Regina Nuzzo, PhD
Freelance Writer and Professor, Gallaudet University
Regina Nuzzo, PhD, was happy to take a break from final edits to her recent
feature story in Nature
on science reproducibility and self-deception to discuss her winding career path. Below, she describes her shift from the lab to freelance writing, trusting herself in the face of an unknown future and the world’s need for more science communicators.
Let’s start with your training. When and where did you get your PhD and what did you study?
I earned my PhD in statistics at Stanford University in 2002 — right when the dot-com bubble burst! Those years during my PhD were an exciting time to be in Silicon Valley.
Did you know at the start of your training that you wanted to pursue a communications-related career?
I went into graduate school to become a traditional faculty member, which to me meant a researcher and teacher. It was only once I was a graduate student that I realized I did not actually have the research personality.
The statistics department at Stanford is wonderful at producing top research scholars, National Academies members and the like, because the department faculty themselves are amazing scholars that way. But that also means there wasn’t much diversity in the sense that they didn’t have a lot of people doing other cool things, like popularizing statistics. So I didn’t get much exposure to what I turned out to be most interested in — writing for a general audience — during graduate school. I didn’t appreciate that it could turn into a career until well after my PhD.
Where did you go after Stanford?
I went to do a postdoc at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in the Department of Psychology. I worked with two great faculty members — one was a statistician and the other a cognitive psychologist. I really looked up to my statistician mentor, who managed to be both a fabulous researcher and warm human being. However, during my postdoc I suddenly realized that as much as I wanted to be like him, I could never do it. I just couldn’t do research for a living.
At the same time, I had mentioned to one of my mentors that I wanted to write articles about statistics for a general audience. He said, “Do not do that. Not only will it not help your academic career, but it will hurt it. If you’re writing for a general audience, no one will take you seriously. It will hurt your reputation and academic credibility.” At first I was upset, but then I realized, he’s right! That’s the value system in traditional academia, and I can’t argue with it. But I also don’t have to be a part of it. So I decided to leave it behind.
I left my postdoc a bit early and went to the University of California Santa Cruz for a graduate program in science writing. There were 10 of us, and everyone had some background in science. Half of us had PhDs. When we sat around the table the first day and discussed how we came to be here, we all had the same story: we loved science, we loved communicating and talking about it, but doing it in a very narrow way on one very narrow topic for the rest of our lives was not for us. Yet we didn’t want to leave science completely.
That science writing program was perfect for people like us, people who were looking for hands-on training in writing for all kinds of publications. It was like a fun boot camp. I learned a lot of different journalism styles and formats in a short amount of time.
So you stepped off the well-beaten academia path. Did you know what would come next?
When I left my postdoc to go to Santa Cruz, it was one of the few times in my life when I had no idea what was going to come next. All I knew was that traditional research academia was not for me, and I had the sense that I needed to find my own path. I had to go off into the unknown. I felt this huge sense of grief and almost fear that I was stepping off a cliff and trusting that I would land somehow. It took a bit of trust in myself and in the future that something would work out.
I did an internship at the Department of Energy in Idaho for six months after I finished the writing program. After that, I set out looking for jobs, internships and just opportunities in general. It was a scary and exciting time.
How did you go about looking for those opportunities? Which tools or resources did you use?
One of the benefits of going through the science writing class at Santa Cruz was the wonderful network of alumni that has developed over the years. I also had to hustle in a different way than you think of in academia; I had to learn how to promote myself.
Well, after all that you’re back in academia as a professor of statistics at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Is your current position a result of building up your body of writing? How did it come about?
My first job after my internship in Idaho was at the National Academy of Sciences where I wrote research briefs for their journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was exciting because I wrote about lots of fields — geology, cell biology, math, you name it — but it didn’t leave me with time to do freelance writing. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I really wanted to write for a general audience, not just for scientists.
I figured I had this PhD and I liked to teach, so I looked for an academic job that was primarily teaching yet flexible enough to allow me to do freelance science writing. I think it’s so valuable to engage the public and popularize science, especially in today’s world with government funding cuts and a science-phobic and science-skeptical public. Still, it’s rare for a university to recognize that value by allowing and even encouraging faculty to do public engagement. That’s why I’m extremely grateful to Gallaudet for giving me the freedom and support to do popular writing.
What do you do on a typical day and how do you balance your time?
My day-to-day is variable. I have a full teaching load and do service for the university. But academia is nice because I can take time in the middle of the day to do a conversation like this — there is a certain degree of freedom. That means it’s also useful for doing journalism because I need to interview sources at all hours of the day.
I don’t think I balance my time at all! Last night, I worked until 11pm, and I am constantly working on the weekends. When you have deadlines and classes to teach, you just need to fit it all in somehow. But it’s still more fun than a typical 9-to-5 job.
Do you think you’d be able to do what you do now without your PhD? Would you be as successful without it?
I feel like I’m using my PhD every day. What I learned as a graduate student is immensely helpful, specifically for freelance science writing. With a PhD in the sciences, I understand science; I can speak a researcher’s language. When talking to sources for an article, I’ll sometimes mention I have a PhD. I think that can help, because then they feel they can engage with me on a different level than they otherwise would. Would I have been able to pick that up on my own? Probably. But grad school immerses you in that world of knowledge and the academic culture, so you understand what your sources are going through. It makes it easier for the sources to communicate with me, and it makes it that much easier for me to write about the research.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you finished your PhD?
First, had I known when I got out of graduate school that this is what I’d be doing, I would have set myself on this path a lot sooner. So in that sense I think it’s helpful for people in graduate school or as a postdoc to start thinking about alternatives. You’ll get there eventually, but it’s so much easier if you can get there early!
The second is an understanding of how the world works. In academia, especially if you were at a very good school, there is a caste system in seniority and respect, a certain value system. Depending on where you are, that can be very rigid, and it can be hard to see outside of it. When I left graduate school and started to explore alternatives, I started to wonder, “Who am I? What is my identity? What is my value to the world?” Academia is only part of the world. You can have many things to offer the world and society without fitting into that particular value system. I wish I’d had that broader perspective and realized that the academic value system is there for a reason, but that I wouldn’t vanish as a person when I stepped outside of it.
What advice do you have for current students looking into getting a position or career similar to your own?
If you have any interest at all in writing or communicating science, the world desperately needs you. You don’t necessarily have to be good at it already. It’s not too late to try if you’re interested, even if you’re a postdoc. Check out the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program. Someone with graduate training in science can be way more valuable than someone who knows how to write but doesn’t get science in a deep way. You can pick up the writing part as long as you enjoy it. If you love science but hate the bench, this career may be for you. I’ve had way more fun — and ironically probably made way more of a positive impact on the world and on science — by following my own path than if I’d done what other people expected me to do.