From ScienceWriters: Graduate programs weather tumultuous times

By Michael Balter

One day each spring, I receive an email message that I know is going to change my life, and the lives of quite a few other people. That’s when Daniel Fagin, director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Journalism Program (SHERP), tells the program’s faculty — of which I am one — the names of that fall’s incoming students. As I look over their photos and read their bios, various thoughts pass through my mind: Will this be a fun group to teach? Will any of them have personality problems or be pains in the ass? Will I run out of ways to fill the time of a sixhour weekly workshop?

But I often ponder more serious questions: Are we doing the right thing by recruiting them into science journalism, which is undergoing all the upheavals that are hitting journalism as a whole? Will they find jobs or good freelance opportunities? Will the tens of thousands of dollars that the students and their families invest in our program, and the debts that they often pile up, eventually pay off? These questions, of course, apply to all the other science journalism graduate programs across the United States.

Although nearly two dozen universities offer various kinds of graduate training in science communication, four widely recognized programs have achieved national prominence: NYU, Boston University (BU), University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) There used to be six, but programs at Columbia and Johns Hopkins have now closed (more on that later).

What follows is not “objective” journalism. I have been teaching at NYU for the past four years, and I taught in the BU program before that. I also have close ties with the UCSC program. Some might suspect that I have a vested interest in putting these programs in a good light. That is probably true, even though I am a part-time adjunct professor and my primary income comes from science writing. But I hope that with full disclosure, readers will find value in this largely anecdotal overview, which is based on conversations with program directors, my former students, and other sources.

There are no reliable numbers about how well students from science journalism graduate programs are doing, and whether or not they are doing better than young people who have entered the profession via different routes. Indeed, there are few hard numbers about anything having to do with science journalism, according to Cristine Russell, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and immediate past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

“There’s just not been a systematic attempt to assess the number of science writers,” says Russell, whose 2006 study of the drastic decline in newspaper science sections — one of the few attempts to quantify the trends in our field — is still widely cited, especially by science journalists prone to despair.

As both veteran and newbie science writers look for new, increasingly online venues to place their work, what are graduate program directors telling prospective students about their chances to succeed? How do they balance being realistic about the uncertain future of the profession with their desire to keep their programs going?

The question, says Thomas Levenson, director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, has become “extremely complicated for both students and science writing instructors,” especially because the pathways into the field are much more of “a mystery” today that they were for earlier generations.

SHERP’s Fagin says he tries to be straight with students. “I tell them that they are entering the profession at a time of incredibly rapid change. They have to be nimble, patient, flexible, relentless, and, like the Energizer Bunny, keep going and going.”

On the other hand, Fagin says, “it would be wrong and inaccurate to” tell them that they are facing really long odds. “I don’t have the evidence for that, and it’s not true.”

But program directors also say they try to accept only students who seem clear “that this is really what they want to do with their lives,” as Fagin puts it.

Robert Irion, director of UCSC’s Science Communication Program — which, unique among the major programs, accepts only students who already have a science degree — says that “our students are only coming here if they are quite dedicated to this notion of changing careers.” Irion adds that for the typical UCSC student, who has decided to abandon laboratory or field research for a career in science communication, “it takes them a while to reach that point in their lives.” So Irion will talk to prospective students for extended periods of time, sometimes several years, before they actually come to his program.

I can personally attest to the students’ motivation once they make this decision. Only one student out of about 60 I have taught at BU and NYU since 2008 has dropped out before graduating, a clear demonstration of their commitment and dedication. And Levenson says that dedication appears to be paying off for most students. In preparation for the 10th anniversary of the MIT program last year, he conducted a survey of all of its previous students. “We found that more than 80 percent of our graduates were still involved in science communication in some way,” Levenson says.

But from the responses to an informal survey I conducted of my own past students, it seems clear that at least some of the warnings about the challenges of going into science journalism might have seemed somewhat abstract at the time.

Joseph Caputo, a graduate of BU’s Graduate Program in Science Journalism, recalls that he “walked into BU from day one with the dream of someday writing for SEED magazine.” Then the recession hit. “Suddenly journalists had to be more than writers and editors,” Caputo says. “We had to be bloggers, social media experts, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, video editors, and photographers.”

