Fintan Burke graduated with a BSc in Biotechnology in 2014 and an MSc in Science Communication in 2015.
I am part of a growing number of science graduates who have taken a ‘lateral move’ into a science-related career, in my case science journalism. The move often raises a few eyebrows among peers, but I credit it with reshaping how I approached my final undergraduate year in biotechnology.
During that time, I began to think about where my exact interests in science lay. One project I had at college was writing about the legal aspects of life sciences for a blog. I was as interested in the effects of science as much as the mechanics of it. Science journalism appeared the best way to combine my two passions.
I have been fortunate through my Master’s degree in Science Communication and two journalism internships to fully understand the effects of science in society. Once results get published, they take a life of their own, though not always in the way researchers may intend. Four years’ worth of labour-intensive research may get a half-page feature in The Times, or be summed up in a glib tweet.
Either way, there is rarely a focus on the intense work required for the results. This leads to few having any idea of what the scientific theories or processes involve. This can then lead to poor results after deciding on a science education. This is especially true if students choose science in college because it is regarded as a ‘good’ or ‘safe’ degree.
I think part of my move to science communication was that I fully understood the procedure of writing. Before the blog I had also written for local and college papers and had knowledge of the rewards and challenges of going into this area. Knowledge of my real-life potential allowed me to put any academic challenges in perspective.
When people choose a science undergraduate, I think few will understand the challenges that are ahead. A memorable example of this is of a student-lecturer meeting in my final undergraduate year. One of my classmates stated her frustration of not knowing how heavily engineering featured in her coursework. This was recognised by the lecturers, who also found that that element had not been clearly communicated in prospectus materials.
In my view these unknown hurdles can quickly overwhelm some students, and change their focus towards simply getting their degree, ignoring the idea of a career beyond it. This does not instil a positive attitude to study.
This is not to say that my move to science journalism was an easy one. Debating philosophical aspects of science took me out of my comfort zone and I certainly struggled in other places. But knowing how these challenges would help me after earning the degree helped to contextualise and renew my efforts.
To the credit of my college, these concerns are being addressed. There is now a stronger emphasis on demonstrating the role of each module for industry/academic research. Granted, a sizeable proportion will always drop out in the first two years, but those that remain will be better aware of what is ahead.
My college ensures that authentic work experience is a mandatory module for nearly all life science courses. This allows students to gain experience of the real expectations that will be put on them once they graduate. Out of that experience, I think college work can be better put in the perspective of long-term goals.
Colleges do so many things correctly, and ultimately many students will only make this decision (lateral or not) in their final year as I did. That said, it never hurts to remind students that getting the degree is only part of the goal.