Inspired by Jamie Gallagher and his anonymous friend, this is how I got into science communication (and public engagement). The full story is a lot longer and more complicated, here are the highlights and some thoughts.
What I do
Like Jamie, I don’t believe there’s a typical science communicator; we have many different backgrounds and routes in, everyone has their own story to tell.
There are two parts to my science communication. My day job is at the School of Engineering, Cardiff University where I work with researchers on impact, realising the benefits of research beyond the university, and other things for the Research Excellence Framework (REF). I support engagement with industry and policy makers, writing case studies, organise events and conferences, basically most things to do with developing and delivering impact. I contribute to the wider university community by chairing the university’s Gender Equality Steering Group as well as co-organising the Engagement and Outreach Network (EON) and Trevithick Women in STEM group (TWISTEM); you may see the STEM and communication thread running through these too.
The second part is as a volunteer STEM Ambassador: without this scheme a lot of my voluntary work wouldn’t be possible, it provides insurance and a DBS check. Amongst other things I do different sessions on honey bees with the National Museum of History and Cardiff Science Festival.
My key strength is working face to face with people, usually through events. Recently I’ve been trying to do things that don’t come naturally, such as the writing for the REF and this blog, and being in front of cameras for TEDx Cardiff University.
Several years after getting a BSc(Hons) Environmental Pollution Science I applied for a job with Science Shops Wales. I didn’t get it. But don’t worry, they offered me a scholarship to study MSc Communicating Science, so I unexpectedly found myself working part-time and studying-full time — before this I didn’t know science communication had a name or was even a thing. I became a STEM Ambassador and joined the British Interactive Group (BIG), later finding out about public engagement. Since then I’ve had jobs that all call on my core skills but don’t have science communication in the name.
Instead of a route into science communication, think of it more like the Underground map: you can start at different points; run on one line only or switch routes and destinations; go sideways and perhaps backwards; stay in one zone or change; hang around at a station you particularly like; hop onto the Overground if you want; and sometimes new stations open up.
I started by accident, in fact what passes for my career has basically been a series of accidents. Looking back, I’ve been involved in elements of science communication or public engagement since I started working and volunteering as a teenager, it’s amazing how these experiences can help you later on. I consider myself lucky to have worked with all sorts of different audiences, participants and stakeholders, they taught me a lot which makes me who I am professionally.
For me that’s fairly straightforward: I’m paid around £30,000 a year by Cardiff University which I think is a fair valuation of my skills, experience and knowledge as well as reasonable for what I’m expected to do. Shortly after getting my MSc I did try to be self employed but I wasn’t very good at it, particularly understanding tax paperwork — I discovered I work best with and within a structure, so having a full time employer is better for me.
Finding a Job
To me, ability is what matters, not qualifications. I once employed a brilliant provider who were worried they didn’t have a teaching certificate but what I wanted was the best person to work with that audience, not someone with letters after their name. In fact, I’ve heard it argued that having a PhD means you know a lot about a small area, not necessarily about how to communicate it or anything else. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get qualifications, just that it’s not an automatic requirement for getting into the sector.
Look at collecting different experiences, perhaps as a volunteer, and look at your transferable skills. I’ve got a lot of experience in project and event management which can be used in many different areas, but basically means I know how to get people together and make things happen.
Think literally and laterally: the first point in my job description is “Must have a degree in engineering”. I read the rest of it, decided you didn’t, so rang them up to discuss it. After hearing about my experience and skills they asked me to put in an application in and the rest, as they say, is history.
Good luck! Maybe I’ll see you in the field (sometimes literally) some day.