This week, I was invited to speak at a science careers event at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. It was quite the honour to be asked to speak to students about my career, particularly as I've never really believed I have a career in the traditional sense of the word.
I always struggled to find my place in the world of science and technology - and the haphazard nature of my CV reflects that. I've worked as a software developer, tech journalist, marketing assistant, web editor, BBC runner and research scientist. That's quite a mix of jobs.
Now, as "the freelance writer who gets tech" all these different roles have pulled together to give me my USP - I've worked in the science and technology fields I write about, so I have a unique level of insight and experience that not many other writers cannot offer.
The variation seen on my CV is not a disadvantage - it's actually my greatest advantage.
And, when I rocked up to the careers event, I thought I was going to bring a unique perspective on my career in science. On my haphazard path to freelance science writing.
How wrong I was.
The event featured talks from academics and those working in industry. What really struck me is that each and every one of us - no matter how different our career path in science seems to be - gave the same messages to the audience.
It turns out I'm not as unique as I thought. My messages to the audience were echoed by the other speakers. Whether you're interested in industry or academia, here are six core elements every scientist needs to build a successful career:
1. "Work with those you love, not those that will boost your career"
Candidates can be drawn to work with the rock stars of the science and tech scene. Whether you want to work with Google or Stephen Hawking - big names build reputations, right?
Yes. But you need to focus on the people you will work with. Sometimes, it is better to choose a role based on the team and your fit with that team, rather than be blinded by working under a big name and, most likely, a big ego.
2. "Collaborate, don't compete"
Competition in any industry is high, but in academia (for example) the race to publish a paper can be overwhelming.
But this competition is not important in the grand scheme of things. More important is your ability to collaborate and network. You need to throw your net as wide as possible to make connections with your fellow scientists and technologists, you never know where an opportunity will come from.
One speaker got her job through a connection at a careers event and a LinkedIn message. I got my "big break" into writing from an old employer who heard I had turned to freelancing.
The importance of mentorship was also discussed from both the mentor and mentee perspective.
Simply put, you never know where your next opportunity will arise.
3. "Accept rejection"
If you work in academia, you will have to apply for multiple fellowships and funding grants. Sometimes, a rejection can be difficult to accept - but boards can base their decisions on weird and wonderful criteria. Don't take it personally.
This is also true within industry. I pitch to publications regularly. Sometimes, the most beautifully worded pitch is rejected or, worse still, ignored. Sometimes, a two-line email with a sketchy idea is accepted instantly.
You never know what people are looking for. So, make sure you have a thick skin and, no matter what you're doing, keep on pitching.
4. "Deadlines can force your hand"
As a freelance writer, this is a message I can definitely sympathise with. I'm faced with regular and, sometimes, crazy deadlines that force me to write quickly and trade off on the quality prose that I would ideally produce.
This is true across academia and industry. As one speaker said: "Deadlines mean you cannot be as accurate or as rigorous as you might like to be."
5. "Transferable skills are everywhere"
The skills you will build in a career in science and technology are highly transferable - and in great demand.
Coding is a great example here. It's filtering down to help teams across the board and is a highly desired skill, as one speaker said: "If you are doing something time and time again, a chunk of code could solve that issue and eliminate that repetition. Everyone's work could benefit from learning to code."
6. "There are gems out there"
Or, as another speaker said: "Don't listen to what others tell you. Look at what they do. Not everyone does it the way you're supposed to."
This is great advice for anyone looking for a career in science. Internships and work experience, for example, were highlighted by the speakers. You have to be adaptable. You have to find your own way.
You may have to try a host of different jobs, as I did, until you find one that fits. Or, you may have to be adaptable under one career path.
To paraphrase another nugget of advice from the event: "Your scientific career is not longer based on a ladder. It's a rock face. You may scale it horizontally, vertically or even have to backtrack - but it's a more interesting climb in the long run."
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I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology