“Should I go to science journalism grad school?”
I’ve been asking myself that question since my junior year of undergrad, and I asked myself every day I spent MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.
In fact, I’m still asking myself that question.
Hi. My name is Diana Crow, and I’m a science writing grad school dropout. I have the option to re-apply to finish my degree in another year, and even though I really want to do that, I’m also don’t want to risk a repeat of what happened this fall, so yeah…MIT is great!
That’s what I’ve been telling people this month. It’s true, but it leaves a lot unsaid.
Deciding on whether to go to grad school– and if so, which grad school?– is hard. I think it’s doubly hard when you’re trying to decide whether to take on a program in a field where a master’s isn’t technically a job requirement.
So back in December, when I was still on the fence about dropping out, I started writing this blog post to (hopefully) help other people who are deciding where and whether to go to grad school.
(It’s gonna be a little bit long and disjointed, so feel free to skip over parts or read them out of order, if that suits you.)
So….should I have gone to science writing grad school?
On most days, that question was a resounding “Yes!…But this part will totally suck.” Grad school is tough. And confusing. My first semester of science writing grad school has been both inspiring and exasperating; it has pushed me to tackle seemingly impossibly tricky topics, driven me to the brink of utter exhaustion, given me hope that I might be able to make it as a professional writer after all, reminded me that breaking in as a professional writer is incredibly difficult, and made me cry (at least once every single week).
But it has made me better as a writer.
More importantly, science writing grad school has pushed me to question my assumptions- both about science and what it means to be a science journalist- and pressured me into trying new techniques for organizing my workload more efficiently.
I can’t tell you what the answer is for you. You’ll have to scope out the coursework, talk to students, to talk alums, meet with professors to see if you get along, and then think about whether grad school will get you somewhere you want to be. Answers will vary.
Things To Keep in Mind While Exploring This Post:
1. I’m not **necessarily** a representative science writing grad student. I like to tell people that I’m “a science communication career tribute”. I’m sorta joking when I say that, but also sort of not.
I have been writing about science and its effects on people, places, animals, and germs since I was 10 years old. As a kid, I wouldn’t even read a magazine unless it was a science magazine, because the not-science magazines only seemed to care about pretty people, ugly politicians, and money. I wanted to read about space. I wanted to read about dinosaurs and blood cells and rainforests and rocks.
In my eyes, science magazines have always seemed like wonderlands, while almost all other media outlets seem like infinitely repetitive wastelands.
Just packets of paper where people talk about how to manipulate other people.
(Of course, growing up in a town that was built for the sole purpose of building an atomic bomb made me aware pretty early on that science has an enormous capacity to harm and manipulate people. But so do politics, economics, and culture.
Science, at least, has the decency to let non-humans like rivers, neurons, rockets, and frogs be central characters alongside the humans in the stories that affect them. I rarely see that in magazines about politics, economics, or fashion.)
So yeah. The urge to write about science has been part of me for basically my whole life.
(Spoiler alert: You don’t have to be like me to go to science writing grad school. At all. In fact, it’s best for everyone if science journalism includes a mix of writers from thousands of different perspectives.)
My decision to pursue science writing in an organized, career-building sort of way came during my freshman year of college (which is far earlier than average), and since I’m a master of channeling my procrastination into semi-useful projects, I’ve built up an almost encyclopedic knowledge of science writers, magazines that publish science, and narrative structures of various genres. It did not occur to me that memorizing the career trajectories of science journalists who are only a few years older than me (e.g.- Virginia Hughes, Ed Yong, Rose Eveleth, etc.) might be considered strange.
I naively assumed that everyone who applied to science writing grad school had a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of the magazine world. That’s not the case AT ALL. Some of my classmates got into science writing because of Cosmos or podcasts or museums or bestsellers about science from decades past. Some of them want to write for newspapers or NPR or as public relations people for science institutions. All those paths can be awesome (or go awry), but this post is coming from a kid who grew up reading and hero-worshiping the print science magazines. Expect a perspective.
