Skills & Careers in Science Writing Course

In this 10-week seminar – co-taught by Science in Society and Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications – Northwestern graduate students hone their writing skills through authentic writing assignments for general readers. The course is supported by TGS and open to all STEM+ PhD candidates.

The course focuses on three key learning outcomes:

  • Develop science writing and communication skills appropriate for lay audiences.
    • Conveying complex scientific content in audience-appropriate ways.
    • Employing narrative and storytelling modalities to communicate information to non-experts.
    • Building a better understanding of non-scientist audiences including expectations and knowledge levels-- and how to design various approaches for effective, relevant engagement.
  • Gain greater understanding of and exposure to science writing and communication careers, models and opportunities.
    • Understanding magazine structures, formats, and sections and learning to pitch articles.
    • Building your brand and portfolio through social media.
    • Building interviewing and reporting skills.
    • Working with a professional editor.
  • Build an iterative writing practice including

    • Practicing self-editing and revision
    • Giving and receiving constructive peer feedback in dialog
    • Creating science communiques through several drafts and with external readers and feedback

     

History

This course stems from a series of pilot workshops and events hosted by both Science in Society and Medill in the early 2010s. The overwhelming response and feedback led to the collaborative development of this course, which was proposed to The Graduate School in 2015.

The course is run in the evenings twice a year, spring and fall, with a deliberately capped cohort to ensure personal attention and the opportunity for interactive discussion and workshopping.

The course structure and syllabus went through many revisions in the first year based on student feedback and surveys and now includes professional science communication skills and opportunities (like information on pitching articles and landing internships) as well as core writing and storytelling skills and practices. Evaluation methods include student surveys and two quantitative skill-based models: a self-assessment skills survey and an independently-judged writing assessment. 

"Undoubtedly the skills I learned have been very useful, but most concretely the connections generated by this course were the reason I have been able to publish 2 pieces on Discover blogs since finishing the class." – Hannah Gavin 
Impact

All course alumni report applying their learning immediately and in a variety of professional and academic contexts (see some of these impacts below). Student self-reported skill gains are corroborated by independently-judged pre/post writing samples. Using a rubric designed by Science in Society and based in the literature, we compared student writing samples from before and after the course which show increased science communication and storytelling skills in core areas of the curriculum. 

  • 100% of course alumni reported this class affected their science communication practice. They cite a broad range of applications including professional and personal contexts.
  • More than 50% of respondents specifically mention skills learned in this course were helpful in their academic and scientific writing, including research presentations, posters, grant proposals, and manuscripts.
  • Several students have pursued science writing externally, with articles appearing in several mainstream publications including Vox, Aeon, AWIS, Nature blogs, and the Daily Northwestern ). Students also report a wide range of original science communication undertakings including creating their own blogs, podcasts and social media streams.
  • Remarkably, 26 out of the 44 alumni from the first three quarters have been in touch individually with instructors since class ended. These continued relationships overwhelmingly demonstrate that students are actively pursuing additional activities and learning, but also underline how our relationships as instructors and mentors are a foundational part of that experience.
  • After taking this course, 96% of students reported being more interested in science writing and communication (regardless of their intended career direction). 88% also indicated a strong interest in further courses in science communication and writing, and 82% indicated an increased interest in this as a future career path.

 "[The skills I learned in this course] will be helpful to convince people of the importance of scientific research and (hopefully) policy-making around science. I have found the techniques of storytelling and explainers useful for 'elevator pitches' as well as revising papers – yes, peer-reviewed papers as well." – Skills & Careers in Science Writing course alum 

Contact: 

Sara Grady
Chambers Hall, 600 Foster St, Suite 130
Evanston , IL 60208
Phone: 847-467-3297

Get Involved!

Application Information

The course is run fall and spring. Applications are open summer and winter quarters respectively.

It is designed for full-time, PhD-track STEM+ graduate students at Northwestern. At this time, we are not considering applications from postdoctoral fellows or Master's degree students or PhD candidates from other institutions. Relevant fields of study include Anthropology, Chemistry, Communication Sciences & Disorders, Computer Science, Engineering, Life Sciences, Math, Physics, and Psychology. Priority will be given to students entering the 3rd or 4th year of PhD study.

During the submission period, graduate students must apply via the online application form (follow link for sample), which includes a short essay. To keep up to date with the program's other developments, sign up for our center newsletter.

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