#MySciComm: Virginia Schutte on leaving academia and the U.S. and learning how to create scicomm career opportunities abroad

This week, Virginia Schutte responds to the #MySciComm questions!


Virginia Schutte spent her first summer as an ecology PhD student in the Florida Keys, experimenting with mangrove sponges and sea stars like this one. (Photo by Virginia Schutte)

Virginia Schutte is the Science Media Officer at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (one of her first tasks is to redo that website). She works to make science useful and fun for everyone. She received an Ecology PhD in 2014 from the University of Georgia. Shortly after graduation, she moved to Germany with her family. She didn’t speak the language or have any contacts there, but over the following 2 years at her desk in her German apartment, she transitioned from researcher to communicator. Connect with her @vgwschutte, on her website, or get a behind-the-scenes look at her job on Instagram @myscicommlife.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!


Okay, Virginia…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

I did and do believe in my science and its direct conservation implications.

I absolutely loved my time as a graduate student (minus the times that I didn’t because I missed my family while abroad or was stressed trying to get my experiments to work, of course). And I was all-in for being a professor. I even worked on a team doing teaching research so I could love, and not loathe, my teaching load.

And then, about a year before finishing my PhD (University of Georgia, 2014), I realized that I didn’t want a career in academia any more. The reason I became a scientist was to save the world, but my science wouldn’t change conservation policy or on-the-ground practices unless I somehow made all that happen myself. So publishing in scientific journals—the traditional proof of scientific research success—turned out to be a bit of a let-down as an end product for me. But I wasn’t pushed out of academia as much as I was pulled into communicating with the public.

My decision to switch careers came in two separate steps of self-awareness in this order: 1) I didn’t want to do academia and 2) I did want to do science communication.

Once I realized that the goals of academia didn’t match my personal save-the-world philosophy, it took a few weeks of self-exploration to figure out what might match those goals better. I decided that there’s already lots of excellent science and people producing more excellent science in the world, but we still don’t always make good decisions for the planet (which are good decisions for ourselves, since we depend on the Earth for things like food and water). I want to make science more useful and fun so we can use it to increase our quality of life. And I want to do that through science communication.

Shortly before I graduated and a few months short of a year from when I decided to pursue a non-academic career, my husband got a stellar postdoc in Germany doing scientific research and taking a big step forward in his academically-oriented career. I didn’t (and still don’t!) speak German and had no contacts there, which made me feel pessimistic about my chances of getting a communications job. But digital communications can be done remotely, so I started building my science communication experience by creating opportunities with people in Europe and elsewhere from my tiny German apartment with my cats literally by my side.

Because trying several possibilities was key to my career transition, I want to break down what I did.

I pursued multiple scicomm , including editing, blogging, and taking on imposter syndrome head-on, and doing so helped me transform from a salaried position (a requirement for me to feel fulfilled by my career). Here’s what I did:

1) Tried out editing.

My first post-academic job was as an editor for an international manuscript-editing company. At that job, I edited manuscript drafts pre- submission to decrease the chances that an article would be rejected because of writing issues. I immediately advanced from only correcting grammar to higher-level editing, like suggesting changes and asking questions to improve writing clarity and flow. I did not enjoy the company’s employment model (read: the pay was not good for my PhD-trained time and the pressure placed on freelance editors to take more assignments and do them better and faster was extremely unpleasant) so I only completed a few weeks of working full-time on assignments, but having the editing experience along with the instant advancement there (I was promoted from basic to premium editing services after my second assignment) was helpful on my resume.

2) Blogged.

This is one of the easiest ways you can get scientific writing experience and so for some people, it can be just the right first . I wrote for Oceanbites for a little over a year, then started my own website 6 months later. I created and designed my site from scratch, deliberately building it into a blog and online portfolio showcasing both my writing and web development skills for any potential employers to see. While I was writing for Oceanbites, I pitched a story that was published by Naturejobs. This led to a great relationship with an editor there that’s now my friend. I didn’t get any special treatment when I pitched other pieces there, but this relationship did let me do things like report on a conference that my editor friend couldn’t attend.

3) Pretended like I was brave and legit.