2. Everyone’s path to being a writer is different. Trite, but true. The majority of science writers I know originally wanted to be scientists but realized they couldn’t stand the repetitious nature of benchwork.
Others became full-fledged professional journalists before deciding that they wanted to specialize in science writing.
And there’s also kids like me, who always wanted to be writers, realized later that there’s science is full of weird, interesting stuff to write about, and decided to double-major or major/minor in a science and a journalism/writing doohickey. A lot of the people who go straight from undergrad to science writing grad school are in this cohort, but not all. Also, I definitely wasn’t ready for grad school when I graduated from undergrad, so I’m a big believer in taking a year or five away from school.
3. It’s very possible to develop serious science journalism chops without grad school (or any formal training, for that matter). When you’re shopping around between grad schools, the profs will tell you that it’s harder for millennials to break into science journalism without grad school. Sadly, this is true, but remember that when grad school profs talk to you about their program, they are making a sales pitch.
4. Becoming a better writer is usually stressful and painful (at least in my experience). Most of the stories and essays (and blog posts) I’ve written fall somewhere between “kinda shitty” and “absolutely wretched” on the Quality of Writing spectrum. But every now and then, when I re-read one of my old pieces, I think, “Wow. This one is actually good. I didn’t know I had that in me.”
Almost all of the pieces that make me think that are pieces I wrote during times when I was falling apart. They’re the products of semesters when I bit off more than I could actually chew or times when I was struggling to get along with my friends or family or immersed in absurdly, unnecessarily intense dives into research. Sure, there have been times when I’ve been paralyzed in writing because of pain and distraction.
But every time I’ve gone through a phase where my writing noticeably improved, there was some suffering involved. Maybe you’re different. But for me, that’s how writing is.
In fact, there have been times this semester where I’ve considered quitting science writing altogether, because the painstaking effort of producing magazine-worthy prose has really gotten to me. But when re-read the pieces I wrote this fall before writing this post, even though I missed far too many deadlines and spent an awful lot of time gnashing my teeth, most of them actually turned out cohesive and coherent.
(On the other hand, I totally failed at my goal of writing stories about scientists from diverse backgrounds- white guys were waaaaay over-represented in my stories this semester– but that’s a personal goal, not one that science writing programs require of their students.)
5. I’m going to assume you’ve already read a bit about the pros & cons of going to science journalism grad school and have a couple of ideas of programs you’re interested in.
Because, finite space. If you haven’t read them already, I highly recommend the following:
- Reading The Open Notebook’s “What Does a Science Writing Master’s Program Get You?“ (Also, their posts on “Trading the Pipette for the Pen” and “What is Science Journalism Worth?” are highly relevant.)
- Perusing Knight Science Journalism’s Resource Pages
- Browsing NASW’s Collection of Posts for Newbie Science Writers
- Looking through interviews with profs from schools like MIT, NYU, BU, UCSC, UGa, and any other schools you’re considering. Most programs’ websites have links to useful stuff on how to decide on a grad school.
6. Science writing grad school is just 1-2 years out of the whole lifetime is takes to become a science writer. It’s just one round in a very long game.
Grad Schools of Interest:
(I also considered Imperial College of London’s Science Communication Unit for a hot second, until I decided that 2 years was definitely too long for me and that applying internationally would entail a lot more paperwork.
University of Georgia’s medical reporting program was also on my list, but since I gravitate toward writing about basic research, I decided the others made more sense.)
I eliminated Santa Cruz fairly early because a) I went to undergrad in the woods & wanted grad school to be in a city and b) because they focus on training people with lab science experience to be journalists. Santa Cruz’s profs– including Rob Irion and Erika Check Hayden-– are fabulous, and the program has produced tons of bad-ass alumni like Laura Helmuth (science editor of Slate), Nadia Drake (NatGeo blogger), and Nicholas St. Fleur (staffer at New York Times). It’s undoubtedly one of the best science writing programs in the country; I just felt like I didn’t quite fit UCSC’s prospective student description.
