Sunday, August 5, 2012

Is a PhD required for good science writing?

Short answer: No. But you can make these funny hats
and gowns part of your permanent wardrobe.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
What's required to make stories about science accessible and accurate for the nonscientist? Daniel Bor discussed this in a comment on a piece he wrote about the Jonah Lehrer deception. In the comment, Bor said,
I think scientific journalism could immediately be improved by assuming that you need at least a PhD for the job.
Not surprisingly, while acknowledging the soundness of Bor's original post, many science writers took issue with this assertion. Bor did take a step back and say that he was happy to admit he'd gone too far making the PhD point. As much as I'd like to see expanded job opportunities for science PhDs, I agree that this method ain't the way to do it.

In fact, as someone who has a PhD in science but has been a writer longer than I've been a scientist, I'd argue that it might be better not to have specific training in science if you're reaching for an audience of nonscientists, depending on what your goal as a writer is. If your goal is to tell a great science story that keeps the nonscientist reading and thinking, "wow" or "I get it," then scientific training might be an anti-requisite. If your target is critique and analysis of science, then scientific training could be quite useful as long as you don't let your deep background blind you to what your readers might not understand as well as you.

Arguments like these always seem specific to the sciences. Economics looks like a jargony wasteland to me as someone little familiar with its terminology and landscape, but I can't recall seeing requirements that journalists covering the economy must have economics degrees, much less PhDs in the field. What is required to become a respected journalist extends beyond esoteric knowledge. A respected journalist builds trust with an audience and earns that respect with a track record of overall accuracy, decent writing, and a dedication to openness. Good journalists in any subject area build their hours of understanding the way they build what we used to call the Rolodex of contacts: with hard work and asking the right questions.

And it's asking the right questions that really matters. My experience has been that the closer I am to a subject scientifically speaking--i.e., when it's relevant to my field of research--the worse I am at asking the right questions about it, filling in gaps for a nonexpert, and writing about it comprehensibly and comprehensively. In fact, my worst work for the nonexpert audience has always involved my areas of scientific research. A deep understanding of a topic acquired by way of contributing to the research field has done me no favors when it comes to writing about that subject for a nonscientific audience. We are talking major suckage here.

My best work has emerged when I have a relatively limited grasp of the science--probably at the level of anyone who has completed a college physics class. I know enough to start the questions, I know enough to read a research paper and get the gist, but I don't know so much that I leave out critical questions in interviews, questions with answers that might help both a reader's understanding and my own. Possibly even as critical for writing a good piece (Slate's editorial stance notwithstanding), I end up getting great expository quotes from experts. That's not easy to do, and if your approach is one of already knowing everything and avoiding asking the "obvious" questions, you're not going to get those good quotes from good interview subjects. And that means you'll miss one of the greatest joys of journalistic writing.

Rather than being dangerous, a little knowledge can be a great tool as long as a writer uses it appropriately and has no compunction about revealing ignorance in a subject area. That's another place where having extensive training in the sciences could be an obstacle. What scientist--or formerly practicing scientist--wants to get into a conversation with a colleague or peer and show general scientific ignorance? I don't know about other people who have combined writing for a nonexpert audience and scientific training, but for me, I have to watch myself carefully in interviews. I'll sometimes find myself interpreting back to interviewees or explaining before they finish explaining, in part, I think, from reflexive need to let them know, peer to peer, that I get it. I have to stop myself, let them finish, ask the "ignorant" questions. Ego's gotta stay out of it or Ego will interfere.

Where ego and training and depth of understanding can be an asset rather than a liability is if your wheelhouse is criticism, commentary, or general opinionating. Deep expertise--whether acquired through graduate training in science or putting in 10,000 hours of journalistic effort in a topical niche--confers the necessary grounding and cachet a writer needs to build audience trust in and respect for those opinions and critiques. Without getting too starry eyed or blindly invested about it, I'd trust a critique of microbiological resistance studies from Maryn McKenna just as much as I would trust such a critique from any peer reviewer. If Deborah Blum's got something to say about the chemistry of a news story, as background or the story's focus, she gets my attention just as much as any trained chemist would--probably more so, thanks to her lyrical writing, a double treat for a science writer/reader. If Carl Zimmer pens articles about human lakes, viruses, or science-related tattoos, I'll tend to trust in what he writes because he's focused relentlessly, accurately, and gracefully on these topics for a long time. None of these writers has a graduate degree in science or even majored in science. They have instead dedicated their hours to the combined pursuit of science and writing, with wonderful results. 

But in the case of critique, I'd be just as willing to rely on insights from a scientist trained in the specific field involved. Like the writers I've named above, deep scientific training qualifies scientists to critique within their subject areas. If they give up the lab bench for writing, that expertise will inevitably broaden around a core interest, and the combination of science training and hours of writing experience can take them to the level of a Blum, McKenna, Zimmer, or David Dobbs when it comes to critique and analysis in combination with reporting. But if those scientist-to-writer types are anything like me, they should stay far, far away from their dissertation topic as a writing focus unless critique is the goal.

