I am on a panel tomorrow at the Second Annual “What Can You Be with a PhD?” STEM Career Symposium hosted by UC San Diego Postdoctoral Association. The panel will feature those who have pursued careers in science writing and communications. We were prepared with six really relevant questions from the organizers, so I thought I would share my answers here.
1/ What is your background and career path and how did you get to where you are now?
I earned my Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from UC San Diego. My dissertation was focused on using a mouse model to dissect the cellular defect and the molecular mechanisms of a neuro-developmental disorder, called lissencephaly.
I enjoyed working at the bench but found that I liked learning and talking about the science more than doing it. (When I miss bench work, I cook!) I also found that I really enjoying figuring out how to translate and explain science.
In my last year of graduate school, I did a lot of exploration and networking. I taught biology at a local community college, but I found it did not keep me engaged. What I loved about doing research was being on the front edge of new innovation.
My whole career path, and if you take just one thing from what I say, was entirely created by networking.
A fellow graduate student who completed her doctorate the year before me had taken a position at a PR/IR agency that only did public and investor relations for biotech and life science companies. As I was finishing up my doctorate, she reached out because she was going on maternity leave, and the agency was looking for someone to fill in for her.
She and I used to talk on the shuttle ride to UCSD about our confusion about what we would do after our Ph.D., since we both were unlikely to continue in research. This was before everyone had cell phones and their faces in them!
I went on to work in the development office at The Scripps Research Institute, and eventually took a position as director of corporate communications at Fate Therapeutics.
Just over four years ago, I started Little Dog Communications, to work with the small biotechs – the ones on the front edge of innovation.
What we do for our clients is to help communicate their story to all their different audiences, whether that be externally to investors, reporters, partners, patients, advocacy groups or more internally to employees, board members, collaborators – it all depends on what are the goals and needs of the company at that time.
Then we determine what is the vehicle for those communications – is it a press release, newsletter, social media, video, presentation, interview or meeting – and then we help them prepare and execute on those tactics. We also listen to the client’s audiences and communities. The overall goal is to find the best way to tell a client’s stories either themselves or through a third party or champion.
2/ What motivated you to transition into a career in science communications, and what were the most challenging aspects of your transition?
To add to what I said above, it’s more than talking about the science. It’s getting others excited about the science and finding ways to tell a company’s story.
The most challenging part was learning the business and industry. When you are pitching a new innovation, say to improve drug discovery, it is really important to understand all of the things that came before to improve drug discovery.
Another challenging part was transitioning from a small research team with individual projects to working as a team and managing multiple clients. Now it is one of my favorite parts of what I do.
3/ What are the most rewarding and least rewarding aspects of your job?
The least rewarding aspect can be when a client does not realize the length of time or amount of effort it may take to get to a success. PR requires a lot of strategy and research to execute well.
The most rewarding aspect of my job is taking our clients to the next level – a new website or having a positive article in Technology Review or Wall Street Journal. Sometimes it’s the small things like having a client send you news for Twitter, after they had initially said it was pointless.
4/ What is a typical work day like for you? With whom do you work closely?
A typical day starts early. I was not always an early bird, but now I really enjoy it. 4:30 am in this order: email, coffee, email, news, social media, more email, calendar
5:00 am check on any press releases that might have gone out; check in with the team, respond to any emails, move projects forward
5:30 am – 7 am varies from working out to working
7 am check my calendar again, to-do list – what do I need to get done today
8 am – 10 pm calls, team, write, email, research, (walk dogs, surf, eat) email, write
…but more specifically…
– Research and write: talking points, press releases, pitches, award nominations, social posts, emails, etc.
– Stay up-to-the-minute on news during the day, look at who is writing what and what is the relevant news to our clients to use in our pitches
– Client calls or meetings to discuss strategy, exchange updates
– Follow up with everyone who owes edits, feedback, approval
– Communicate and coordinate with clients and team on where things are (because they may have changed from an hour ago or we need something in an hour because a reporter is on a deadline)
– Develop storytelling and engage design for PPTs, videos, graphics, etc.
– Think! Strategy, next steps, opportunities, what’s changing, what’s new – not only for our clients but in PR and social media!
5/ What recommendations do you have for postdocs who are trying to prepare themselves for a career in science communications? What are some of the resources that may be helpful?
You have to know the industry, the players, the issues, how things work. I suggest two things:
ONE: Read the industry – there are a lot of free industry news sources – sign up for their e-newsletters:
TWO: Go to networking events – most have student/postdoc rates or volunteer:
Even if you do not want to be employed in industry and you think you are more interested in working for a research institute – do both.
We are all part of this ecosystem and part of getting a new drug, diagnostic or device to a patient, and it is irresponsible to not know how the other half lives. It will only serve you well if you understand and respect everyone’s role and reach out to the others in the industry.
6/ What is the job market in science communications currently like, and what do you think it will be in the next five years?
The job market today is good. The IPO window has stayed open, allowing biotechs to access more capital to move development programs forward. Looking out five years, I would love to say it will be the same or better. However, biotech like many innovation industries is susceptible to market dynamics, so it is about planning for the ups and downs and being flexible and adaptive in your skill set.