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Academia's Biological Studies in War Time

Careers in Science From the Field

Myrna E. Watanabe, PhD, has been a freelance science writer and consultant since 1982. Her articles have been published in various journals including Nature Biotechnology and The Scientist. She has contributed as editor and author to several publications, including the books Snakes of the World and The Fight for Survival and the newsletter of the New York Biotechnology Association. Dr. Watanabe has taught biology at community college, college and professional school levels for the past 30 years.

Dr. Watanabe received her AB in Biology at Barnard College, and later an MS and PhD in animal behavior at New York University.

What is your profession?

Biologist/science writer/science journalist.

What are the responsibilities of your position?

Self-employed, full-time freelancer; run business (market skills, solicit new clients, pay bills, etc.). Produce work for clients (articles, reports, editing, research) in competent, timely manner.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?

Typical Week

What are the most important personal satisfactions connected with your occupation? dissatisfactions?

Satisfaction: Knowing I've influenced policy or events through my stories or contacts; also fat checks. I'm a teacher at heart, and my writing lets me teach a broader audience.

Dissatisfactions: Cheap, cranky clients; my lack of business acumen.

What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?

Satisfying: see above, plus contacts—meet wonderful, fascinating people and have access to people in important places.

Challenging: Getting clients, getting paid.

What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?

The way I work. Hours are not set, I can run errands mid-day, etc.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

Advent of e-publishing and poor economy. I am constantly competing with people who are less educated, less scientifically knowledgeable, and poorer writers, but who are willing to work for less money than I will take. Also, more and more clients want desktop publishing, design and HTML skills and consider knowledge of the field secondary.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

Ability to write well; knowledge of science (trained scientist) is only moderately important, but people with no scientific backgrounds do this, too. I find them less competent, but editors and publishers don't care.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

Write for college publications, community publications, local political or grassroots organizations, whatever. Just write.

What type of education background is required?

Many writers have none. Some are barely out of high school. For high-end science writing, some employers prefer to hire science majors, perhaps also with an MS and/or PhD in some scientific field. Perhaps journalism school or courses in science writing may help.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions?
What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?

Editorial assistant-assists editor, learns to edit to publication's style, makes contacts, learns how publications run.

Reporter—doing just that, reporting on meetings, events, etc.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

A top medical writer for a pharmaceutical firm may make $150,000/yr. A top medical freelancer who does FDA filings can make more than $200,000/yr., but $60,000/yr. is more typical. Some freelancers make nothing. Entry-level positions pay about mid $20,000s. If you want to make money, pick another field or marry well.

What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify for this position?

Take a course on contracts! Take science courses or degrees in science. Perhaps go to journalism school. Have a niche. Be an expert in a specific field. Mine is biology/biomedicine, mainly for scientists. I rarely stray from the field and often don't stray from the audience.

Join the National Writers Union and use their contract advice and grievance services. (Just a plug, here.)

Submitted by: Liz Walsh, Education Program Coordinator