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Media's Role in the Public Perception of
Careers in Science From the Field
Paul Guinnessy is a journalist for Physics Today
magazine. He attended Queen Mary and Westfield College, which is
part of the University of London. He studied astrophysics there
and earned his undergraduate degree. He then went into the geography
department to work on environmental science issues. Mr. Guinnessy
is a member of the Institute of Physics in the UK. Additionally,
he is a chartered physicist.
Please give us a brief biography of yourself,
including your studies and schools you have attended, and your professional
I attended Queen Mary and Westfield College, which is part of the
University of London. I studied astrophysics there, and earned my
undergraduate degree. I then went into the geography department
to work on environmental science issues. I am a member of the Institute
of Physics in the UK. I am a chartered physicist, which means I
have numerous qualifications in physics.
What is your profession?
I cross between two professions, journalism and information technology.
What are the responsibilities of your position?
I have to design strategies for the Physics Today web site, put
content onto the website, and also write for the magazine.
Can you describe a typical week in your position?
I generally start out with research in the morning to see if there
is any issue worth covering or writing about. I attend four to five
meetings per week, some related to editorial content -- some based
on the web site. I spend about two to three hours per day doing
something directly involved with the web site, such as mapping out
strategies for the various projects we have for it. There is also
redesigning parts of the web site. In addition, I have interviews
with various people for the different stories in which I have been
What are the most important personal satisfactions connected
with your occupation? Dissatisfactions?
Writing a story that no one else has written before and making sure
that it is an absolving story, has been satisfying. Dealing with
computers has often proved dissatisfying. When you work with computers,
there are always various setbacks in which you have to deal. Sometimes,
there are different views that must be incorporated into a story
and doing so can be dissatisfying.
What part of this job do you find most challenging?
Writing a story that is acceptable for all members of society and
to our readers. Some of them are more familiar with the topics covered;
some of them are physicists, others are geologists. Every group
has its own language and expertise. Sometimes it can be quite challenging
to write a story that is acceptable to all of them.
What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?
People answer and return your phone calls.
What are the skills that are most important for a position
in this field?
Being able to pick up and process information very quickly. Being
able to write efficiently also helps, yet it is not necessarily
the most important skill. Being able to understand when particular
information that you have will lead you to a good story is key.
What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage
someone to gain if he or she is interested in pursuing a career
in this field?
You do not necessarily need to have a background in journalism.
It is good to have some kind of [science] qualification because
it will give you a good ground in it -- in how to interpret the
science that you are reporting on. Getting a good background first,
such as writing for a school newspaper or submitting copies of your
work to various publications is the way to start and get experience.
Once you become well known in the industry, more opportunities will
What type of education background is required?
At least a bachelor's degree in science. Sometimes it helps
to have a degree in journalism as well, but I would say experience
is the most important background you can have.
What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions
in your field?
Editorial assistants, who would basically provide copies to some
of the staff and deal with the message-writing topics such as awards
What are the salary ranges for various levels in the field?
When you work as a freelancer, it would probably be about $15,000.
However, it can go up to over $100,000.
Is there a salary ceiling?
That depends on whether you start your own publication or not. For
people working on smaller newspapers it would be around $40,000
to $50,000. You have to take on management responsibilities to get
What special advice do you have for a student seeking to
qualify for this position?
It can be a bit nerve-racking at first. Approaching editors with
your copies can be tedious, but it pays to be persistent, especially
if you think you have a good story that they would be of interest.
When I started out, I basically tested with different magazines
for about two months. When my first story was published, I got the
lead story in the magazine. So again, it pays to be persistent and
keep hitting the editors with story ideas. Also, see the web site
of the British Association of Science Writers at www.absw.org.uk.
They have a very helpful pamphlet available entitled So You
Want To Be A Science Writer.
Submitted by: Matt Mosgin, 2003 Summer