Case study

Science writer — Richard Berks

Richard explains how he went from studying biology to becoming a freelance science writer

What did you study?

I did an undergraduate BSc in Cell Biology, with an industrial placement, at Durham University. And then I completed a PhD in Biology at University of York.

How did you get your job?

After my PhD, I joined a breast cancer charity, working in their science communication team. Our job was to make science understandable and engaging for non-experts, mostly through written content (blogs, webpages, reports and so on). Fast-forward a few years, and I decided to go freelance, doing basically the same job but for other medical research charities.

How relevant is your degree to your job?

My work relies heavily on my scientific background, in many ways. There are the general concepts of biology I need to understand, as well as a lot of terminology. There are also the concepts of how science (and science funding) works. But more than anything, I need to be able to learn quickly; working with a new client might mean learning the basics of a whole new area of human health, and being able to explain it in simple terms to someone else (having an 'outsider perspective' sometimes helps in this). Beyond that, communication skills and being able to write clearly are crucial, something which I developed particularly during my PhD.

What is your job like on a day-to-day basis?

I do my work for clients in the morning, and then other things in the afternoon.

The work I do for my clients involves a range of things, but largely around making medical research understandable and engaging for the charity’s supporters and other 'lay' audiences. This could be writing webpages, blog posts, summaries of research, case studies of impact. All aimed at helping to make sure the charity's audiences know the difference that medical research funded by the charity will make to people's lives.

Other things I do when I'm not doing client work range from admin like invoices, to marketing for my business, as well as training and development, and planning. Because I'm my own boss, I structure the day how I want - personally, I thrive from routine, but other freelancers may take a more freewheeling approach to planning their day. I currently work the equivalent of four days a week.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

Shifting from working 'in-house' to working freelance has been the biggest change of my career so far. Since going freelance, I have adapted and changed things as I've learnt, getting better at my craft. At the moment, I'm considering what direction I want my business to go - which is the beauty of working for yourself, in that I get to choose.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I really enjoy the variety, in many aspects. I enjoy the variety of health topics, as well as working with some big charities and smaller ones. I have regular clients with whom I have ongoing relationships, and for other clients I might do one off projects, big or small. I get to work from home, choosing my hours and spending more time with my family. As my own boss, I have chosen this is the way I want to work, and so I guess that freedom to do as I please is another big benefit for me.

What are the most challenging parts?

Working for myself is a double-edged sword - though it gives me freedom, I am responsible for everything; I don't have anyone to back me up or bounce ideas off. It can be lonely work, and sometimes I miss the buzz of an office and the camaraderie of colleagues. Aspects of business development (such as pitching, pricing services, developing packages, marketing and sales, and so on) can be a bit of trial and error and feel like a never-ending job.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

  • If you're working in-house and considering going freelance, make sure you build your network as soon as possible. Go to networking events, collaborate with people from other organisations, and maintain good relationships with your colleagues. This will pay off long-term, as it will increase your chances of having a contact at any given organisation you want to work for, which is a helpful 'foot in the door'.
  • Learn and absorb as much as you can from outside your bubble. Similar to above, it's a great idea to keep on popping your head up from your desk, and seeing what else is going on in the world. I write a regular blog which helps me keep up to date with what other charities are up to. Making friends with your equivalents at other organisations is a good way to keep informed and learn.
  • If you're going to take the plunge into freelancing, try get as focused early as you can on what you offer. Early on, I made the mistake of trying to be everything to everyone, which I must have thought was being helpful, but now I realise probably came across as a bit woolly (or even a bit desperate). It can take a bit of trial and error to find out what organisations are looking to outsource (and what they're willing to pay you for), but keep experimenting and offering.

It's important to point out that a PhD is not necessary for being a science writer (some would argue that even a science undergraduate degree isn't strictly needed). A head for science is useful of course, but more important is the ability to learn quickly and be able to get to the bottom of something, an inquisitive and curious mind that asks the right questions. As I said before, sometimes not being the expert can be useful, as it gives you the outsider's perspective to see things from the audience’s viewpoint - which for charities are often lay people with not much scientific knowledge beyond what they learnt at school.

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