Science Editor for The Courier, Orestis Katsoulis, interviews Tom Ireland, editor of The Biologist magazine and freelance science writer.
What is your general day like?
Some days I am out and about interviewing a high-profile scientist or science personality, visiting a new lab, or going to a talk/conference. These are the days you relish as a journalist. You’re doing your own thing, purely with the aim of finding a great story or getting some good leads for articles.
My average day in the office or working from home is a little different. Like all desk jobs, the day starts with some internal emails and admin, then I’ll spend the early part of the day catching up with the news, seeing what is being discussed by the science community on Twitter, and taking note of anything I think we should cover in the magazine.
If we’re still quite far away from the publication of the next issue, I’ll spend the day looking for potential articles, inviting people to write for us, and reading through submissions or pitches that have been sent to me. I might make some calls or Skype some scientists that are helping me with an article.
If we’re closer to publication date, I’ll be writing bits and bobs, editing articles, working on the design of the magazine with the production team, and then eventually, proofreading the almost-finished magazine, deciding on the cover and thinking of the all-important puns, headlines, and cover image.
What made you investigate journalism as a potential career path?
I always loved both science and English at school. I did a BSc in Biology at Cardiff University, and by the time I graduated in 2005, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go into research. It was the breadth and variety of science that I loved, not studying the same organism for years and years.
I had no idea what to do after graduating. All the graduate science jobs I could see were pretty uninspiring, and ‘science communication’ really wasn’t a recognised thing back in the mid-2000s.
One day I was reading New Scientist and thought: ‘I wonder who these people are that write the articles?’ And I realised science writing would be my dream job.
How did you get into journalism?
I moved to London to do a post-graduate diploma in Magazine Journalism. It was a short and intense 9-week course that hammered the key skills of journalism into me: how to write precisely and concisely and keep readers’ interest.
I did some work experience writing for the Big Issue and then at a doctors’ magazine. The doctors’ magazine was by no means my dream job but they gave me my first job in journalism, as a reporter.
Would you recommend working in research before becoming a journalist? If so, what level do you think is appropriate?
I think most science journalists have at least a Masters qualification, many have PhDs, but I am proof that you can get into it with just a good degree.
Some people do science communication Masters, some do journalism courses, some continue doing research while building up writing experience on the side…others began as bloggers…there’s lots of ways to go about it.
Ultimately, if you are a great writer, or have a great story, you will get published. But doing research and exploring a writing career on the side is a great way to do it as you have your research topic to write about, and if your writing career doesn’t work out or takes a long time to get off the ground, you still have an interesting job.
Have you ever had your writing squashed or binned? What was that like?
Yes, and in fact the best part of my journalism training was to get used to the idea that this will happen a lot and is part of the process. Especially in the internet age, it is so hard for a publication to keep its readers interested. The internet is full of free stuff that is entertaining but recycled or poorly written or inaccurate.
Editors want all the articles in their magazine to stand out above all that, to be the best thing out there on a given topic. If they are paying you for an article it has to be perfect - fascinating and clear from start to finish. You have to expect to have your article rewritten, changed, queried, rejected, thrown into the bin and set on fire if it’s not perfect.
What’s a journalist’s pay like?
Put it this way – people don’t become journalists for the money. Journalists have a fantastic time meeting interesting people, trying things that no-one else gets to try, visiting cool places, writing, and seeing their name in print. It is not terribly paid, but you should expect to have graduate friends who earn far more than you. They will have extremely boring jobs that involve meetings and spreadsheets.
Do you take interns or do you know of any worthwhile schemes that would be good to get involved with?
The RSB (Royal Society of Biology) does take interns but not specifically working on the magazine – you would be more likely to be working more broadly within the RSB’s communication and public engagement team.
I really can’t recommend learned societies enough as a way of getting really varied experience, where you are likely to be involved with a bit of everything or that allows you to try other related areas like comms & press work, public engagement, science policy etc. They are charities, so they are nice places to work, and there are loads of them.