I’ve said it before and I will definitely say it again.
‘Being a scientist is not just one thing’
Deciding what to do next after the PhD is something that is stressing me a little because, well, I don’t know what I want to do. Over the last year or so as I’ve started to share more and more of my science and scientist life on my blog and on my social media pages, my eyes have been opened to even more possibilities for a science career than I ever imagined. In fact, it has only complicated my decision making process even more. There are so many different career paths that fascinate me, so many more that I want to delve into a little deeper and so many that I want to try out. I know there are lots of grad students around the world who are in a similar position to me so I thought I would share some of the research I’m doing into a post-PhD career with a series of guest blogs from scientists who have been there and done it. They have left the lab bench and pursued a career that everyone doesn’t stereotypically think a scientist can have. Now, it might have been a little while since the first post in this series from the beautiful Sophie P about her career in Medcomms, but I am thrilled to announce it’s time to dig a little deeper into leaving the lab bench for a career in science communication. So, I want to introduce you to Katy who is going to give you a quick insight. Over to you Katy!
Hello and welcome to my guest blog! I’m Katy and I work in science communications for Alzheimer’s Research UK, a major UK medical research charity.
So I’m here to tell you about my career, how I got into it and what I love about my job. But if I’m honest, I didn’t know I could have a career in science communication until a few years ago when I was in the final stages of my PhD. Science communication is a vast and varied world, so I’m going to focus on my particular corner of it.
Why did you do a PhD?
I’ve always been fascinated by the brain, particularly diseases of the brain, which led me down the path of a PhD. My research focused on understanding a particular way that neurons may be dying in Alzheimer’s disease. Working on a disease with huge unmet clinical need, I felt I was on the final frontier, exploring unknown territory. But what I discovered was that I was happier outside of the lab talking about the vast array of amazing neuroscience research than actually being in the lab. I was visiting schools – going as far as Kenya! –, hosting students in the lab, helping at science festivals and events, all while doing a PhD. My greatest discovery was that people get paid to talk about science.
‘There are always people out there willing to help you on your way, so get out there, keep building your network and asking questions.’
Best careers advice I’ve received – see someone with a job you like? Ask them how they got it.
With my new career path in mind, I set about finding out as much about the different roles open to someone like me. Public engagement teams at universities, press offices, science journalism, being a science explainer in museums, freelance science communicator, festival programmer to name a few – all slightly different flavours of science communication. From talking to people in these roles, I realised I needed to gain as much experience as possible and immerse myself in the scicomms world – look up BIG, pscicomm mailing list, Stempra, local sci comms meet up groups etc. There are so many voluntary roles you can take on to gain experience; some of my key ones were being part of the communications team at Pint of Science, and volunteering at Cheltenham Science Festival. Through doing these things, I met inspiring people who shared advice and experiences, and began building my network, something which is now very valuable in my job.
Can a dream job ever stand up to expectation?
The notion of a dream job sounds childish, but actually, is a great career goal to have. Who doesn’t want to get fired up about what they are doing and be amazed on a daily basis that work can be so much fun?
With my PhD research being about Alzheimer’s, I’d always felt my dream job would be working for an organisation focused on this area. Even just spotting the job advert for my current role caused me to break out into a happy dance in my kitchen, so I can’t describe how elated I was when I was offered it.
I have now been part of the Science Communications team at the charity for 18 months, and it has not disappointed. My colleagues are all driven and inspiring, and – clichéd I know – every day is different and presents me with new challenges.
So what does a typical day look like?
I’m office based, but this does not mean I’m desk bound. On an office day, I’ll power up my laptop and first check our media monitoring system to see what coverage we’ve achieved in the media and other stories about dementia that have hit the press. Then it’s turning to whatever may have dropped into my inbox and starting on the to-do list, with meetings scattered about during the day. In my team, we each have our own focus – mine is public engagement, with another colleague leading on press and another on fundraising support.
My tasks can include planning our presence at various science festivals and events, coming up with new interactive activities and resources, liaising with scientists running their own events or promoting events we are going to. On busier media days, as enquiries come through I may have to drop everything I’m doing to talk to journalists about a new paper being published, write up our opinion on it in the form of a press comment and arrange for our spokespeople to do interviews for TV and radio. I also help in supporting our fundraising teams with information about the research we are funding suggesting particular projects that may suit their audience and writing summaries and updates for them.
All this requires me to be up to date on current dementia research and also having a good working knowledge of our research portfolio – currently over 130 projects – and being able to break complex science down for different audiences.
I am out and about on a regular basis, going to meetings with external organisations, giving talks about dementia and research, and working at events. Last year, my manager estimated I travelled over 3,000 miles in the space of two months visiting our research network and speaking at their public engagement events!
1. Exploring my creative side. Essentially my role involves coming up with new ways to engage people on the topic of dementia, break through misconceptions and communicate complex research. Drawing, building, writing and throwing ideas around for campaigns all gets my creative juices flowing.
2. The varied nature of my role. Working for the fastest growing medical research charity means that the pace of change is fast and teams are still relatively small. One day I may be at a science festival talking to the general public, the next at an international conference writing blogs and media releases, the next in the office working on a major project.
3. Passion for the cause. Working for a charity is highly rewarding – everyone has the same ultimate goal, but we each use our own range of skills to help us get there. Knowing I’m playing my small part in helping to change the future for people with dementia spurs me on.
Sounds too good to be true, there must be something you don’t like?
Afraid to say not really! The hours can be long and times can be pressured when working towards big events and deadlines, but the ultimate satisfaction makes it all worthwhile.
‘My greatest discovery was
that people get paid to talk
What skills did you need to get this role?
I didn’t need a PhD to get this job, in fact I’m the only on in my team with one. Everyone in the Science Communications team has a science background, giving them scientifically literate and critical minds. On top of this though, is the nose for a good story. Being able to quickly spot the point of interest in a piece of research and know how to explain that in an engaging way is the main skill of a science communicator, whoever the audience may be.
I had to complete two writing tasks – a blog and a press release – and then a standard competency based interview. What worked in my favour was that I’d done quite a bit of public engagement and outreach work, which had given me some broad experience of a number of areas – I could break science down to different audiences, had some media experience, had helped at science festivals and designed some activities. I’ve since been told that my passion for research and the cause was abundantly clear, and that my interviewers knew I’d be able to adapt to whatever was thrown at me.
When I was wanting to get into the scicomms world, I was scared I didn’t have what it takes and that jobs were super competitive – it’s hard to shake imposter syndrome. But like anything worth doing, it’s not always easy and my perseverance has more than paid off now I’m in a job I love. There are always people out there willing to help you on your way, so get out there, keep building your network and asking questions.
Huge thank you to Katy for giving us a small insight into her switch from lab bench to scicomm. Yet another career that I am slightly jealous of! Lots of points that I resonate with her about the discovery of getting paid to talk about science and having a varied day. It has certainly broadened my horizons a little more and hopefully some of YOU found it useful too.
If you have any more probing questions about a career in scicomm for Katy, then leave them in the comments and I will fire them over to her, or you can follow her on Twitter and ask for some more advice there too!
If you are thinking about leaving the lab bench and starting a ‘non-traditional science career’ let me know in the comments. Perhaps the next careers post can be featuring someone who has done exactly that 🙂 But for now…
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