Caputo recalls getting “incredibly depressed” when the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab gave a guest talk “and made everyone feel hopeless about having a career in the field.” The first years after leaving BU were “incredibly difficult,” Caputo says. “I remember writing an article about the odds of dying in a cheerleading related accident just to get by.” Today, Caputo is communications manager at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a job he loves.

Rachel Nuwer, a former SHERP student, says that her class was warned that things would not be easy. “None of the SHERP faculty or guests ever portrayed journalism as an easy career free from challenges.” On the other hand, Nuwer, who is now a successful freelancer and blogger, says she wishes the faculty had talked more about how much (or how little) money science journalists were likely to make once they entered the job market. “The subject seemed a bit taboo at SHERP.”

Joseph Bennington-Castro, another SHERP grad, agrees. Bennington-Castro, who works part-time as an editorial fellow for the online outlet io9.com and also freelances, says, “I had to pay my own way through graduate school, which means I now have a lot of debt.” And while he hopes the investment will pay off eventually, he sometimes wonders whether he made the right choice. “I’m not entirely convinced that going to graduate school for science journalism was worth it.”

The money issue also weighs heavily on some of the foreign students I have taught. Aspasia Daskalopoulou, another of my BU students, has returned to Greece and is now head of the press office at the Demokritos National Center for Scientific Research in Athens, that country’s largest multidisciplinary research organization. Given the current economic crisis in Greece, and the already low wage scale, “this job pays surprisingly little,” Daskalopoulou says, “something that I was not prepared for.”

Nevertheless, most of the students who responded to my queries were positive about how well their graduate training prepared them for the real world.

Kate Yandell, an NYU grad who is currently doing an internship at The Scientist, says she “had no journalism experience coming out of college and had never interviewed anyone before. Journalism school gave me a safe space, and a little push, to dive in and become a journalist, which I’m not confident I would have done if I’d just taken a stab at freelancing with no journalism training.”

Meanwhile, the programs are feeling the pressures of the changing landscape for science journalism. In 2009, Columbia University shut down its earth and environmental science journalism program, citing a supposedly weak job market for environmental journalists; and the latest victim is the science journalism program at Johns Hopkins University, which has just shut down after 30 years and will not be accepting students for the fall. In deep-sixing the highly respected Hopkins program, university officials cited a low number of applications relative to the size of the actual class — an indication, they claimed, that the program was not as selective as it should be. This reasoning is sharply disputed by Ann Finkbeiner, a well-known science writer who had directed the program since 1999.

“If the dean had told me she wanted me to get more applicants I would have done that,” Finkbeiner says. “But I wasn’t looking for huge numbers of applicants. I was looking for the right students.”

Has the market for science journalists become saturated, and is that having a knock-on effect on the viability of at least some of the programs? Several program directors do report a dip in applicants the past few years, but none of them are convinced that this is a permanent trend.

“If the number of people applying is declining, then some programs are going to suffer,” Fagin says. “But it’s hard for me to detect an overall pattern. There is a surprising amount of gyration [in applicants] from year to year.”

And Irion says he thinks that the “size of the pipeline is just about right” as things stand now. “If we had twice as many grad programs there would be way too many for the job market to handle.”

But some programs are beginning to make changes so they can stay in the game and also make it easier for students to come. For example, BU has just cut its three-semester masters program down to two semesters, in keeping with the current situation at both UCSC (which offers a certificate rather than a masters) and MIT (NYU’s SHERP has retained the three-semester curriculum).

“We thought long and hard about this,” says Ellen Ruppel Shell, who has co-directed the BU program with Douglas Starr for more than 20 years. “We wanted to keep the cost down, and in this competitive job environment, we wanted them to graduate in the late spring rather than in January.”

But Shell remains happy about how BU students seem to be doing in the job market: “They are doing pretty damn well.”

As well they should, given their strong motivation and the excellent training I think these budding journalists are getting in all of the programs. And I think it’s time to stop all the doom and gloom over the state of our profession, because it only demoralizes the young people who are its future.

Each fall, as I am getting to know the incoming students, I tell them not to listen to us old fogies blubbering in our beer about how journalism is going down the tubes. I tell them that they are the future, the ones who will take journalism forward and turn it into whatever it is now going to be. And I tell them that this is the most important thing they will hear me say all semester.

Michael Balter is an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU and a Contributing Correspondent for Science.