Excellent communications skills are vital to a successful career in scientific public information and outreach, including writing, speaking, and presenting. General knowledge of a broad range of scientific fields and research areas—and the ability to make them relatable to different audiences—is also important.
Typical Job Functions
Public information and outreach (or “communications”) specialists help scientists to communicate directly with the public. They often help scientists to speak with groups that may be unfamiliar with—and even hostile to—their message.
Science communications specialists must be able to come up-to-speed quickly on a variety of topics (often referred to as being an "instant expert"). They must also have in-depth knowledge of their agency, institution, or organization’s mission and activities. They stay current on scientific research and the activities of their organization and the wider environment in which it operates.
Jobs in this field often focus on one or more of the following:
- Simple reporting of factual information
- Gathering information from various sources to develop a coherent theme
- Monitoring events and policy decisions and reporting on them
- Advocating for a specific position, program, or agenda
Science communications specialists must understand which of these functions they serve, and adhere to ethical guidelines that delineate facts from opinions, and reporting from advocacy work.
Depending on job the organization and job function, specific work duties for science communications specialists might include:
- Communicating with funding agencies, regulatory agencies, and the general public
- Translating scientific content into understandable language for non-technical audiences
- Acting as the official spokespeople for an organization
- Gathering and providing background information for publications and presentations
- Answering questions, guiding tours, organizing community events for science facilities and museums
- Conducting crisis communications
- Writing press releases, newsletters, website content, speeches, opinion pieces, and articles
- Producing videos, podcasts, and social media content
- Helping media representatives locate and speak with experts in their organizations
- Providing media training to scientists
Employers for professionals in public information and outreach run the gamut: academic institutions, hospitals, private companies, government agencies and contractors, museums, and nonprofit institutions and societies.
- Entry-level Positions - Job titles will often include Assistant, Associate, Coordinator, or Representative. Attending workshops and intensive science communications training programs can help advance you in your career.
- Experienced Levels - Public communications directors manage other communications specialists, coordinate with upper management on outreach efforts and communications strategies, and prepare responses to emergencies and sensitive issues. Vice presidents of public relations (or communications) may be found at larger organizations and usually act as the official spokespeople for their organizations.
Alternatively, experienced communications professionals may go into independent consulting, where they advise clients on communications strategies, offer media training, or help with crisis communication.
Outstanding communication skills are imperative in the field of public information and outreach, and a strong science background is a huge advantage for positions connected with science- and research-oriented organizations.
Public information and outreach specialists may enter the field with degrees in science, journalism, communications, or related topics. It is not uncommon for scientists to go into communications after working for several years in a research or laboratory environment.
- A bachelor’s or master’s in communications or journalism is typical to enter the field. Several universities offer degree programs in science communications.
- Establishing a reputation by blogging or writing during college can put you on more equal footing with experienced writers.
Many scientists who go into communications learn on the job and develop skills by taking workshops and attending conferences.