With BU, it came down to the money. My family is well-off, but not so wealthy that we could afford to sink too much money into a grad school education. BU’s faculty– led by Ellen Ruppel Shell and Douglas Starr –are excellent writers and really generous people, Their alumni do include many standout journalists including Cynthia Graber of the Gastropod podcast, Nautilus editor Amos Zeeberg, and reporter Mark Zastrow who has been doing a lot of interesting work on science overseas in Korea. And I wouldn’t have come up with the title of this post without encouragement and title suggestions from current BU science writing grad student Kristin Hugo. But BU doesn’t have as much money as some of the other programs.
So that left two: MIT and NYU.
Questions to Ask Yourself When Deciding Where to Apply or Attend Grad School:
1.What kind of science writer or journalist do I want to be? In science writing, I have two contradictory loves: One is the curatorial work of assembling a science magazine experience– aka editing. The other is writing science-inflected essays.
The problem is that the two activities require different personality traits and skills. Career essayists tend to have immediately identifiable voices. They are explicitly a character in the text. But editors have to be able to fade in the background and support the writers, reporters, and graphic designers who produce the text. They have to be able to be critical but patient and kind. (Or else, no one wants to work with them.)
In the world of science writing grad schools, NYU is pretty much the place to be if you want to be a science magazine editor. They do a stellar job of making sure their graduates are well-connected and well-positioned at the end of the program.
But MIT is the program that focuses most on developing a written voice . Its curriculum spends more time (proportionally) on essays and more time on longform reporting and archival research.
At least, that’s the impression I came away with after all my grad school decision research. Faculty, students, alums, and casual observers are all free to disagree with my interpretation.
For me, it came down to the tension between wanting to learn how to edit– so I can build a sustainable, happy career in the longterm– and knowing that I needed a school where the brash, opinionated essayist side of my personality would be able to breathe. Being “Diana Crow the essayist” burns me out, but she has earned me a lot of fans in the last two years. For now, it’s still easier to work with her publicly than to try and stuff her into a secret drawer somewhere.
So I picked MIT, figuring that, “Well, even if it doesn’t graduate as many editors as NYU, MIT alumni can still be editors. And I’ll probably be happier in Boston than New York.”
For you, the answer to what kind of science journalist or writer you want to be will probably be very different. But I highly recommend seeking out recent examples of the sort of writing you want to do in the next couple of years and learning about those authors’ careers.
2. Do the alumni of this program write for the publications you want to write for?
Chances are that even if you excel at every single task your grad school assigns you, you probably won’t be writing a full-length book or writing articles for The New York Times or The New Yorker in your first couple of years out. I highly recommend poking around the magazine rack at your local library to get a feel for what stories different magazines like to run. What topics do they cover? Who’s writing them? How long are the pieces?
Look for writers who are doing the sorts of things you want and could see yourself doing in 2-3 years. A lot of writers get started by writing 200-350 word news stories for the fronts of magazines, so if you see a particular writer’s name popping up on a lot of different front-of-book stories, it’s worth making a mental note. (Or just quickly following them on Twitter before you forget.) When I graduated from undergrad, I remember seeing Veronique Greenwood‘s byline on well-written front-of-books in almost every science magazine I picked up, and now she’s graduated to doing features for science-dedicated webzines.
(Also, trust me: Being somewhat familiar with new or off-the-beaten path webzines like Hakai, STAT, Nautilus, Vox, Mosaic, etc. will earn you a lot of useful instant street cred when you go to science writing conferences and meet-ups.)
If you already know that you want to focus on features from early on, I recommend looking up Phil McKenna and/or Rose Eveleth. If you’re interested investigative stuff, Azeen Ghorayshi or Lisa Song would probably be good places to start.
And please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t let the variety of science writing that is out there today psych you out. Growing up, I memorized science magazine writers’ names like stats on baseball cards. (Which has led to more than a few fangirl freak-outs when I meet science writers I look up to for the first time. Ask Maryn McKenna or Christie Aschwanden. Or Ed Yong. Or Rose Eveleth…I may have a problem.) Many of my classmates would only have recognized a few of the publications and authors’ names name-dropped above, and they are all spectacular young science writers.
