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How I Got Here: The Genesis of Careers in Health Media

How I Got Here: The Genesis of Careers in Health Media

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Last week, Ed Yong over at the Discover blog Not Exactly Rocket Science wrote a brilliant post.

And when I say brilliant, I mean to say that it is brilliant because he didn't write much at all. The post is called "On the Origin of Science Writing" and it's a lovely example of the power of crowd-sourcing. At last look, 124 people have commented to explain how they became science writers.

(Hat tip to Maryn McKenna, whose own post about the thread alerted me to it.)

The post made me think two things:

First, there must be a lot of good advice in Yong's post for health writers, too. Below, I've mined the comments for some good examples.

And second, the ReportingonHealth community has a wealth of information to share about getting started, or even just getting involved in health reporting. Last month on Career GPS, Dr. Tom Linden shared his winding path from journalism to medicine and back again.

Please share your own experience about how you came to tell stories about health topics in comments.

As always, you can find job and fellowship opportunities at the end of this post. If you have ideas for future posts or listings you'd like to see here, you can log in and let me know. Keep up with Career GPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

As it turns out, there are many paths to becoming a science writer. Some of the people who commented started out in medicine or even astrophysics before becoming journalists. Some became science writers by chance, starting first as general assignment reporters. Some dove in and succeeded (read: made a living) quickly, while others had multiple failures before building a career. Here are some health-related gems from writers who commented at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

New York University journalism professor and director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program masters program, Dan Fagin wrote about getting a leg up in a competitive industry:

Now that I'm running a science/health/environmental journalism grad program, I'm constantly asked to give advice to budding reporters about career paths. Web or print? Grad school or straight to work? Staff or freelance? Specialized or general? Multimedia or ‘old style'? Before I answer, I tend to ask my questioner a lot of questions to assess where she/he is coming from. Our field, despite its obvious troubles, is now so much more diverse than it used to be, and there truly are many entry routes. The trick is to position yourself in the marketplace in a way that separates from the pack, because if you're doing what everyone else is doing, you're going to struggle. Getting those distinctive skills - whether in j-school or in some other way - is absolutely essential in this tough environment if you expect to be paid for your work.

Ivan Oransky, editor of Reuters Health and blogger at Embargo Watch, went to medical school before -- or, more accurately, while -- being a journalist. He offers a lot of great advice, including this tip:

Yes, four years of medical school plus one as an intern have given me terrific background. I would be the last to claim that medical school, or some other graduate school is the only place to gain that kind of expertise, but I would also be the last to claim, for obvious reasons, that someone with a doctorate can't make it as a journalist.

Priya Shetty describes herself as a "failed scientist." She explains how she reformed this way:

Luckily, a friend showed me an advert for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial. Once on the course, I began to write like my life depended on it – film and book reviews for Imperial's university newspaper, press releases at medical charities, anything that would make me put pen to paper. After an internship at BBC Radio 4, I then did an internship at The Lancet, which led to a job as a manuscript editor at the journal. Although my day job at The Lancet meant wading through dense technical papers, immersing myself so utterly in the subject matter that I could think of nothing else, my nights were spent writing (for free) for the journal's news pages. The only way I can explain surviving the sheer lack of sleep is that I was 24.

Mary Knudsen says that she got dropped into medical beat at The Sun in Baltimore pretty abruptly. "No prior experience or training," she writes. "The Sun's longtime medical writer had left without much notice and the hole needed filling." It was the variety of the beat that hooked her:

Once I got past the shock of being a newbie medical writer in a town that was home to the famed Johns Hopkins Hospital and medical school and was a 45-minute drive from the National Institutes of Health, I found that I liked covering health and medicine a lot. I was always learning something new and interesting and I got to interview very interesting people. What I liked most was writing different types of stories - narratives, features, breaking news, analysis for the Perspective section, sports health, profiles, and, as I grew in the beat, investigative series and explanatory pieces. Writing about health and medicine never got boring.

What's your how-I-got-here story? If you are a health writer, social media consultant, or even a reporter on a different beat -- how did you get interested in health and turn it into your livelihood? Let us know in comments. And a big thanks to Ed Yong for getting this conversation going.

Now, as promised, here are this week's opportunities.

Jobs, Awards and Fellowships

Editor at Large, New Jersey Life Health & Beauty Magazine (free registration required at
Location: Lambertville, New Jersey
Status: Freelance/Contract
Medium: Magazine

Online Health Reporter, U.S. News & World Report (via
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Producer, AOL Health (via
Location: New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online Video

Senior Associate Editor, Psychology Today (free registration required at
Location: New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Magazine, Online

Senior Editor, Breakthrough Journal
Location: Oakland, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Think Tank Publication

Senior Editor, The Nation's Health (American Public Health Association)
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications

Writer/Editor, Providers' Council (via
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Status: Part Time
Medium: Newsletter for human resources organization

National Press Foundation Four-Day Fellowships: Cancer Issues
Eligibility: Support from a supervisor or editor and two work samples
Duration: Oct. 17-20, 2010
Benefits: Seminars with cancer experts in program of fifteen journalists
Deadline: Aug. 17, 2010
From the Website: "This four-day immersion in cancer issues will help journalists understand the latest research and its implications for cervical, prostate, breast and other cancers. Leading experts also will discuss controversies related to screening and treatment; the agenda will include at least one field trip to a relevant location in the nation's capital."

Eligibility: The fellowships are reserved for college (or graduate school) graduates who may have worked for up to two years at a professional news organization
Duration: One year, beginning Oct. 1, 2010
Benefits: A stipend of at least $35,000 (commensurate with experience) with benefits and two weeks' paid vacation
Deadline: Aug. 15, 2010
From the Website: "Priority will be given to applicants with interest in covering national politics, Congress or domestic policy issues such as energy, environment, defense, finance/economy and health care."

REMINDER: California Health Journalism Fellowships (a program of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, which publishes this website)
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists, including freelancers, in California who have a strong interest in health news, though they need not be dedicated health reporters.
Award: About one week's worth of all-expenses paid intensive seminars in Los Angeles and
Deadline: Sept. 2, 2010
From the Website: "Taught by prize-winning journalists, community health leaders, policy analysts and health care experts, this Fellowship program features two intensive sessions, held three months apart. Fellows participate in field trips, workshops and seminars highlighting some of the top health challenges facing California."

REMINDER: Abe Fellowship for Journalists
Eligibility: Open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States or Japan with at least five years of professional journalism experience, with priority given to U.S. or Japanese journalists with no prior experience in the other country.
Award: Up to $23,500 for field work abroad and a fellows retreat to produce analysis or feature story about public policy topic.
Deadline: Sept. 15, 2010
From the Website: "The Program defines policy-relevant research as the study of existing public policies for the purpose of: a) deepening understanding of those policies and their consequences; and b) formulating more effective policies. Policy-relevance also pertains to the public dialogue on contemporary social issues."

REMINDER: Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund, J-Lab
Eligibility: Proposed projects must be about Philadelphia or the surrounding areas and must come with a distribution plan.
Award: $5,000 awards to 10 projects
Deadline: Sept. 16, 2010
From the Website: "The Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund is a pilot project designed to develop opportunities for amplifying public affairs journalism in the region. The purpose of this fund is to help in-depth reporting projects get off the ground and to explore collaboration opportunities among news providers in the city and surrounding counties."

REMINDER: U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
Oct. 18, 2010
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."

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