No one's concocted a magic formula for the best combination of science training and writing when it comes to science writing for the nonexpert audience. What I do know from my own experience as a writer, which happens to bookend earning a doctorate in biology, is that having a PhD can be a hindrance as much as a help and certainly cannot be considered the sine qua non qualification for writing about science. The bottom line is that regardless of how you succeed as a science writer in building trust with your audience, your success will depend in large part on three factors: your dedication to accuracy and its pursuit, your willingness to check Ego at the door, and your focus on crafting work that reaches and resonates. No PhD required.

ETA: Back in February, journalist and now-PIO Matt Shipman also addressed what makes a good science writer. As he notes on Twitter, we agree


  1. OK, so clearly the answer is no. Although I had no idea that so many of my favourite science writers had no (or relatively little) science background.

    But what about the opposite question? What specific skills does an arts/humanities background bring to science writing? I ask as someone who does have a science PhD but hasn't done any kind of arts or humanities since I was 16 - and feels a little less than rounded in my attempts at writing.

  2. I remember a "non-academic careers for people with science degrees" session I attended a few years back. One of the presenters talked about being a science writer (and person who hires other science writers). She said she didn't even take on people with advanced degrees for the very reasons you outlined here. "If you want to be a science writer, get out [of the grad school track] now," was pretty much her advice!

  3. Great post, Emily. As to not taking on a science writer with a Ph.D. -- that seems counter-productive. One's educational background shouldn't be as important as one's clips. There are some really strong science writers that do have PhDs (e.g., Rob Dunn), so having a doctorate doesn't mean you can't do it -- it's just not necessarily the advantage that some in the academic community perceive it to be (in my opinion).

  4. Agreed, ShipLives. Just using the anecdote as a counter-example from the opposite end of the spectrum from what I normally hear inside my scientific corner of the ivory tower.

  5. "Economics looks like a jargony wasteland to me as someone little familiar with its terminology and landscape, but I can't recall seeing requirements that journalists covering the economy must have economics degrees, much less PhDs in the field."

    I just want to thank you so much for that sentence. If we just start throwing away quality, talented writers because they don't have enough background in the subject, it is our loss. From my point of view (I'm a newspaper reporter), I've focused on another way to improve the quality of science writing:

  6. You obviously have a useful perspective on this, and I like the way you've articulated it. The credentials of respected science writers run the gamut. Your example of Carl Zimmer is particularly appropriate, in that he has no formal science training, and yet has written many insightful pieces, that capture the process of science as much as the content. And, though Deborah Blum apparently started out as a chemistry major, and her focus on chemistry continues to be her calling card, she pursued journalism, not science, for specialization. On the other hand, Dennis Overbye is a different example, in that he majored in physics at MIT and continued to study and work as a scientist before ultimately pursuing journalism and writing.

    Of course, many fully credentialed scientists have accepted the challenge of communicating with the public about their disciplines, and many have been enormously successful in making science accessible and interesting. I point to the books on Darwin and evolution by Ken Miller and Jerry Coyne as just one example. I think you may be right that it's possible to be too close to one's own discipline to be able have adequate perspective on it, but somehow these and other writers have gotten it right. Clearly, you should count yourself in this category, in your amazing writing about autism and in your contributions on the DoubleXScience and AskEmily blogs. In my own case, as a biology professor, I have just made my first foray into science writing, with a blog called, about science writing and the process of science (shameless plug). In this, I essentially have followed Daniel Bor's model of a scientist-journalist collaboration. My daughter Amy, who is a Columbia-trained environmental journalist at the New York Times, is serving primarily as my editor for the blog, helping me to write less like a scientist and more like a journalist. (Not easy.) BTW: Amy's background represents yet another model for how to become a science writer. She was one of the last to graduate from a dual masters program at Columbia in environmental science journalism. One year was spent pursuing environmental science (studying arsenic in Bangladeshi wells) and the other at the J school.

  7. I think this question will vary according to how you see the purpose of science journalism. If you look at the response to the most recent science journalism response to the NYT opinion piece linking autism, autoimmune disease, and parasites--I think there's room to argue that a lot of existing science journalism is more pop fad than mind-tweaking education. And this state is very much a function of the existing science journalism establishment, which is dominated by people with minimal training in science who many times aren't even qualified to properly interpret the literature because they grew out of generic beat reporters who specialized. In this environment, individuals with the breadth of a Ph.D are a useful device in keeping the establishment honest and ensuring what's written is speculation rather than wild fantasy and serves to educate and expand minds rather than just titillating them.

    Additionally, there's a generational component to this. Whereas previous generations of say, biochemistry Ph.Ds could get through mostly specializing in enzymatic assays and having little training in other areas of biology, these days Ph.Ds are dramatically less specialized and are expected to think broadly, make connections, and infer applications far outside of their immediate field of daily experimentation. This makes their input far more useful from a scientific policy or journalism perspective.