I emailed the head of Tenure Chasers cold and suggested that I would be a valuable addition to his team (success). I suggested to my Naturejobs contacts that I should run a workshop at their London Career Expo (success and an additional invitation to run the same workshop at their Dusseldorf Career Expo).

I started telling all my friends that I wanted a scicomm job, as if I were allowed to have one. One of them asked me if I’d like to be the photographer for an institutional website revamp (I did). I contacted people I didn’t know (like this guy) and asked if they’d like to make stuff with me (like this video) for my website (they did). It was fun, plus one of these collaborations led to an invitation to deliver a workshop.

I only got one of my positions (Community Manager with the Nature Ecology and Evolution Community) traditionally, by responding to a position advertisement.

4) Rebranded myself.

I used to call myself a “science media enthusiast” (who would ever hire that person??). None of the opportunities in #3 above would have been possible if I hadn’t focused on building relevant experience and highlighting that experience on a communications-centric resume.

In grad school, I’d taken a scicomm course, was a finalist in a national video competition, won my school’s 3 Minute Thesis competition, and worked with my department as a consultant on a promotional video.

Lots of the teaching skills and training that I acquired in graduate school were directly transferable to a scicomm career. In order to articulate the relevance of my previous experience, I spent hours reworking my CV and went through several exchanges with my grad institution’s Career Center. An angelic woman there helped me convert my academic CV to a resume and critiqued my application materials for real .

There’s a lot to actually branding or re-branding yourself, and ESA’s SciComm Section plans to run a series on this in the fall/winter. I’ll be contributing a piece on re-working your CV to reflect communication-related capacity. Suffice to say, for now, that thinking strategically about what I knew how to do and the language and formatting used to convey it outside of academia was critical. It was critical for helping me think of myself as a different kind of professional (a communicator, not “just” an academic), and it was critical for ensuring that my target employers understood I was that kind of professional.

5) Got on the job market before I was ready.

I spent time not just browsing, but applying for jobs that I was really very sure I wouldn’t get. This gave me draft cover letters for communications positions, made it clear to me where my skill gaps were, and forced me to get familiar with the terminology that described the positions I wanted. It also taught me that I’d rather have a non-science media job than slip back into a science-but-no-media setting.

There’s another factor that was critical: I was able to take the financial risk of not having a steady job initially.

My husband had a contract job that made enough money to support our family of four. This allowed me to pursue irregular and unscheduled work that was often volunteer and was occasionally only possible because I paid for some travel myself. This strategy paid off for me in the long run, but would unquestionably be difficult to commit to without support.

My goal was never to be a freelance science communicator, but rather to set myself up to land my dream job: a permanent scicomm position that requires social media, writing, photography, and videography skills. I am so pleased, and still a little shocked, that my plan worked.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

I’ll focus on two relevant to my current work. I recently moved back to the U.S. to be the Science Media Officer for LUMCON (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium). I have the best job in the whole place and still can’t believe that someone pays me to have fun all day. I’ve only been on the job for a month, so I don’t have any tangible resources (like software) to recommend. There are two things that help me do my job well, though:

1. Come to terms with not being part of an academic hierarchy.

 It’s weird to leave academia, where someone (your advisor, your committee, the University) signs off on paperwork at every step saying that you’re qualified to do whatever it is you’re doing.

Nobody has signed anything saying I can tweet well! I drive away impostor syndrome by remembering that what makes me a media expert isn’t a degree. I’m a media expert because of the time and experience I’ve built up.

Many scientists could probably tweet well if they’d spent the last several years practicing, reading about science communication, and getting up to speed on the people doing it.

2. Articulate what your role and goals are, but allow yourself the time to figure this out.

I started my job knowing that I wanted to help LUMCON – a very vague goal. In the last month, I’ve defined my role much better. I can now act to achieve results and tell you in a few sentences how I’m different from, for example, the professional photographer who stood next to me but took shots a world apart from mine. This might be something unique to a new position, like mine, rather than a position that a previous employee held.

This clarity helps me focus and do my job well. Being patient with myself while reaching this point (and having a boss who was patient, too) gave me a lovely first month.