WUSTL Alumni Shed Some Light on Science Communication Careers

A grad student’s to-do list is constantly shifting and growing. In the short term, we might focus on the day’s coursework and experiments. In the medium term, there is always writing to do (admittedly, this blog post has been on my to-do list for a few days too long). In the long-term, perhaps before arriving to graduate school, we are thinking about life after our PhD. For some, the path beyond graduate school is clear. For others – especially those considering careers outside of academia – sorting this out can be daunting. Fortunately, Wash U has a variety of resources designed to help graduate students navigate career exploration. This year, the GradCareers Career Exploration Series features a variety of panels and workshops, with each month focusing on a different career field. And even though this means more items on my to-do list, it’s a welcome addition to my schedule.

February’s theme was Science Communication, which concluded with was a SciComm Career Panel. At the panel, attendees were treated to a discussion with four WUSTL alumni who have gone on to work in diverse careers within science communication. Each of the panelists was kind enough to chat about everything from day-to-day responsibilities to their unique career exploration journeys. Below are some of the highlights from the panel.

How did you get to your current role?

Dr. Eric Hamilton (Plant and Microbial Biosciences ’17) currently works as a Science Writer at the University of Wisconsin. Early in his graduate career, he recognized a passion for science communication. Dr. Hamilton explored the field as a graduate student, including outreach with the St. Louis Science Center. Perhaps most important to his development was the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. This 10-week summer fellowship in journalism cemented his love of science writing. It also allowed him to develop an extensive alumni network.

Dr. Percy Griffin (Molecular Cell Biology ’20) currently works as the Director of Scientific Engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association. Dr. Griffin’s path began with a position as a Strategic Analyst, where he did consulting work for a few months before deciding to make a change. He then transitioned to his current role with the Alzheimer’s Association.

Dr. Meghana Karnik-Henry (Neuroscience ’09) has explored a variety of sectors before landing at her current role as a Senior Manager in Medical Publications at Lundbeck. Following her PhD, she did what most of us assume we should do: she found a post-doc position. After realizing that continued lab work wasn’t for her, she chose to pursue teaching. Integral to this decision was her recognizing that while bench work was not satisfying, she loved the moments when she acted as a teacher and mentor. Dr. Karnik-Henry taught at two small liberal arts colleges, followed by time as a medical writer at both a small boutique firm and a larger international firm. After working in medical writing on the “agency” side, she decided to switch to the “client” side, which brought her to her current role at Lundbeck, a small pharmaceutical company. As a Senior Manager, she works on numerous projects centered on managing the company’s science communication publications.

Dr. Margaret Tucker (English and American Literature ’18) currently works as a Medical News Writer with the Siteman Cancer Center. As a graduate student, she recognized that the lifestyle of an academic would not suit her, so she began applying for a variety of positions in the St. Louis area. Dr. Tucker credits the Wash U jobs network (check out CareerLink!) with helping her to quickly identify potential employers. Ultimately, taking advantage of the Wash U network helped her to find her current position at Siteman.

Each of these stories highlights that there is no one correct way to pursue science communication. Dr. Hamilton quickly identified his passion for science writing and took a direct and deliberate approach to pursuing it, while Dr. Karnik-Henry has spent years exploring her interests. Dr. Griffin quickly realized consulting work was not fulfilling, so he was able to make a change early in his career. And while Dr. Tucker did not study science or biomedicine as a graduate student, she has been successful writing about the research at Siteman Cancer Center. “Science communication” is such a wide umbrella, which gives us the opportunity to explore it however we see fit. Perhaps more importantly, it is never too late to dive in. The list of pre-requisites is short, and arguably stops at “I enjoy talking with and writing about science.”

What is your typical day like?

The panel featured diverse careers within SciComm, and all of the panelists emphasized the tremendous variety they find in their day-to-day responsibilities.

As a Science Writer, Dr. Hamilton is often tasked with profiling the research going on at UW Madison, which means communicating science to a broad audience. In many ways, he is practicing science journalism. In this regard, he is focused on reporting the good news about science at UW Madison, while also soliciting feedback and criticism from readers.           

