Career Profile: Marc Airhart
Science Writer, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin
Education: B.S. Physics, University of North Texas
Description of current positionI'm a science writer for the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm one of a team of three. I write feature length articles about science research and profiles of scientists. These are published on our website, in our annual alumni magazine, and in our school's quarterly electronic newsletter. Public affairs is also a minor component of my job—providing a point of contact for local or regional media and writing press releases.
What do you like best about your current work?I enjoy having the opportunity to write about science in depth, in feature length articles, where I can really get into the substance of the science I'm writing about. I couldn't do that very often in my previous job, where I wrote 90-second science radio segments.
I also get to travel a lot. For example, I got to go to Mexico to observe a research project in which a robot explored underwater sinkholes. It was great to be out in the field, seeing the researchers (and robot) in action. I also posted live blog entries each day, complete with photos, updates on the research and insights into the geology of the area.
One more thing I like about my job: I have a really good editor. He makes my writing better, and I learn about the craft of writing in the process.
What is most challenging about your current work?Finding the stories. My mandate is to tell the world about the research happening here in the School of Geosciences—and there's a lot of important and fascinating research - but scientists are busy people, and telling the public about their research isn't always a high priority for them. So I have to be proactive about finding out what they're doing and getting them to tell me about it.
Which experiences that you had before do you find most useful in doing your job?My first writing job helped me to develop an attitude of humility about my writing. We writers tend to see our words as our babies. We're protective of them. But editors have to, and will, change what we write. So we have to be pretty thick-skinned. Nine times out of ten, if not more, the changes make the piece better. Accepting my editor's criticism without taking it personally has been essential to my success.
What do you see as the future of this career field?The field of science writing is in a state of rapid change. On one hand, there are more opportunities than ever before, with the evolution of new forms of media: websites, podcasts, blogs, etc. On the other hand, it's becoming harder to get paid for science journalism; with these new forms of media, more and more information is free. In the traditional realm, newspapers across the country are letting science writers go, but books about science still seem to sell well and broadcast media (television and radio) seem to be holding steady.
In terms of the material, it seems that more and more important science research is happening every year. So there doesn't seem to be any shortage of stories to write about.
Are there any myths about your job that you would like to help dispel?I've often come across the mistaken belief that journalists just looked things up in books or on the internet, that we don't go to a primary source for our information, and that we don't check our facts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good science journalism (or any other kind of journalism) starts with interviewing the experts, and of course we check our facts.
Career pathThe path I took to my current job was circuitous. When I graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics, all I knew was that I didn't want to be a physics professor or work in a physics laboratory.
Serendipity led to my first job as a science writer. Every once in a while I heard the science news program Earth and Sky (more info) on the radio and was impressed. It turned out to be produced in Austin, where I was living at the time. So, out of the blue, I called them up and said, "I have a background in science and I think I can write for mass media. Can I volunteer?" Of course they said yes. After about three or four months of volunteer work (filing, checking facts, tracking down sources, and such) they asked me to research and write a radio script. That went pretty well, so they asked me to do more. Eventually they started paying me a little bit for my writing. Then they got a grant to hire a writer and some other staff. I applied for the job, landed it, and worked there for eleven years.
In 2006, I saw that UT-Austin was looking for a science writer. It looked like an excellent opportunity, so I applied, and it's been a great way to use my skills in a dynamic new setting.
What made you more competitive to get your job?Well, I'd been working in science journalism for many years. In particular, I had developed the ability to interview scientists well: to ask the questions that would tease out information, and to present it accurately and in interesting ways to the public.
Advice for studentsIf you're considering a career in science writing, here are two pieces of advice, based on my experience, that might seem counterintuitive. First, don't try to write about something you already know and understand. Write about some aspect of science that's unfamiliar to you, so that you'll ask the kinds of questions that a person on the street would ask and want to know about. If you talk to a scientist as if you're a colleague, they'll use lots of jargon and gloss over the really interesting context that they assume you already know. Tell them you don't know anything about DNA replication and that simple analogies would be a big help.
Second, you don't need a degree in science journalism. Instead, write as much as possible, for as many different people as you can. Be creative: offer to write reviews of books about science for your local newspaper, or make other opportunities for yourself. Get experience working with editors. Experience and a strong portfolio are more valuable than a degree, and also give you the chance to see whether science writing suits you. (I'm showing my bias towards on-the-job learning as opposed to classroom learning. Having said that, there are some top-notch university programs out there to learn the craft of writing. Some writers have benefited greatly from them either at the start or sometimes in the middle of their writing careers. And there are workshops, conferences, seminars and societies that can help with continuing education along the way.)