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Should you do a Science Communication Masters?


 

TL;DR: Should you do a SciComm MSc? Maybe. It depends on how you can link academic theory with practical work. SciComm MSc are changing the landscape of science communication helping legitimize scicomm as an academic field and a professional industry, yet it comes at the cost of accessibility.


Why I chose this paper: When I studied my SciComm MSc, I enjoyed it. However, I also left with a myriad of thoughts on scicomm training, concerns about barriers within academia, and personal reflections of my experience. I wanted to share at least some of these thoughts, though do feel free to get in touch if you have been deliberating whether to pursue a MSc or want to chat about your own impressions of the topic.

 

Maybe.


As unsatisfactory and unhelpful as “maybe” is, it is my honest response.


When I completed my science communication (scicomm) masters, I asked myself in retrospect, “Should I have done a SciComm MSc?”


I took a couple of years to land on my personal answer: Yes.


For me, the MSc opened my eyes to the huge world of science communication that I now love and enjoy and am curious about. It was only once I applied the theory to practical activities and reflected on what I had learnt that I recognized the true merits of the course.


Whilst I think there is great value in science communication graduate programs, I don’t believe it needs to be a universal experience. You can still be a science communicator without a science communication master’s.


The question extends beyond prospective students and alumni to the broader field of science communication. The mere presence of master’s programs is changing the landscape of science communication. Graduate programs are helping legitimize scicomm as an academic field and a professional industry, yet it comes at the cost of accessibility.


But if "maybe" is my non-answer to whether you should do a science communication master’s, what does “maybe” really mean?


What is a Science Communication Master's?


You have more choice of SciComm MSc programs than ever before, with new programs popping up all over the world.


Just as the academic field of Science Communication is relatively young, SciComm MSc programs have only been around for a few decades: for example, the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London was established just over 30 years ago and is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, as well as one of the first Master’s courses in the world to offer a combination of practical and theoretical studies of science communication across a range of media.


In the United Kingdom, my home country, the long-standing SciComm MSc programs at UWE Bristol (where I studied) and Imperial College London have been joined by new contenders, with MSc Communicating Science and Technology at Birmingham University and MSc Science Communication for a Better Planet at Bristol University launching in 2023; plus, as of 2022, University College London offering a SciComm MSc within their established Department of Science and Technology Studies.


In spite of these latest choices, SciComm MScs are still not commonly offered and some programs have closed due to low student enrolment or lack of university administrative support. The exclusivity of program locations is unfortunate if, as a graduate student, you are looking to study somewhere local to your current life or potentially a home for the future with neighboring job opportunities.


A map of the world with colored markers indicating where Science Communication education courses are offered. There is a high number in the UK and Western Europe, as well as across America and the East coast of South America.
Figure 1: Map showing the Worldwide database of programmes and courses in science communication. The UK and Western Europe offer the greatest density of scicomm programmes. (Credit: PCST Network)

In spite of efforts to differentiate themselves from one another, many existing scicomm master’s programs offer a similar syllabus based on academic concepts, covering topics like dialogue model, science capital, framing and audiences, combined with practical elements, including storytelling, writing and content creation. These are all foundational elements of science communication and are widely transferable between jobs because of the communication aspect. Curricula may differ by leaning towards certain topics or skills; for example University of Manchester is known for its strength in health communications and writing, whilst University of Bristol’s new Science Communication for a Better Planet MSc emphasizes climate change and the natural world. The main differences between programs are the quality of the instructors and guest lecturers, and the available networking and internship opportunities – though this can be hard to judge externally.

Welcome to our Science Communication MSc program, where we nurture aspiring science communicators and equip them with the knowledge, skills, and experiences needed to bridge the gap between science and society. Our program is designed to provide a comprehensive understanding of science communication principles and practices, preparing students for diverse career opportunities in academia, media, policy, museums, and more. With a strong emphasis on both theoretical foundations and practical application, our Science Communication MSc program offers a dynamic learning environment that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and effective communication strategies.
Through a combination of lectures, seminars, workshops, and practical exercises, our Science Communication MSc program equips students with the necessary tools to effectively communicate complex scientific concepts to diverse audiences. Our experienced faculty members and industry professionals provide mentorship and guidance, helping students develop a strong foundation in science communication theory and practice. Additionally, students have the opportunity to engage in real-world projects, internships, and collaborations with leading science communication organizations, gaining valuable hands-on experience. Join us on this exciting journey to become a skilled and influential science communicator.

Figure 2: Science Communication MSc Course Description as written by ChatGPT. Prompt: "As if writing for a university information page, please can you write a short introduction about what the Science Communication MSc program offers." This demonstrates the commonality between programs and how it may be hard to evaluate their unique aspects or quality as a prospective student.


What are Science Communication Master's Good For?


The very presence of Science Communication MSc programs is contributing to the legitimization and professionalism of the field.


By providing a similar foundation of key concepts, Science Communication MSc programs are helping those working in the field to speak a common language – even across national and cultural boundaries. This helps with collaborations and provides frameworks to structure approaches. On the other hand, this may lead to constraining rules, such as an insistence on identifying a target audience, and jargon (“publics," for example, being a word rarely used outside of the field).