Dr. Griffin finds that his work varies depending upon the specific tasks at hand. Sometimes he is training people at the Alzheimer’s Association chapters across the country. Other times, he is responding to media inquiries about the latest research. Dr. Griffin also discussed some skills he finds essential to his position: for example, the importance of tailoring communications to particular audiences. This includes not only thinking about the style in which you deliver information, but also the substance. While industry professionals may be interested in a sleek and efficient slide deck that conveys the most relevant information to their decision-making process, researchers may be interested in more granular details underlying the science. Relatedly, it is necessary to be comfortable working with multiple groups of diverse people, whether it’s as a member of a team or in a leadership capacity. Dr. Griffin interfaces with others working at the 75 Alzheimer’s Association chapters across the country, scientists in government and industry, clinicians, and the general public. As such, he must be willing and able to engage with these distinct groups effectively.

Of course, these are just a few of the skills crucial to his success; more insight into expertise that defines effective science communication can be found here, here, and here.

Dr. Karnik-Henry shared her experiences throughout her extensive post-grad journey. At her current position within a small pharma company, she describes having the freedom to “wear a lot of different hats.” As Dr. Karnik-Henry demonstrated proficiency in areas outside of her immediate responsibilities, she was given the opportunity to branch out into strategical development and other roles in management. It was clear that she attributed this freedom to working at a small company; a larger firm might not have afforded the same opportunity.

Dr. Tucker’s day-to-day feels very much like the “classical” science communication position (in my humble opinion, anyway). Her job is to act as the conduit between the research- and healthcare-focused Siteman Cancer Center and the general public. Much like Drs. Hamilton and Griffin, she identifies her target audience and tailors her writing appropriately. More specific to her work is an emphasis on the digital component of communication, with considerations such as search engine optimization playing a key role in how she thinks about communicating Siteman’s messaging. Her job allows her to interface with stakeholders such as researchers, clinicians, and patients.

What advice do you have for current PhD students?

All of the panelists had great thoughts on what current PhD students can do if they’re considering careers in science communication. Dr. Hamilton strongly endorses the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship for anyone interested in SciComm, particularly those considering journalism. Dr. Tucker emphasized the importance of cataloging your accomplishments – and failures – throughout your graduate career. It will be useful to have an organized assessment of what you have produced throughout grad school, the moments when you’ve struggled or failed, and what you learned from these experiences. It’s never too early to start keeping track!

How can PhDs tailor their CV/resume to SciComm jobs?

All of the panelists agreed: as graduate students, we have much more relevant experience than we might think. For example, if you’ve ever organized a thesis committee, you’ve engaged in stakeholder management. If you’ve worked as an Assistant Instructor or mentored a student in lab, you have certainly communicated and taught complex ideas to others. Thesis research itself is one giant exercise in project management, complete with collaborations (interpersonal and leadership skills!), understanding and synthesizing data (research and information management!), and preparing deliverables (written and oral communication!) … not to mention years’ worth of “navigating bureaucracy.”

The lesson here: don’t underestimate the quantity and quality of transferable skills you will accumulate over the course of your PhD. Instead, pay attention to what you are doing and be prepared to tell a compelling story about why a particular job fits into your overall narrative. When in doubt, consider running your CV or resume by the Career Center.

Any final advice?

To paraphrase the panelists’ last bits of advice:

Dr. Griffin: When applying for jobs, just go for it. The worst they can say is no, so you only stand to win. PhDs are highly valued in a variety of industries.

Dr. Tucker: Academia tricks you in to thinking that you have to be a paragon of brilliance to be successful. This isn’t true! You can find joy in your work and be successful on your own terms.

Dr. Hamilton: Follow your gut and curiosity when in the exploration phase. If you’re interested in journalism, give freelance writing a try.

Dr. Karnik-Henry: When you begin looking for the next step after your PhD, be it a job or a post-doc: apply your analytical skills to your preparation. Make a spreadsheet of your achievements, publications, organizations, leadership positions, etc. and use this as a framework to tell your story and describe what you’ve learned.

If you’re interested in learning more about science communication, consider enrolling the Science Communication Credential! It provides real-world experience and pedagogical training in SciComm – a great addition to any CV.