The pursuit of science is challenging. It is where new knowledge is born. In their path towards the unknown, scientists, too, face their fair share of insecurity. When experiments fail, grants evade, confidence dwindles and the clock strikes midnight, many researchers find themselves immersed in questions to which Google may not have an answer. What should I do after I graduate? Is there a glass ceiling for women? Is academia right for me? What other options are out there? Can I really get my act together for a work-life balance, like, ever? Sigh, these investment bankers make so much more money. What am I doing with my life? Maybe I should sleep now?
It’s moments like these in grad school that serve as a reminder that the degree being earned is, in fact, a doctor of philosophy: challenging assumptions, speculating the impossible and embracing different viewpoints.
In the more recent times, researchers no longer ponder about their careers in isolation. Science Careers addresses a broad variety of career-related topics, assuring scientists that they are not alone in this journey. What was once an introspective conversation with a colleague is now had on a larger-than-life platform, bringing ideas, tips and comfort to early-career and established researchers. Science Careers elegantly challenges the academic status quo, speculates new trends and embraces diverse opinions, while transforming the way scientists envision their future, even during an episode of midnight existential crisis.
Knowing Neurons got together with the woman behind Science Careers, its editor, Dr. Rachel Bernstein. We chat about how she carved her career path from behind the bench to behind one of the most influential career platforms. She shares her pet peeves, concerns that still keep her up at night, how she develops content that every researcher is likely to declare “was written just for me!”
Communication is most compelling when it is person-to-person, but scientists too often try to suppress their personality, voice or perspective.
Anita Ramanathan: What has your professional journey been like from graduate school to becoming the editor of Science Careers?
Rachel Bernstein: I’ve always been interested in both writing and science. As an undergraduate, I majored in biochemistry and minored in English, and when I was choosing where to go to grad school, part of the reason that I chose to go to Berkeley was because I was excited to have the opportunity to work on the Berkeley Science Review (BSR) in addition to doing my research. As I worked my way through grad school, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t pursue a traditional career in academia. I enjoyed writing, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that would mean for me upon graduation. But in the meantime I kept up with writing and editing, both for the BSR, where I was a writer, editor, managing editor, and editor-in-chief at various points, and for the papers my labmates and friends were working on.
As I was getting closer to the end of my Ph.D., I felt like I needed to explore my post-grad school options a little more thoroughly. My research was going pretty well and my adviser was open to the idea of me taking some time off, as long as I left things in good shape and had a plan for what I would do when I returned to finish my degree. So I applied to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. I ended up spending the summer after my 5th year of grad school writing about science for the Los Angeles Times. It was a great experience, but it actually taught me that I didn’t want to go into what I think of as typical science journalism, which frequently focuses on describing the latest papers to a broad audience. The stories that I was most interested in were the ones that were relevant to scientists, even if they’re not of particular interest to the general public — but I didn’t think I could make a career of that at the time.
I started thinking about some different options in the science communication realm that were more focused on the scientific community, and journal publishing seemed like it could be a good option. I did that for a while, and learning about the scientific editorial side of things was incredibly interesting. But it wasn’t the right fit for me either. That was followed by some freelancing and further exploration of my options, which included educational writing, grant editing, and some journalism. Then my big break arrived when the staff writer position at Science Careers opened up. It was just what I had been looking for: an opportunity to write about scientific community issues for a deeply invested audience. I later moved into the editor position when the former editor left.
AR: As the editor of Science Careers, how would you describe your typical day?
RB: On one level, it’s sort of the same thing every day: sitting at my computer editing pieces, emailing authors, and working with our production team to make sure that the pieces look great when they’re published. If you zoom in, though, it’s pretty varied. When I edit personal essays like those published in our Working Life column, I’m pushing the authors to really delve into how they felt in difficult personal and professional situations; sometimes I almost feel like I’m their editor/therapist. When I’m editing our journalistic pieces, I have more of my scientist hat on, making sure that all the information we present is thoroughly researched and accurate — and hopefully interesting. But when it comes down to it, I pretty much spend my days sitting at my computer, trying to get out for a walk or a run when I can.
AR: What part of your profession makes you smile?
RB: Working with scientists on the personal essays that make up the Working Life column is one of the most rewarding parts of my work. These are people who have volunteered to share their personal experiences and lay themselves bare, and I’m grateful that they put their trust in me to help shape and share their story. And reader feedback suggests that these pieces really make an impact. Even though each week it’s just one person writing about one element of their story, many of the themes and issues are universal and resonate with a broad audience. So, I smile particularly broadly every Thursday afternoon when our new issue publishes and I get to see a new essay published, and the community response.
I don’t want to pretend that the pressures to sacrifice work-life balance don’t exist, but at the same time I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the only way to be successful is by doing so.
AR: And what keeps you up at night?
RB: I think all journalists are kept up at night by the fear that we’ve published something that might be inaccurate, even though we do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. But a more interesting answer is probably that I worry about how we should be tackling the difficult issues that are so important to Science Careers readers, like work-life balance, gender bias, etc. There’s no one “right” way to talk about these issues. I know that readers take our content seriously, so I worry about finding the best angle. For example, regarding work-life balance, I acknowledge that many students are expected to work intense hours, and that, for some, focusing on work to the detriment of the “life” part of work-life balance can lead to a “successful” career (although there’s a whole separate conversation about what “success” means…). I don’t want to pretend that the pressures to sacrifice work-life balance don’t exist, but at the same time I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the only way to be successful is by doing so. Ultimately each scientist needs to make their own decision about how they want to approach these issues for themselves, but what we publish can be seen to endorse one view or another, so I try to be really careful that we cover these topics with sensitivity and subtlety.
