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Chris Peterson SM '13

Aug 3, 2015

What It’s Like To Major In Science Writing at MIT

Posted in: Miscellaneous, Academics & Research, Majors & Minors

As some of you know, I got my master's degree from the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. While I was a graduate student, CMS merged with Writing to form CMS/W, which includes the Science Writing program and its associated undergraduate major/minor in Science Writing. 

According to CMS/W: 

The curriculum in science writing is designed to enable the student to develop mastery of the craft and rhetoric of writing about the worlds of science and engineering for broad audiences. This writing major is an option for students interested in science journalism, longer forms like the science documentary, and communication issues related to the public understanding of science and technology. It is also designed to work as a complementary major for students majoring in science, engineering, or another field of study at MIT. This major includes a three-subject exposure to an allied field such as science, or comparative media studies. Students also fulfill an internship requirement, which provides in-depth practical experience.

Basically, Science Writing is supposed to train you to think and comment publicly on science and technology, i.e. to be a public intellectual. It nicely complements the scientific and technical training that an MIT education provides (see, e.g., Anna's posts "Writing is useful for science" and "Maybe it's ok to be this way").  You can see the complementarity through the required coursework, like 21W.777 Science Writing in Contemporary Society

Drawing in part from their own interests and ideas, students write about science within various cultural contexts using an array of literary and reportorial tools. Studies the work of contemporary science writers, such as David Quammen and Atul Gawande, and examines the ways in which science and technology are treated in media and popular culture. Discussions focus on students' writing and address topics such as false equivalency, covering controversy, and the attenuation of initial observations. Emphasizes long-form narratives; also looks at blogs, social media, and other modes of communication. Not a technical writing class.

and 21W.778 Science Journalism:  

An introduction to print daily journalism and news writing, focusing on science news writing in general, and medical writing in particular. Emphasis is on writing clearly and accurately under deadline pressure. Class discussions involve the realities of modern journalism, how newsrooms function, and the science news coverage in daily publications. Discussions of, and practice in, interviewing and various modes of reporting. In class, students write numerous science news stories on deadline.

My friend Seth Mnookin, who wrote a book about the anti-vaccination movement and an incredible New Yorker feature about hyperrare genetic diseases, is teaching 21W.737J Topics and Methods in 21st-Century Journalism this fall: 

Gives a broad understanding of what it means to produce journalism today. Evaluates the limitations and strengths of specific types of media, ranging from New York Times stories to Twitter feeds. Provides students with tools to effectively communicate their own work and research to non-specialist audiences. Students submit assignments via an online portal, which mimics the style and substance of an online news source. Students taking graduate version complete additional assignments.

But what is it like to major in science writing at MIT? In addition to Anna's posts, I wanted to share this reddit post by David B. '11, about his experience (unexpectedly) majoring in Science Writing and going on to become a science writer (among other things). I've reproduced his post (with permission) unedited below: 


A bit of backstory: I originally went to MIT for biology. I thought I was going to be a genetic engineer. I've always had a creative/expressive side as well though, and the two sides were kept very separate. As I got into my second year and started taking more of my course 7 major classes, I started to realize it wasn't for me. A perfect storm of bad academic performance, personal shit, and a nasty pneumonia resulted in me being asked to take a year off. If I came back, I had no idea how I was going to graduate in any reasonable time, and in which degree program. Before I left though, my advisor told me about the science writing program. It was a perfect mix of my science background and my expressive abilities and I wondered why noone had told me about the program sooner! A year later, I came back ready and raring to go. I had already completed all of my graduation prereqs, so it was just a matter of doing all of my major classes over the course of the next year and a half. This meant taking a course load of nearly all writing classes, four or five at a time, but I couldn't have been happier. I was succeeding, and even more, excelling. It was a lot of work, but it felt right. I graduated in 2011, and in just four academic years (plus the one year off). I learned that I didn't have to keep my intellectual and artistic sides separate, and I found a program that perfectly suited me.

 

Writing at MIT is like anything else at MIT, first class. Your instructors are Pulitzer Prize winners and Hugo Award winners. My advisor had worked with PBS and Nova for years. I got to intern in the Harvard Public Relations Department working with and learning from a Pulitzer Prize winner that had been my professor the previous semester. MIT attracts the best and holds itself and its students to the highest standard, and the writing department is no exception.

The program at MIT is different from other schools because you still get the MIT experience and culture. You have access to some of the greatest minds and facilities in the world and matriculate with some of the smartest, wildest people you will ever meet. Around the end of junior into senior year, a lot of people learn to stop worrying and love MIT, and those were some of the absolute best times of my life. Also, you'll graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Writing, vs a BA from those wimpy liberal arts colleges.

The biggest difference you'll find is after graduating. While all your CS friends are going off to Google and Facebook, making six figures, times will be tougher for you. I will admit I had a lot of self doubt about the decisions I made and still do question if I made the right choice. But then I realize that I'm following my passions and having a blast doing it. I've always been a performer and wanted to end up in Hollywood as a writer/actor. I got a master's in creative writing for entertainment and moved to LA in April. I've started working with a great production company and am learning the ropes and climbing a career ladder I've always wanted to be on. Yes, money is tight. Yes, I sometimes wish course 6 was my thing and I was making bank. But I can't tell you how many times those friends of mine who are making six figures have told me they envy that I'm following my passion and having fun for a living.

You will notice a lot of weird stares from employers and questions about your resume (if you even get an interview...fuck the job market...). Literally every interview I've had, I get the question, "you went to MIT? What are you doing here?" But that sets you up for a fantastic response. What do you call a student with a course 6 degree and a student with a course 21W degree? MIT graduates. I turn that question back on them and explain that regardless of what degree anyone ends up with, they go through the MIT wringer. Late nights, hard work, overwhelming pressure and expectations. And no matter what course you take, MIT teaches you life lessons like how to learn and how to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds and how to find self confidence and how to be proactive and go after what you want (and a million more things). That response blows the interviewer away every time.

In terms of what kind of jobs to look for, that's up to you. You're only limited by what you can convince an employer you can do. Obviously with a science background, I was looking at Discovery Channel or Popular Science type things. I worked at a science center for a bit and probably could have run the place eventually if I didn't find it kind of depressing (it was run down and underfunded). I'm guessing if you're pursuing a writing degree, you already have some jobs in mind. And it may not seem that the MIT name carries as much weight outside of the science circles, but you'll find that smart people know what it is and will value you highly for it. My one bit of advice (and something I wish I had done) is to be proactive about finding jobs and internship opportunities before you graduate. You'll have so many opportunities available to you in that time right before and after graduation that will evaporate a year down the road. So many of my Harvard friends used their experience and the Harvard name to get awesome internships right out of college (The Onion, Colbert Report) and I didn't because I was so focused on just graduating. So reach out to the employers you're interested in as early as possible.

If you're thinking about changing your major and you're passionate about writing, follow that passion. Now, if you're in high school looking to go to college for writing, I wouldn't say that MIT would be my first choice. Not that it isn't an incredible place and an incredible experience, but you'd save yourself a hell of a lot of stress and sleepless nights by going somewhere else that's a bit more arts focused.

The biggest lesson I've learned though all of this is that everyone has their own path. It's sort of my mantra. Everyone has their own path. You're gonna compare yourself to everyone around you, and you're going to doubt and second guess your decisions when times are tough. And you're going to get ignored time and time again by jobs and say WHAT THE HELL? I WENT TO MIT, DAMMIT. But everyone has their own path.

So find your path.

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