You don’t have to be a science writing wonk as me to do well in science writing grad school. However, learning to be a science writer is about more than just learning to string words together so you can write like Oliver Sacks or Carl Sagan or other science writing heroes of yore. It’s also about learning how to look for story ideas, how to manage time while doing research on your stories, and how to get along with other science writers. Those skills are hard to pick up without a live role model. So starting to think about who your present-day science writing hero(ine)s might be will likely help guide your decision.
Also, if several of the young science writers you admire all went to the same grad school, that’s probably a solid clue that you should look at that grad school. #justsayin.
3.Am I ready for grad school?
This is the question I flubbed up. I thought the answer was “Duh.”
If “duh” is the answer, then you’re probably not ready. Then you’ll be in danger of doing what I did and assume “Well, I know the contemporary science writing landscape, I know a ton of science, and the number of scientists I’ve interviewed about their work is in the low triple digits. Also, I’ve read a good bit of the history and sociology literature around science, I’ve met a lot of badass science writers in person who seem to like me, I ran my school science magazine without destroying anything, and I have clips from national publications, so do I really need to try hard in a class where we go over basics as fundamental as what a ‘nut graf’ is?”
(And if you think the answer to “Am I ready for science writing grad school?” is duh without all of the stuff listed above (or a similar assortment of stuff) going for you, rest assured: I already dislike you.
Doing science journalism well is very difficult and extremely time-consuming. If you’re going to have an ego, you better have the work ethic, observational skills, insatiable curiosity, infectious enthusiasm, and deadline-hitting ability to back it up.
NB: That’s an “and”. Not an “or”.)
Yes. Yes, you do. You owe it your classmates and instructors, but more importantly, you owe it to yourself and anyone else who may have invested in your grad school education. Grad school is expensive. Your classmates will be smart, enthusiastic, and working their asses off to learn how to write science journalism well.
If you sign up to go to grad school, you have to do the work. On time and at the length assigned. Or else, you’re just wasting your own time and energy.
4.Will this program be able to support me and help me if I end up struggling?
This question was also a big factor in why I picked MIT over NYU. While I was visiting, one of the NYU grad students did assure me that NYU has a really good counseling center and that it’s readily accessible to the grad students. I believe her, and I’m sure that BU and UCSC have similar supports in place.
But MIT has a secret weapon that helps students take care of themselves. Her name is Shannon Larkin, and while she’s technically the program’s admin person, she’s also the point person for making sure that all the writers roaming the halls of Building 14 don’t all drive themselves insane. (Because seriously, everyone I’ve met in the MIT writing department has one of those minds that doesn’t have an off-switch, and they will run themselves into walls if left alone for too long. It’s kind of like we’re all science writing Roombas, and Shannon is the one who helps us turn when we keep running into the same wall.)
One MIT student told me, “Yeah. I was thinking about applying to other places, but then I visited here, and I met Shannon. And then I was like, Ok I’m just gonna apply here.”
I ended up applying to a couple other places, but I understand the sentiment.
5.Are the profs here likely to “get” who I want to be as a writer?
For me, this was also a big deciding factor. Finding (and then assembling factually accurate depictions of) human protagonists is a core skill for science writers, and you have to learn how to do it to have a career. But sometimes I get so sick of writing about humans interacting with other humans that I have a really hard time forcing myself to organize my science stories into stories that normal people will recognize.
Based on my conversations with professors at all of the programs, I felt like MIT had the faculty who were most likely to understand that impulse. Not that I can give into it. Just as journalists can’t afford to miss deadlines, we also can’t afford to get lazy and stop writing stories about people. But from the way profs at NYU and BU talk about what a story is, I felt like I wouldn’t even be able to describe the temptation to them. And I couldn’t see how they would be able to help me develop strategies to get through one of my biggest science writing roadblocks if they had never even felt it.
So MIT was where I went.
And it was awesome. (Most of the time.)
Why I Dropped Out:
1.Communication Breakdown: Faculty Edition The profs at MIT are kinda fixated on “pedagogy” and “rhetoric”. To a point where there were moments where I was thinking, “No. You do not get to use the word pedagogy that many times within three minutes if you did not go to grad school yourself. Nuh-uh.”