AR: Science Careers is one of my favorite places to read about topics that constantly run in my mind like research funding, diversity, women in science and so on. What impact has Science Careers had in shaping ideas in personal and professional development?
RB: That’s great to hear! But I’m probably not the right person for this question. I hope that it has a major impact, and from what I hear from readers I think it does, but it’s hard to quantify meaningfully. Ultimately I’m hoping to bring some visibility to these issues and promote conversations about them.
AR: How do you generate the content on Science Careers? Do you often hear from researchers about their career concerns and address those? How do you decide to include a particular subject?
RB: I have a list in my head — and to some extent on paper — of the main issues I want us to address, and my team members have their own running lists that we draw from too. I also receive some pitches from freelancers that bring some great ideas to my attention that I wouldn’t have thought of myself, and I’m grateful for that input, which helps broaden my perspective. I also get contributions from the scientific community about all sorts of topics. In a lot of cases the author has brought an interesting perspective that I decide is worth moving forward with, though sometimes I decide that they’re not quite right for us, for example if it’s not particularly new or interesting. But I’m always interested in hearing from researchers about what they want us to cover.
AR: What might be some young scientist problems you’ve noticed as a result of the fast-paced and competitive nature of science?
RB: One of the things I’m hearing and thinking about a lot are mental health issues. Depression among scientists, for example, is a serious concern. Many scientists — and people more generally — are uncomfortable talking about mental health issues or being open and vulnerable about struggles they’re having. But the door seems to be opening a tiny bit and people are starting to talk about it. I hope that this trend will continue so that everyone, including trainees and established scientists, can pursue their intellectual interests while also getting any support they may need to ensure that their mental and emotional health isn’t being sacrificed.
AR: Can there really be a work-life balance in the pursuit of science?
RB: Yes. It’s about personal priorities. I’m not going to argue that prioritizing work above all else is a recipe for disaster — some people make work their only focus and achieve professional success. And for all I know, they’re happy. But I also know that there are happy, successful scientists who have prioritized their personal lives. Again, I’m not going to argue that it’s easy, or that there are any guarantees one way or another, but it can be done. It helps being mindful of it and making a point of keeping work from taking over life, as opposed to just saying, more generally, that one wants to have a balance without setting specific boundaries or guidelines.
It’s important that we’re having this conversation in science, particularly in academic science, but I think we must acknowledge that these types of issues are far from unique to science, or academia. The specifics might be different for other disciplines, or other types of workplaces, but the work expectations that create the pressure to sacrifice work-life balance exist in so many environments. That’s not an answer, exactly, or a solution, but I think there are broader questions about what we — not just scientists, but all professionals — want and expect from ourselves and our employers.
AR: When I was at a conference a couple of years back, any non-academic route, for example, science writing or editing, working for a non-profit or even being in the pharmaceutical industry was being referred to as “alternative” careers. This bothered me! Do you think we, as a scientific community, are getting better at appreciating all the different aspects of science?
RB: We actually published a piece about exactly this topic not too long ago. I do think we’re getting better, although the “alternative” seems to be sticking, for better or worse. It’s an appealing label because it’s concise and people for the most part know what it means, but I know that a lot of people think it’s problematic. I’ve tried to move away from using it on Science Careers, although there are some instances where it still shows up, for example when a source uses that terminology. But back to the bigger question, I do think the scientific community is moving toward being more appreciative of the many different types of rewarding careers that can be of interest to Ph.D. scientists. Although I’ve certainly also heard of instances where trainees still get a lot of push-back from advisers or others about their interest in non-research or non-academic careers.
… every article needs to have some sort of story that makes it clear to the reader why they’re reading.
AR: What’s your biggest editorial pet peeve?
RB: My grammar pet peeve is using “less” instead of “fewer.” An editorial pet peeve might be when authors don’t tell a story. Even if it’s not a straightforward narrative piece, every article needs to have some sort of story that makes it clear to the reader why they’re reading. When I get a piece that’s just a lot of information — oftentimes good, useful information — but I don’t know why I’m reading it even when I get to the end, that’s a missed opportunity for that writer.
AR: What book are you currently reading?
RB: I just finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last book of the Neapolitan novels about female friendships. I have a lot of complicated mixed feelings about the book that I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that I found it compelling enough that I made it through the whole series, which isn’t short, but also found some aspects of it frustrating and unfulfilling.
AR: As a science writer, is there something you recommend scientists could do differently to communicate better?
RB: Be yourself! Don’t put on “scientist voice” to try to “sound smart.” Communication is most compelling when it is person-to-person, but scientists too often try to suppress their personality, voice or perspective. I’m not saying that manuscripts should be written like blog posts, but I wish that more scientists were less hesitant about showing their personal and professional side simultaneously when they communicate. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. And sounding smart at the expense of actually communicating is a waste of everyone’s time.
AR: What advice do you have for young scientists?
RB: Wherever you are in your training or career, think critically about what you’re currently doing, what you’re working toward, and why. Don’t just go to grad school or do a postdoc or apply for a faculty job because it’s the obvious next step or it’s what everyone seems to be doing. Do it because you think it’s the right move for you. At the same time, remain open to changes to your goals and career direction.
Written by Anita Ramanathan.
Image by Kayleen Schreiber.
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