Scicomm is ever-changing, like the society it interacts with, and so these concepts are continually being reviewed, researched, and evaluated by academics within science communication departments. These departments may only be possible because of the teaching outlet that SciComm MSc and courses provide – universities can be business-like and students are the paying customers that fund them.


SciComm MSc programs provide an indication that there’s specific knowledge and training required to be a Science Communicator. This substantiates Science Communication as a career. Science Communicators are skilled workers and should be paid for their work – although this is not the case globally and is not to say you will be paid well!


For you as a student, a SciComm MSc provides a foundation of theories and experiences that you can then build your career upon. Based on survey responses from my dissertation research, SciComm MSc graduates listed careers and employment as one of the key reasons for doing the master’s – over 90% wanted to improve their chances of getting a job or to further their career (Figure 3). Program providers know this too. They tailor the teaching so graduates have learnt the skills to be “industry-ready” as well as providing networking and internship opportunities.


As part of a SciComm MSc cohort, you gather together with others who share an interest in exploring what science communication is and, due to the nature of scicomm being broad and varied, from museums to media, policy to public engagement, students are diverse in their interests. Finding this ready-made group can be hard to find outside of structured courses.


A chart with blue bars representing the  online survey responses of Science Communication MSc graduates to the question “What were the main reasons for choosing to pursue Science Communication education?” Answers include "Improve career prospects", "Passionate about communicating science to the public", "Build skill set for sci-comm", "Find future employment", "Learn more about scicomm", "Myskill set lends itself to scicomm".  At the bottom is a blue circle indicating that over 90% of alumni surveyed (n = 88) selected career prospects or future employment as one of the main reasons.
Figure 3: Chart showing online survey responses of Science Communication MSc graduates to the question “What were the main reasons for choosing to pursue Science Communication education?” Over 90% of alumni surveyed (n = 88) selected career prospects or future employment as one of the main reasons.

But at what cost?


The literal cost. In the UK, the most affordable SciComm MSc option is UWE Bristol at just under $20,000USD for international students compared to more than $30,000USD at the other British universities. It is one of the reasons I chose the program at UWE Bristol. (Note: Prices are set by universities and not individual scicomm professors, who themselves are trying hard to provide the best experience for their students and often the ones having conversations addressing inequalities within academia.)


Potential students may be unable to pay expensive fees. Others may find academic institutions unwelcoming and off-putting. Elsewhere, SciComm MSc programs may not be offered locally, or even nationally.


The greatest challenge then is what happens to those who cannot access Science Communication education.


Do those without access become isolated from conversations about science communication as they cannot speak the common language? Are they not qualified for science communication jobs because they have not studied science communication at an academic institution?


We must be aware of how SciComm MSc are impacting the scicomm landscape so we do not deny access or inclusion into the field.


Part of this challenge is with employers. A MSc is a clear qualification that they can point to as proof of both your knowledge and dedication – as you have clearly invested time and money into your passion. I have seen an increase in job listings for science communication and outreach jobs requiring a scicomm qualification or even a specialist PhD, though I wonder if the recruiters understand what goes into communicating effectively. Do they understand that you don’t need a SciComm MSc to be a science communicator? I believe that industry experience – practical, hands-on, in a workplace, interacting with others - is just as, if not more, important. I hope that employers don’t overlook valuable candidates because they don’t have access to or haven’t completed a SciComm MSc.


Similarly, SciComm MSc programs typically recruit those with science undergraduate degrees – many having these as a specified entry requirement. Arguably, these programs act to ‘convert’ scientists into science communicators. But there are fantastic writers, artists and creatives who have the communication skills but need guidance on unpacking the science world – reading science academic journal articles is hard! I hope we do not deny these people the training and forfeit having their skills contribute to scicomm.


Should you do a Science Communication Master's?


You don’t need a Science Communication MSc to be a science communicator. However, the more understanding you have the better – whether that is through academic reflection or practical experience can be up to you.


An MSc program offers supervision and a curriculum to guide you through the foundational concepts of science communication. This structure can be hard to find outside of academic institutions. For me, I needed that structure and supervision. That said, you can independently access many great scicomm books, blogs and training workshops, which may be less of a time or financial commitment. UWE Bristol offers online classes or shorter diplomas that take lessons directly from their MSc syllabus.


If you know there’s a practical media skill that you want to master, there are a myriad of online tutorials for filmmaking or podcasting. I think these skills are best learnt through internships or by going out and trying them and reflecting on the results.


Now that science communication and MSc programs have been around for a few decades, there is a growing number of potential professional or graduate mentors to chat with.


I would hope that as the field of science communication garners more attention and the importance of communication skills and societal context is recognized, we see more of the scicomm lessons incorporated in high school and undergraduate science programs. SciComm MSc programs could then build on prior foundations even further.


If you are interested in doing a SciComm MSc, my recommendation is to try and get at least a year or two of experience in science communication if possible. This could be interning, talking to other science communicators, attending outreach events as an undergraduate, getting involved with different audiences. By building a bit of awareness of what the field offers, you can inform your choice whether you want or need to invest the time and money into a MSc. You will also get more out of the course since you can reflect on the concepts and teachings in the context of your previous experience.


Should you do a Science Communication Master’s? Only you have the answer.


Edited by: Caroline Cencer and Kay McCullum

Cover image credit: Andre Hunter via Unsplash

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