Career Profile: Josh Chamot
Media Officer for Engineering/SBIR/STTR, National Science Foundation (and occasionally, freelance science writer)
Education: B.A. Geology, College of William and Mary; M.S. Geology, University of Tennessee—Knoxville.
Description of current positionI split my time between writing news stories and press releases, interacting with the media, coaching NSF staff and awardees on media relations, overseeing webpage development, and other sundry tasks. Every day, I enjoy learning about a wide variety of cutting-edge research projects. I'm always learning (and I get paid to share this sense of discovery with others—I love it). The most challenging aspect of my job is that it is extremely difficult to juggle a dozen tasks at a time and try to placate many people at once.
A critical skill for this job is the ability to understand science, both the discoveries and the process. Most science journalists enter the field with an interest in science but a journalism training. Having conducted geoscience research I entered the field with many advantages: a perspective for understanding research, experience interacting with scientists, ability to present my thoughts in a coherent text (or oral presentation, for that matter), etc. The geology knowledge I gained was not as important for my current career as the ability to think like a geologist. One aside, my experience as a student-educator helped me learn to communicate complex thoughts in a simple way. This is a skill everyone can appreciate.
What do you see as the future of this career field?Tough call. The future of journalism is in flux as web material takes greater market share. I work as a public information officer for a federal agency—more fact-oriented than a PR job, but still somewhat focused on the Foundation's mission. As such, there's demand for Public Information Officers to carry the agency message and communicate with the world at large. I would encourage everyone to learn good communication skills (written and oral) so that science journalism remains an option, but I'm not sure I'd recommend a student get a degree in science journalism. Good communication skills keep the resume a bit more flexible.
Are there any myths about your job that you would like to help dispel?I'm not a flak officer. I don't peddle a message at the expense of the research discovery. In fact, our agency gets very little mention in our releases -- the text is devoted to the research. People need to recognize that public information officers (at both agencies and universities) are there to help communicate research back to the public that funded it. We want to get the story right, and the researchers need to help us do this. Ask to see the press release before it goes out. The better we tell the story, and the more open a researcher is to media training, the less chance that research will be mis-reported to the public.
Career pathI always kept options open—variety of different courses in different fields, internships at any agency I could talk my way into, etc. Keep every door open. That said, never think that where you land is your career. Worry about you, not the job. Both of my parents had major career changes and are happier for it. Through high school I wanted to be a veterinarian or musician, then a paleogeneticist, then a paleontologist, then a geochemist, then an environmental geologist, then a science writer. And I still don't feel like I'm at an "end point."
My specific path went from student-freelancer with Geotimes (always freelance before leaving school—great experience, wealth of clips!), editor for a Federal contractor, PIO at a Smithsonian museum, PIO at NSF. I've been freelancing since 1998 (Geotimes launched, and maintained, my career) and actively interacting with researchers since an internship (1996 and Summer 1997) at the Smithsonian negotiated by Dr. Gerald Johnson at the College of William and Mary. One of my current mentors, Rick Borchelt, helped me with advice, contacts, recommendations -- the works—which helped me land my last two jobs. Always be good to your mentors; they are very, very good to you.
What made you more competitive to get your job?I've always been competitive because of my strong science background, good writing skills, and motivated, while somewhat social, attitude. I had done good work; had extensive clips; had recommendations from good people at the Smithsonian and elsewhere; and was motivated and excited by the described work. It always helps to have contacts. It helps set you out from the other 185 applicants.
I don't consider myself a geologist, but I had the training and a "beginner's" experience, and that goes a very long way in my field. My teachers went way out of their way to counsel and guide me, giving me the best experiences for my interests at the time (from long talks at the College of William and Mary with Jonathan Filer, to work on whales with Dr. Johnson, to thesis work and many of my writing experiences in grad school which were recommended by geo profs).
My writing background extends to high school (or even earlier), when teachers emphasized written and oral communication. College reinforced this (as did grad school). Teachers should never let someone leave their class unless the student really knows how to communicate.
Internships are also key. I interned at big-name places: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Space.com, NASA, American Geological Institute, National Research Council, Virginia Department of Mineral Resources. Both family and professional contacts helped get me there. One should pounce on just about every opportunity. Oh, one other thing—professional societies. Get in on this as early as possible—contacts, contacts, contacts! Not just job hunting tips, but actual tips on the job itself.
Advice for graduate studentsStudy science first, preferably through grad school. Enjoy teaching. If that works, but there aren't jobs in science or teaching, then be a writer.
On personal choices and careersWhile I was single during school, friends with spouses/families actually were more stable than the rest of us—they knew there was more to the world than the lab and classroom. Family is first. A job is just a job. Want less, live more.
I stressed out my whole life thinking if I worked hard I'd get a high-paying job and be this great success. I make a good $10,000 less than my peers outside of science writing (and my computer programming friends make even more), but I have enough for my mortgage, my MINI, and my dog, and I'm pretty happy. My definition for success has changed drastically as I've moved further along. One other thing -- no one decision (or many) that you choose will make you a failure unless you give up (and even then, support is there for you if you welcome it). Work diligently and give the job/field of study/whatever a couple years and take from it what you can. If it ends up settling well, then good. If not, that's also good. You can always rebound and do something else—just be happy.