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The story of Features Editor at Nature (2017)

A science journalism career path

‘Specialisation is the way to stand out and to have a marketable skill as a scientist’ said my course leader, Dr Dylan Gwynn Jones at Aberystwyth University. A traditional academic path can be described as specialising in one subject and working within the same field throughout a whole career. But what if, jumping from topic to topic, discovering what other scientists do gets your heart racing more than living in a lab?

Then consider a career in science journalism.

Richard Van Noorden, Features Editor at Nature based in London, has been working in science journalism for 11 years and we talked about his career path as part of an exercise of the ASPB’s Conviron Scholarship.

Why science journalism?

It did not take too long for Richard to realise that working in the lab was not for him as he began his 4 year MSci degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

‘When I asked myself, what I would like to do career wise if I could afford to do nothing’, he says, ‘I love learning about new discoveries, explaining different topics and I enjoy creative writing’.

As his interests became clear, he started with a 3 month summer internship with Sense about Science, working on the Making Sense of Chemicals campaign. Through this experience, it became crystal clear that he wanted to work in science journalism.

‘Internships are great ways to get your foot in the door’ Richard suggests, ‘Even without knowing much of the industry or what kind of salaries science journalists make, you get a feel for the job through work experience.’

Many science reporters also learn through specific year-long graduate programmes, such as the UC Santa Cruz science communication programme in the United States, or Imperial College London’s programme in the UK.

Internships lead to jobs

After finishing his degree in 2006, he applied for a 3 month long internship at Nature. At first, he was not selected but then he was offered to work for 2 months instead. ‘I worked really-really hard as this was my chance’, and it lead to a Science Correspondent position at Chemistry World magazine. This magazine is published monthly by the Royal Society of Chemistry and he was responsible for writing articles such as Designing a nuclear future, Microwaving myths and The graphene challenge.

Two years later, he took on the next challenge and became assistant news editor at Nature in 2009. ‘Moving to Nature meant writing for an entirely new, larger audience’ he explains. Now, his readership consists of international scientists from many different fields, hungry for news about cutting edge science. Since then, he became a senior reporter, then a news editor, and this year spent 6 months as acting European Bureau chief before switching to be a features editor.

‘I take on a job that challenges me. If a job is no longer challenging I move onto another one which keeps me learning and continues to drive my fascination about science.’

Typical day as a News Editor

The team of news journalists and editors is based at Springer Nature campus in London. Unlike freelance writers, they are surrounded by people with different expertise, and work together as a team along with Nature offices in Germany, China and America – so there are no boring days in the office!

Richard’s busy day consists of hours of editing, talking to commissioned writers, writing his own features, constantly keeping an eye on emails and social media to spot the next story – and luckily for me, today he also had time to talk to a bright-eyed undergraduate student. His latest articles include Publishers threaten to remove millions of papers from ResearchGate, Web of Science owner buys up booming peer-review platform, and Israel edges out South Korea for top spot in research investment.

Transitioning from reporter to editor meant that Richard has more behind-the-scenes duties, such as commissioning writers and making sure that stories are polished and legally checked before anything goes up online.

‘I just enjoy writing and editing daily, I love the craft of it – flipping from editing to writing and then back to editing keeps it all varied’ he says, ‘figuring out the correct order of words and paragraphs, working on a story or putting an exclusive together is thrilling ’.

Although an editor’s job is mostly desk-based, he takes on every opportunity to get out of the office as there is nothing like speaking to people in real life and find out what they do instead of sitting at a computer.  What he enjoys most he says is to be in the center of it all – to discover and track what is happening in science every day around the world.

Science journalists get to learn about the ‘magic’ behind cutting-edge research discoveries. Illustration by ErrantScience

From a practical point of view

‘Think seriously about the money bit’ Richard suggests as he explains that salaries have to be considered. So doing internships, gaining an insight can make sure that this job is the right fit and a genuine passion for the craft of writing and reporting is essential – otherwise the job might become frustrating. Also, funding for science journalism is – much like in research – unpredictable and unreliable.

How to get started

‘In science journalism you are constantly learning – about science, about writing, editing and about different ways of communication’ says Richard, so getting experience, writing as much as possible while networking, asking science journalists how they got there and tips - are all crucial first steps. Someone might not even need a science degree, but what is essential is critical thinking and just to keep on asking questions, to have a burning desire to get to the answer. Keep asking scientists and represent them truthfully to the readers in an exciting yet accurate way.

‘This is almost like an instinct’ he explains, ‘and if you have it – that is 90% of the editors’ or journalist’s job’.

To improve writing skills, one just has to keep writing and ask for constructive feedback. The more feedback, the better! Reading other’s work puts the writer in the reader’s shoes – ‘when you read a good story have a think why you liked it – go back again and consider how the writer chose the sentences they did, and what reporting they must have done to be able to make the story so good’ he recommends.

Like in any profession, there are periods of doubt about not getting jobs. If turned down for jobs, Richard recommends taking a positive attitude – thinking ‘it was their loss’ – and just like with improving writing skills, always ask for feedback.

As one more last advice he says ‘Do not ignore the practicality of the likely low salary in this sector and make sure you seek out mentors who can tell you specifics of this field’.

Take home message – a personal account

As an undergraduate student, specialising in image analysis and bioinformatics, and coming from an academic family, I was convinced that a PhD is a must for a scientist. However, having worked in developing countries, made me realise of the importance of disseminating science within and outside the scientific community. I published my first article and cover picture of the Hungarian Elet es Tudomany (Life and Science) magazine at the age of 14 and the thrill of publishing have stayed with me ever since.

Hearing how much Richard enjoys his work, being in the center of scientific discoveries and continuously learning about other people’s work definitely convinced me to look for internships next summer!

This video by Nature has brightened up many scientists’ day on the International Cat Day. Thinking of the creative process of taking the original research paper and turning it into this video must have been just as exciting and fun as it would be for an entomologist to discover new beetles in the Namib Desert.

Read more about science writing:

The Open Notebook  - an online resource devoted to the craft of science journalism

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