(Yes. You read that correctly. Many of the people who teach journalism and science writing grad schools never went to journalism grad school. Some didn’t even go to grad school at all.
For me, this was really hard to ignore, because when I was deciding, I often felt like my science writing elders would not have been putting so much pressure on me to go to grad school if I were a guy. Maybe I’m wrong. There are lots of men who go to journalism grad school and benefit from it enormously. But women have outnumbered men in journalism grad schools for decades, and we still haven’t hit gender parity on bylines in major newspapers or journalism professorships…
So I can’t help but wonder if women are pressured to go grad school because people need us to prove our competence a few more times than men before we can get a “entry level” writing staff job…There are many reasons why those jobs are hard to come by, so this could just be me deflecting blame away from my weaknesses as a writer, but I can’t help but wonder if something about the marketing and pressure from colleagues that leads women to journalism grad school is hitting us harder because of gender stuff. /rant.)
But for me, I ran into a pedagogical problem in that many of the readings were posts or articles that I had previously read on my own. Often more than once. As in, I knew I wasn’t having the same pedagogical experience when I was reading certain blog posts for the 5th time as the program intended.
So I whined about it a lot. And made a few faces when my classmates didn’t know something I thought was painfully obvious to people who read 2010s science writing. I knew I needed to stop, and I did manage to get better control of it as the semester went on, but I didn’t learn fast enough.
2.Communication Breakdown: Classmate Edition.
One of the main reasons I applied to grad school was because I wanted to be around other young writers who were grappling with some of the same questions and conundrums that have been frying my brain for the past three years.
Chief among them, the sexism and whitewashing that is so engrained in the science magazine infrastructure I grew up loving so much.
When I graduated from college in May of 2013, I finally bit the bullet and got myself a Twitter account so I could keep up with what science writers were writing and thinking about…And, oh boy, 2013 was a weird time to be learning about the ins and outs of science writers’ professional lives.
That was the year when of #IStandwithDNLee, a Twitter discussion that grew out of an incident where an editor allegedly called black science blogger D.N.Lee “an urban whore” after she calmly declined to write a post for him for free.
That was the year of that Scientific American blogs editor Bora Zivkovic resigned because of young women coming forward saying he had sexually harassed them. (To his credit, he admitted it and told people not to defend him.) It inspired another Twitter conversation called #RipplesofDoubt, which addressed how sexual inequality can make young women who write doubt their abilities.
At the time, I had just turned 22. I wasn’t pitching to magazines that October, because even though I had been reading The Open Notebook almost religiously for over a year, I was still petrified of making a bad first impression on any editors at my beloved science magazines.
But I saw all this play out on Twitter. I read the posts. I cried. (I cry pretty easily, but still.)
The professors at MIT care about these issues, deeply and sincerely. When a group of science writers got together to organize The Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit, the MIT profs were the ones who volunteered MIT as the setting. They write and tweet about these issues often, and I’m pretty sure they deliberately made sure that many of the journalist guests who visited our class this semester were women.
They told me that they laid out the syllabus, especially the beginning part, very carefully in order to build a common language between all of us students from disparate backgrounds. But October of 2013, a month which profoundly altered the way I speak and write about science and science journalism, was not part of that language. I felt like I couldn’t talk to my classmates.
I couldn’t tell them how I felt during #ShirtStorm. An ESA scientist wore a shirt with 50s style pin-ups on it to a press conference about landing on a comet. A few science journalists who were watching the feed, as the science journalism Twitter posse does whenever there’s a major space launch or landing, pointed out– in a jokey, sarcastic way, mostly– that shirts like that may make women feel like they have no place in science. And it unleashed a storm of misogynist hatred.
I couldn’t tell my classmates that when I watched Rachel Feltman, Rose Eveleth, and Arielle Dunham-Ross field all of those insults and threats, I felt as if those misogynists might as well be saying those things to me.
I couldn’t explain to my classmates why I would always be annoyed at myself whenever I ended up quoting all white male scientists in my new stories. (Sometimes if you email 4 women and 2 men, looking for an independent outside source, the guys are the ones who get back to you.)
