How to be a science journalist

A talk and Q&A with Penny Sarchet, Deputy News Editor for New Scientist.

Written by: Abbie Curd

On Wednesday 11th October, we celebrated the launch of our first ever printed issue of Kinesis in the best way possible: by learning how to make our next issue even better! We were delighted to welcome Penny Sarchet, Deputy News Editor for New Scientist. Penny gave us all an amazing insight into the world of science journalism, explained what a career in this industry entails and gave the aspiring journalists in the audience a chance to grill her on what it takes to secure a job and write successful articles.

For Penny, the route into her role as Deputy News Editor was not a straightforward one. Halfway through her PhD in plant evolutionary developmental genetics at Oxford, she realised that pipetting all day wasn’t right for her and being a science journalist was her true ambition. The idea of tackling a new area of science every week was appealing, so she began to build up her portfolio by juggling freelance work with her PhD. Winning the first Guardian & Observer/Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in 2011 firmly set Penny on the path she hoped for.

Before landing her job at New Scientist, Penny worked as a reporter for Research Fortnight, a magazine which adopts an old-school beat reporting style and focuses on science policy and funding. Following her move to New Scientist, she worked her way up to a more managerial editor role and now runs the biomedical news team. Penny explained that this is generally the natural progression in science journalism, but that she finds shaping the content of articles much more satisfying than writing herself and enjoys how varied her job is.

So how do you write a good article and where can you get your ideas from? To get ideas, Penny recommends reading obscure journals that not many journalists go through to find a niche that interests you and that you can keep up to date with. Going to conferences to find out about new topics or directly hearing about research by visiting labs can provide great sources for articles too. Penny explained that in news journalism the focus is on ensuring  the article is interesting and there isn’t much space for putting your own opinions in, so it’s unlikely that people will recognise your voice in your writing. Once you have an article, Penny revealed (much to our delight) that the best way to determine if it’s any good is to simply go to the pub and see if you can explain it to your (non-scientist) mates without them losing interest. Of course, the science must also be legitimate and you should try to follow the trends of articles that are currently resonating with audiences. Topics related to exercise and wellbeing are firmly at the top right now.  

Penny emphasised that there is no fixed route into science journalism; people come from all kinds of backgrounds, PhD or not, but increasingly applicants have a degree in science communication. She pointed out that science journalism should not be a ‘Plan B’ for anyone: the industry is highly  competitive so you have to be very good to make it, and must be willing to start at the bottom. Penny advised that any aspiring science journalists go to as many events and talks as possible and ask lots of questions. Be pushy, make yourself heard and be bold. All it takes is to impress one person who decides that they will take a chance on you.

One of the main tips that Penny gave if you’re looking to pursue science journalism as a career is to write as much as you possibly can (and for Kinesis, preferably!) and try all kinds of writing. Be flexible and seek out help as much as possible. For instance, try getting involved in the Association of Science Writers and test yourself by entering competitions, pitching stories and applying for internships. There are only a few science magazines in the world, in comparison to thousands of universities and research institutes, so be certain of your motivations for this career and what the job entails before embarking upon it!

The chance to hear Penny speak was invaluable and we hope that every member of the audience enjoyed it as much as we did. In addition to giving us a much clearer idea of how to get into science journalism, the tips Penny gave on writing original and interesting articles will prove extremely useful for making the next issue of Kinesis even more captivating than the first.

We hope to see you all again at our next event!

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