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NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 2-Science writing

Submitted by Lori Conlan September 23, 2011

This is the second in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Jennifer Crawford
Current position: Technical writer, Office of Communications and Education, NCI
Location: Macon, GA
Time in current position: 1 month
Postdoc: Tumorigenesis and prolactin signaling in breast cancer, with Barbara Vonderhaar at NCI

My story: I didn’t think I wanted to do research, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I’d see what panned out. I joined AWIS [the Association of Women in Science] and went to OITE career events. I did a personality assessment with an interest inventory, and a lot of things came up in communications—talking about science rather than doing science. 

I didn’t realize this right away, but I like to finish things. I want to point to something in my hands at the end of each day and say, “I did this.” Being in the lab, nothing ends. Even when you publish, there are always more questions to answer and more you could do. That’s great if that’s what you like to do, but if you’re like me, it can be frustrating. My favorite thing in grad school was sitting down for one month and writing my dissertation—saying why I did what I did and what it means. It made me think, well, maybe writing is something I want to do. 

Network, network, network: I sent out a lot of emails trying to figure out what to do. I went on informational interviews. Everybody was really open to talking about what they work on. I talked to people who did policy, communications, journal editing… It didn’t require hours and hours—just meeting people for lunch or grabbing coffee and asking what their day-to-day is like, what they like and don’t like about their job. You’ve got time in your day to do that.

Change takes effort: People recommended that I get some experience. I got involved with the NCI Knowledge Management mentoring program and did some writing for OITE. That was the first year they had the career symposium, and I helped write and edit articles about it. I wrote an article about Community College Day for the NIH Catalyst. I did lots of small articles like that. I was surprised how many people were happy to let me write something for them.
Then I applied to the NCI health communications intern program. Usually you have to have graduated within a year and have an MPH or science writing Masters to get in. I’d been out a year and a half, but through my interviews I’d encountered an office [the Center for Cancer Research] that had an opening, and they told the program they’d made a match with me. I spent a lot of my time there on lay summaries of research papers and articles for the quarterly magazine and monthly newsletter, helping with ideas and editing, and helping with the congressional justifications. It was lots of good experience with plain language writing for the Internet. Some of the work involved calling people up, not just researching a result. That was really interesting. It was very different than anything I’d done before.
When I was in the lab, it was a struggle for me to stay motivated. I liked going into work every day when I was an intern.

Help from my advisor: My boss let me take half a day a week to go over to OITE from January to April 2010. Then she retired, and I spent the last 3 months of my postdoc in the same office as the health communications internship. For 3 months during your postdoc, you may be able to do a detail somewhere. My project hadn’t really panned out, so there was nothing to finish up.

How I got my job: After 6 months in the Center for Cancer Research, it became clear that they were not going to be able to hire someone in the office. My mentor suggested I talk with the head of the Cancer Publications Branch. Since I had a Ph.D. and writing experience, CPB hired me as an intern for 6 months. During my internship, I made it really obvious that I’d like to keep working for them after my time was up. I wasn’t thinking of it as an internship but as a long job interview. I made myself invaluable. I stayed late, read a lot, asked questions, and showed that that was where I wanted to be. I showed what I could become. We started discussing the possibility of a contract, and they hired me for one year.

A satisfying result: I am super enthusiastic about what I’m doing now. I’m teleworking from Macon, GA, where we relocated when my husband got a job at Mercer University. I’d be happy to keep doing this for a couple of years. I’d like to transfer into a more permanent position if possible. At the same time, other ideas could be cool. Maybe being a PIO [public information officer] at a university. I’m trying to meet people and create a network here in Macon. There’s a lot of different writing you can do. Something will pan out.

Jennifer can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.

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