“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault — because I would not take the trouble of practising.
-Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
In my email every week and at every conference or meet up, a fresh faced young scientist will introduce themselves, and say, basically, “I want to be you. How do I get out of science and into science writing?” They ask for my career path.
Then I tell them that I started a blog during graduate school. I tell them that I posted on said blog three times per week (though sometimes two) all the way through my dissertation and postdoc. For five years.
And that’s when about 90% of their faces fall. “Three times a week?” they say. “That’s a lot of work. That’s so much TIME. I don’t have that kind of time.”
I assure them it doesn’t have to be THAT often. That you get faster as you improve. I tell them I want to help. I give them my business card and cheerily tell them to keep in touch and I’d love to chat more about their career goals.
They walk away. I will never see or hear from 99% of them again.
I didn’t have the time either. I MADE the time. I spent a lot of nights short on sleep. I spent a lot of nights NOT out with my friends. I spent a lot of nights and weekends writing. I spent very little time relaxing. I acknowledge that with kids or other dependent family members or with any problems in my own health, this might well have been impossible. I know I had the privilege of making that kind of time.
I worked some rough hours in the lab, and then I came home and wrote blog posts. I went to full huge days of conferences, out to the parties, and then came back to the hotel room and wrote blog posts. When I shared hotel rooms with several other students, I would write blog posts at 3am in the bathroom or down in the bar. Was it hard? Yes. Was it necessarily the best thing I could have done? Well, I probably could have gone for a less rigorous posting schedule, certainly.
But I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to build my portfolio and I wanted to prove to any editors and employers out there that I could produce good work, consistently and on a solid schedule. I wanted to prove both my ability and my reliability. That meant meeting a schedule. For some that’s once a week, for some it’s once a month. For some it is more or less than that.
But it does mean producing work. Consistently. I am not the only one who has done this. Many of the writers I know now who have gone professional maintained blogs outside of their normal working hours. They went short on sleep. They wrote on planes and in trains and in tents and in the deep dark of night. And they got it done.
But there is no golden ticket here. There is no magic piece of advice. My advice is always the same as my experience. Practice. Write. Write as often as you can. Not always a deep scientific thinkpiece or a grand review. Short pieces are fine. Pieces that say “hey, look at this and here is why I like it ” are fine! But write. Practice.
Scientists are used to practice. If they are in graduate school they are used to working long hours, to spending months at something with little hope of reward. After all, they write grants! They are used to constant study and constant work. And yet, the idea of taking that practice, that ability, and applying it to another field seems to fill them with fear.
I understand that fear. And I understand wanting to walk away. You’ve been working so hard toward a career path, and you’re not even sure it’s the one you want anymore? Yes, I understand that. I also understand looking at picking up a new skillset, and those skills seem very heavy. It’s more time. More time on top of a job that takes almost all your willpower. It’s easier just to keep doing what you’re doing. Doing what you know how to do. One postdoc after another, one paper after another.
I get it. I do. For a while, I did it.
You still won’t break out unless you practice. Maybe you’ll practice in a science journalism program after your PhD. Maybe you’ll practice by writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, or in a policy fellowship, or in something else all together. Maybe you’ll get fired up and you’ll start that science blog after all. But you will need to practice.
I don’t mean to discourage you, future writers, policy makers, movers and shakers of the science world. I mean to fire you up. I want to help you and I WANT you to succeed. I want you to be me, too! You probably will be even better at being me than I am.
Get out there. Practice. Give yourself the experience that will get you the job you want. Maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s consulting, maybe it’s your own business. Maybe it’s figure skating, I don’t care.
Don’t tell me you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t tell me you’ll do it after your comps or after your dissertation or after you rest a bit or after you submit your paper or after…Do it. Get that experience. It does mean time, and it does mean effort. But it takes time and effort to find opportunities and take advantage of them. It takes time and effort to network. It takes time and effort to get what you want, and go where you want to go.
Don’t let your face fall. Don’t walk away and go toward the same old path just because it seems easier and the new way seems so hard. Look at what you want. Plan a path to get there. And practice.