door to a lab. Professors will appreciate and applaud your genuine interest and excitement of the topic by taking the time to become deeply immersed in the literature. For lowerclassmen, this may be particularly helpful due to overcoming your lack of scientific and laboratory experience. Moreover, not only will it make you a more compelling applicant, but it also helps give you a head-start on writing review articles or the background for actual peer-reviewed articles. I can attest firsthand to success on both counts.

This type of networking by demonstrating your intellectual passion and prowess can also apply to companies that you may be interested in obtaining internships with. Given the proprietary nature of company technology and science, this approach to networking is more amenable to career-advice driven interviews. You will be surprised just how willing CEOs and executives are to talking to you. They are impressed when an undergraduate has the guts to cold-call or cold-email them and take the initiative and interest to ask questions about their company or career. Those hot-shots remember that they were once in the same position wondering what exactly they wanted to do with their careers, or what the next move was to get to the career that they wanted. These can almost consider these long-distance informational interviews. I've been offered internships at venture capital firms using this method as an undergraduate student. It definitely opens your eyes, and more importantly, open doors.

Networking often comes with negative connotations of tricking or deceiving people, and one might think that engaging these types of opportunities presents a conflict of interest with being a science journalist. Keep in mind that JYI's primary goal isn't to train science journalists although that may be a byproduct, but rather to hone communication skills of the scientific at large. Obviously you should not right out ask for a job or submit your resume, but there is nothing wrong with pursuing your interest by asking questions and more importantly demonstrating that interest by spending a few hours actually researching or engaging yourself in the topic. Think of it as one more opportunity to make a good impression.

I encourage science journalists to view their journalism experience through the lens of boundless opportunity in terms of being able to learn and meet people who want to help you. Science journalism need not be merely summarizing press releases. It is so much more if you choose. Take risks. Think for the long-term. Foremost, be entrepreneurial and innovative in the pursuit of your career goals.