After doing undergraduate astronomy research, I was sure my future career would involve exploring the mysteries of the universe. As I progressed through graduate school, however, that end goal seemed to change, and I realized that my new dream was to teach people about the universe through science communication rather than exploring it myself. -same.
I have always loved the night sky and got my start in observational astronomy (i.e. stargazing in my backyard), so when I was offered the chance to working at the WVU Planetarium as a teaching assistant, I jumped at the chance. I spent 2 years creating short presentations on Messier objects, giving tours of the night sky to elementary school students, and introducing the people of Morgantown to the wonders of the universe that have captivated me for years. While working at the planetarium, I also joined the Astrobites team. Applying for Astrobites was a last minute decision I made on a whim, but looking back, it was the best decision I made in college. This opportunity allowed me to combine my love of writing, which I have had since I was little, with my scientific training, and to bring science that was often obscured by dense equations and graphs to a level that the general public could understand. Astrobites is sponsored by AAS, so I was able to cover a few meetings (which meant live tweeting and blogging sessions) and it was a really good experience. After finishing my 2 year tenure writing for Astrobites, I branched out and started communicating science in other ways (see the Pulsars and Profiteroles project and #PulsarFriday). When the opportunity to work for AAS as a Media Fellow and continue writing science while learning about the world of academic press and publishing presented itself, I was so excited to apply!
Preparation of your application
The AAS Media Fellowship was established in 2017 to provide training and experience for a graduate student in astronomical sciences interested in science communication. It is a paid scholarship and it represents approximately 8 hours of work per week. Applications are open now and close on July 6, 2022.
There are three rounds in the application process for the AAS Media Fellowship. The first is to send your CV and cover letter. To prepare them, I went to the Career Center at my university and they helped me polish my resume and personalize my cover letter to highlight why my strengths and experiences made me a good fit for the position. Additionally, the application requires you to ask your advisor to send an email to AAS stating that they agree with your application, as the scholarship is a work commitment in addition to your graduate studies. My advisor is very supportive of my science communication background, so she was more than happy to send the email. If you make it to the second round, you will be asked to write two messages in the style of AAS Nova. One article will focus on an article chosen for you, and the other will ask you to choose an article from a short list of articles from AAS journals. The first will challenge you to write about an article that may be outside your area of research, and the second will test your ability to find newsworthy articles. I used my experience writing for Astrobites and article summaries to help me write the application articles, but AAS Nova’s style is slightly different, so be sure to check it out look at these first. The final round is an interview, which will help the selection committee determine if you are right for the job.
The process takes some time, but I learned a lot from it. I have just completed the application process for science writing/scientific communication jobs and can say that the process is very similar to applying for the AAS Media scholarship. Even if you go through the application process and are ultimately not selected, applying is a huge learning experience and great practice for the job market.
What I learned from the scholarship experience
The fellowship has three main components: managing press releases, writing Nova articles, and attending AAS meetings. Press releases from universities, observatories, government agencies, etc. are displayed on the AAS Press Twitter account and astronomy in the news. Usually the press team takes shifts throughout the week and during your shifts you just need to be “on call” and issue press releases when they arrive. It’s super easy and just google articles to find their source (we try to post directly from universities or telescopes if we can).
Writing for AAS Nova is a lot like writing for Astrobites in that you have to summarize scientific papers. It took me a little while to get used to the style, which is more concise and on a slightly higher level than Astrobites but still very similar. The articles on which we write come only from AAS journals (the Astrophysical Journal, the Astrophysical Journal, the Letters, the Astrophysical Journal, the Supplements, the Astronomical Journal, the Planetary Science Journal and the Research Notes of the ‘AAS) so it’s a bit more limited (unlike Astrobites where you can write on any article) and are recommended by editors for Nova highlights. Although you can opt out of the list and choose a recent article from any AAS journal, we try to stick to the recommendations of the editors. Sticking to the recommendations given to us meant that I had to learn subjects that I didn’t know, which was challenging but really enjoyable. The AAS Nova editor (Kerry Hensley) and AAS publicist (Susanna Kohler) are incredibly helpful with the posts.
The final major component of the scholarship is to help organize press conferences at AAS meetings. One of the AAS meetings I attended was virtual, but the other was in person over the summer. This was the first in-person meeting since January 2020 and was hybrid, so things were a little messy with the virtual presenters, but overall helping out at press conferences is a great and really fun experience. As the media officer you are also part of the AAS staff so you have the chance to meet them at the meeting and help with things which made the meeting really enjoyable because you felt like part of a huge team.
This scholarship is specifically for a graduate student, so you are expected to be busy, and there are no huge constraints on exactly when you need to work. Press releases should be released as soon as possible, but if you have meetings and such, it’s not a big deal if they go out within hours of being released. Some days I write about Nova during the day, and sometimes I work on it in the evening outside of normal working hours. The only “scheduled” work time I have is Zoom meetings; Kerry, Susanna and I go online about once a week, and communications team meetings happen about every two weeks. The fellowship can be tailored to what interests you, so I have chosen to attend release team meetings, which take one hour ~ every two weeks. This part is however completely optional. During AAS meetings it’s a lot of time away from work but generally I don’t find the workload to be something I can’t handle it’s just a matter of trying to find that that works best in a particular week.
This scholarship has helped me confirm that science communication is the path I want to pursue after graduate school. Working with the AAS staff has been such a rewarding experience, and I have been able to connect with people outside of science writing in areas such as astronomical data publishing and management. I was able to learn about the day-to-day tasks of science writers, see what goes into writing social media posts for AAS meetings, and watch what goes into creating the program for a AAS press conference; it really broadened my view of astronomy jobs outside of academia. I accepted the scholarship in my last year of graduate school so I was job hunting and wrote my thesis in the process and things got a little scary but the team was really understanding and it was great to have another support system during the crazy weather.
Applications for the AAS Media Fellowship close on July 6. For more information on the application process, see the AAS Nova Fellowship posting as well as the AAS Jobs Registry posting.
Edited by: Kerry Hensley
Featured image credit: SAA
About Haley Wahl
I am a PhD student at West Virginia University and my main area of research is pulsars. I am currently working with the NANOGrav collaboration (a collaboration that is part of a worldwide effort to detect gravitational waves with pulsars) on pulsar polarization calibration and synchronization. I am also very passionate about science communication and often share my science via Twitter and my blog, The Pulsars and Profiteroles Project, which combines my love of scicomm with my love of baking! Outside of science, I enjoy doing puzzles, cooking and watching movies.