Ian Street is a postdoc at Dartmouth College working on how plant hormones affect plant development.
He is the writer of The Quiet Branches plant science blog and is looking towards a career in science writing or editing.
In his time away from the lab bench and writing, he’s a runner and cat owner.
Ian tweets from @IHStreet.
First, let me state my situation and some of the things I am assuming as I develop my career:
- Most postdocs do not go on to jobs as Primary Investigators (PIs).
- The longer you’re a postdoc, the less likely #1 becomes.
- Major depression ground me down mid-postdoc. Having a lot of support and writing has helped me recover some momentum.
- Deciding to leave academia is not easy. Introspection and experimentation are required.
- To find a job/ career outside academia, network, yes, but it is also important to gain experience in fields of interest if possible.
- The Internet is the key to my efforts from the small-town college where I’m a postdoc.
The career I’ve settled upon to pursue beyond academia is perhaps obvious: it is the world of science writing and editing.
It seems obvious. Too obvious, for a few reasons.
This is the “Who are you to break out into a new field?” anxiety narrative I have in my brain:
It’s writing and editing. Who can’t do that, and do both well, in academia? Besides, the written word is apparently dying because pictures and video are more important/ compelling in the digital age. Writing is more than putting words on a page, of course. Getting things out of a brain in a coherent form (it’s always perfect in my mind, why can’t that just pop out on the page?!), letting an editor’s brains see it, review it, suggest changes, or say “no” (it’s almost always a “no”) is daunting. Then there’s the exposing of your ideas to a wider audience – this might be exciting, but it is also fraught with fear of rejection.
The path of a career transition is far from certain.
However, I figure writers/ editors of some kind will always be needed. If anything, there is an increasing need to find accessible ways to explain the “black boxes” of research that are present in our lives as knowledge expands and fields get more complex and specialized.
I also have a deep-seated desire to pursue writing/ editing, and step away from the lab bench. I’ve suppressed my natural impulse in these areas for too long. Editing, writing, and communicating are the parts of academia I like the most. Solving writing and communication problems is akin to teaching students, and it was a primary motivator for me to pursue science in the first place. I like hearing and inquiring about other scientists’ work, telling their stories, and hopefully connecting other people – including other scientists – to the subjects I cover.
Expanding the Portfolio
So, where to begin with planning to move into a new career?
First, I started a blog. Initially, this meant a personal blog, to get into the habit of writing and as a way of getting my voice out into the world about my journey out of the black hole of depression.
In 2015, I started my science blog, The Quiet Branches, where I write about plant science both modern and historical. The highest praise, to me, is when a professor says they’ve pointed their students to my blog to read.
I took a few writing-centered online courses and continue to read about writing, as well as reading a lot of writers that craft amazing science stories.
Most of the opportunities to expand my portfolio have come up organically through my presence on Twitter and connecting with people there. I wrote some blog posts and made some Vine video ads a few years ago using stop-motion animated Eppendorf tubes for HappiLabs, a startup company. It was an OK experience for a company with a good idea, but it wasn’t what I could see myself doing forever. I’ve written a few articles for the National Postdoc Association (NPA) Newsletter in the United States this year, which was a great experience because I got to work with editors for the first time (on my blog, I’m my own editor, which is not ideal). I wrote a book review for the Annals of Botany, which was fun, though I wish I’d liked the book more.
I involved myself with writing and contributing to the digital communications at the American Society of Plant Biologists. This included contributed blog posts and my assistance with creating and managing the social media and digital coverage of their conference over the last few years (#plantbio16 just happened). I can take credit for getting them to advertise and adopt an official conference hashtag 4 years ago! I’ve also helped organize a panel for the Future of Research conference in San Francisco, an event focused on the future structure of STEM. That grew out of my being a co-moderator of the Diversity Journal Club where my co-moderators and I write and discuss topics and articles about diversity in STEM fields live on Twitter using the tag #DiversityJC.
I presented a webinar and wrote an article about mental health for Bitesize Bio, which was the topic of one of the articles for the 2016 summer issue of the NPA newsletter as well. Writing for other sites not only builds my portfolio, but also allows me the opportunity – such as in this case – to talk about something that is a big issue in academia and one I care about a lot.
Through all of this, I’ve kept up my research. In fact, that still takes up the majority of my time.
The next key steps will be to keep applying for jobs and continue networking. I’ve been close a few times and have landed interviews. One virtue of building up a portfolio, rather than forcing myself into a career path that doesn’t quite fit, is that I’m actively trying to construct something that works better. This process can be frustrating, though, because of its non-linearity.
I’ve come a long way from where I started, from being “just a postdoc”. Pushing myself to take on new projects, hitting [publish] on my blog, or submitting my writing to an editor is hard for this recovering perfectionist (who has the bad, paralyzing, kind of perfectionism). However, I now have a portfolio of projects I’ve worked on for people to discover. Some are purely for fun.
Building a portfolio career is almost like creating a rope ladder to climb down from the ivory tower. A lot of the writing I’ve done feeds back and has re-ignited some of what I really do love about being a scientist, and has helped me adopt a growth mindset, more open to learning by trial and error.
I don’t know if any of this will pay off in the long run – I’m not the only academic doing these things. Finding a job is not easy, let alone a stable career.
However, I don’t regret it because the more I do it, the more it leads to new communications opportunities.
I hope the small spark I’ve got going now will turn into a flame.