The second of our guest blog posts from researchers now working in roles outside of research in Higher Education.
Vicky Just - promoting scientific research through the media
What is your current role?
I am a Media and PR Officer at the University of Bath. I promote the research from our Faculty of Science by writing press releases publicising our latest research and finding academics to provide expert media comment. I also answer enquiries from journalists and organise filming, radio interviews and other media opportunities, as well as helping run the University’s main social media channels.
Being at Bath has given me some great opportunities, including working with researchers at the top of their field to promote their work to the world; working flexibly since returning from maternity leave to have a work-life balance; and even tweeting as the Bath Uni Duck!
How did you decide what you wanted to do after your PhD?
Following my PhD in Biochemistry, I worked as a postdoc for five years, but became frustrated with labwork, feeling that as I continued to specialise further in my field, I was losing sight of what really excited me about science. So as my contract came to an end I started looking for new avenues for my passion for science.
I wanted to share my love of science with the wider public, many of whom are uninterested or distrustful of research due to misreporting in the media or on the internet.
Give a brief overview of your career history to date, and any steps you feel were important to you
Whilst still doing postdoctoral research, I got in touch with the Communications Office at my research institution who provided helpful advice and mentoring.
I tried out lots of different types of science communication and public engagement activities, including outreach in schools, freelance science presenting, helping organise hands-on exhibits at the local science fair and the Chelsea Flower Show and taking part in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist Pairing scheme. My PI was happy as long as I got my research work done, and encouraged me as it meant he could include it under his own public engagement work!
When I was selected in a competition to be a press officer for the Society for Experimental Biology’s main annual conference, I realised that I really enjoyed writing about science for a general audience.
As a result of my work with the Communications Office I was offered a role covering maternity leave for the press officer at my research institution, which gave me invaluable experience and on-the-job training. In my first week I had to set up filming with Channel 4 News on a prestigious Nature paper, and found it thrilling to get my press releases published in news outlets all over the world.
I joined the University of Bath in 2008, and currently focus on the Faculty of Science, having previously also promoted research from the Faculties of Engineering & Design, and Humanities & Social Science.
How do you use the skills from your PhD in your current role?
Most press officers have public relations or journalistic experience or training, however my PhD does help me in my job in several ways.
I rarely have to call on my specific knowledge from my PhD, as I work on such a diverse range of subjects. However what does help is being science literate, having the ability to ask the relevant questions and not be put off by the often jargon-dense text of research papers.
I use my skills of workload planning, self-management and multi-tasking on a daily basis, where unexpected events sometimes mean you have to drop everything else to meet a deadline.
My career as a researcher on short-term contracts meant working at a variety of institutions with a range of different people. This flexibility to cooperate diplomatically with others has definitely helped my current role, where I work with academics, journalists and other press officers from collaborating institutions and funding bodies.
Being self-critical also helps, as most press releases go through many edits before all the different parties are happy with the text.
I think the most useful thing is that having been in academia, I know how the system works, the time and workload pressures that academics face and understand their concerns of promoting their research in the media which are often more interested in juicy headlines than accuracy. My role is to simplify their research for a lay audience, keeping it engaging without sacrificing accuracy, so the journalists are more likely to present a balanced story.
What advice would you give to researchers interested in working in similar roles?
It’s a competitive field where most people already have PR or journalist experience or qualifications, so you need to get as much relevant experience as possible! Apply for internships, volunteer in your institution’s press office, write for your local newspaper, write a blog or article for The Conversation about your work, start building a social media profile, just do anything to practice communicating and build up a network of contacts that will help you find all the available opportunities. I’d also consider some type of media or PR qualification, which again could open doors – The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is a good place to start.