Becoming a Science Writer

Siri Carpenter

When I entered graduate school in social psychology, I was, like many of my colleagues, uncertain of my future but hopeful that there was a place for me in academia. But by my second year of graduate school, I knew that I wasn’t looking forward to an academic career. I didn’t feel eager to develop deeper and deeper expertise in some focused area. Instead, I was unsettled by what I perceived as the necessity of narrowing my interests, choosing only one topic, or at most a few topics, of research. I couldn’t see myself as a professor, but I also couldn’t quite describe what I wanted instead.

What I sought was work that would be intellectually stimulating but broad in scope; that concerned science, but not just one area of science; that allowed me to do research and write, but not always about the same subject. Where could I find such work? Did it exist? I didn’t know, and neither did anyone else whom I consulted.

Then one Tuesday, reading the New York Times science section over lunch, I had what is technically known as a brainwave. I realized that the people who write these articles every week, moving from one subject to another — do that as a job. (I don’t know what had kept me so ignorant until then. Maybe I assumed the articles were written by scholars in the relevant fields of research.) And if it’s their job to do that, I thought, then it could be my job, too. Science writer — that could be me. It really did feel like an epiphany.

Still, I agonized for months over the decision to leave academia to be a science writer. Mostly, I worried that people who had invested in me and whose opinion I valued would be disappointed in me. Also, there was the question of how to proceed. I didn’t know any science writers, or have the first clue how to become one. I didn’t even know the right questions to ask, should I stumble upon a science writer.

In near desperation one evening, I typed “science writer” into a search engine, and up popped links to the website for the National Association of Science Writers. There I discovered, among other things, a very active listserv for science writers and information about internships for science graduate students who aspired to be science writers.

With these nuggets of information in hand, I sat down to talk about my decision with my graduate advisor, Mahzarin Banaji (then at Yale University, now at Harvard). I admit that I was quite apprehensive. The Yale psychology program is explicitly designed for students interested in serious academic careers, and I couldn’t have blamed Mahzarin if she had been unenthusiastic about my wanting to follow such an unconventional path. But to my relief, she was wholly supportive and encouraging. She agreed that I should finish my PhD and that it would be a good idea to seek some science writing internships while still in graduate school. She also strongly advised me to maintain rigorous studies so that I would be fit for an academic career if I should change my mind.

In the two following summers, I was fortunate to be awarded coveted science writing internships. In the first, funded by APA and organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I worked for a summer as a science writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, home to one of the country’s venerable weekly science sections. The following summer, I interned at Science News magazine in Washington, D.C. These two internships taught me how to be a science writer — how to detect newsworthy scientific advances and write about them in a way that is engaging and understandable to a lay audience, yet accurately reflects science’s complexity. In between and after these internships, while finishing my dissertation, I continued to hone my science writing skills, working on a part-time freelance basis for a number of publications. After finishing graduate school, I accepted a position as senior science writer at the APA Monitor®, where I worked until early this year, writing about scientific advances and issues across the breadth of psychological science.

This spring, I struck out on my own as a freelance science writer and editor in Madison, Wisc. My work is thoroughly rewarding, affording me the opportunity to work on diverse projects, from news and feature articles for popular audiences to longer-term academic editing and ghostwriting jobs. I have maintained a special interest in psychological science, and the bulk of my freelance work is in psychology. But I have also welcomed the chance to branch out, writing about topics outside of psychology. It’s exactly the kind of work I had in my mind’s eye years ago, when I didn’t know the word for it. My graduate training, coupled with two outstanding internship programs, provided me with the technical skills to succeed as a science writer. And, I realize now, I learned something else in the process: that you may not always know what path you’re on, but it’s still a path.

(Originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)