And I couldn’t tell them why I was scared to even try to write news stories or features about neuroscience, because even though neurodiversity has become one of my signature topics, I feel like no one would ever accept me as a journalistic source on the matter. And how every time my professors mentioned mental health, I’d think, “Yup. There’s an important beat I already boxed myself out of with my goddamn big, essayistic mouth.”
I couldn’t discuss any of these issues with my classmates, because it wasn’t part of the “common language” of the Science Writing Program. Which was shocking, given that the faculty here are very vocal about the need for gender equality in both science and journalism.
When Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt made some sexist remarks at a dinner honoring women in science, it drew the attention of even more internet misogyny. And the furor didn’t die down for several months. The director of our program, Tom Levenson, wrote this lovely essay for The Boston Globe about the issue of ongoing sexism and why it’s so important to deal with.
But these issues got very little airtime in the program readings and class discussions.
I’m not saying this to slam the program. In fact, I think it any of my professors end up reading this, they’ll be shocked and saddened that I felt like I couldn’t talk about these issues with my classmates. But some of them were learning journalism ropes and news story format for the first time. And I didn’t feel like I could add these issues out of nowhere. It would be overwhelming, cruel even. I didn’t want to be that
guy girl woman bitch person.
And yet, worrying about how to fairly represent women and under-represented group, especially in stories where they are the patients rather than authority figures, was one of the things I wanted to work on in grad school. There wasn’t much guidance for learning how to do that or how to find diverse sources. (Which makes sense, when half the class is learning journalistic sourcing for the very first time, but still.)
When I first saw the syllabus, I was surprised that several female journalists who I think of as being central to science journalism in the 2010s weren’t included on it at all. At first, I assumed that it was because those women’s contributions were so obvious that any self-respecting MIT science writing grad student would be, at least, passingly familiar with their work. But that wasn’t the case.
I know I should have voiced this frustration with the curriculum more when I was at MIT. But I felt like there was no time to do so. So I didn’t.
3.The Big Kahuna: Time Management & Deadline Difficulties. My professors told me that my chronic lateness was the main reason they asked me to drop out of the program. I believe that. Reasons #1 and #2 are more the reasons that I was able to at least say, “Ok. I’ll withdraw.”
I didn’t want to go, and luckily, my professors see enough potential in me that they left me the option of applying to return another year and finish my degree. I’m not sure if I will, though.
(And I hope I haven’t just completely shot myself in both feet by admitting in public that this was an issue for me during the program. But it would have been dishonest to write this post without doing so.)
It is a valid reason to ask me to leave the program. I feel as if my issues with deadlines this semester have robbed me of any right to voice opinions about the above.
I do care about hitting deadlines, and anyone who’s ever worked with me on a student publication will tell you I have no problem working double unpaid overtime to get my work done when I promised it to a publication.
But I got it into my head that grad school was a time for experimenting and taking on challenges that the day-to-day of freelancing in your early 20s doesn’t permit. I didn’t think of this year as a time for doing drills in the basic work of simply reporting and writing quickly. But that is what journalism grad school is.
Full disclosure: I’ve always had some trouble with deadlines, especially on longterm monolithic projects. That’s part of why I cringe almost every time somebody asks me if I ever want to write a book. (That’s basically the writer-equivalent of asking someone if they want to go through the pain of childbirth, imo.) Like, “No. I want to do my job. I want to pull through and turn something that’s approximately the correct length and writing voice in.”
And I usually do.
The painful message of this semester is that I have to turn that “usually” into an “always” if I want all of the work I’ve put into learning to write about science to pay off.
So, that’s gonna be my big project in 2016. Making sure that I can take the intricate, technically complex stories I gravitate toward and turn them into narrative human stories that non-scientist people will actually read and remember.
In a timely manner.
tl;dr: Grad school is confusing, difficult, emotional, and a lot of work. So is science writing itself. My semester ended badly, but I’m not going to let that experience intimidate me out of a career in a field that I love.
Neither should you.