Is blogging an innocuous pastime? Or could it help, or even harm, your career? Hayley Birch investigates
Chemistry bloggers are at the centre of increasingly influential online communities, helping researchers to connect and interact, and giving the rest of the world a glimpse of life as a chemist. From speculating about Nobel prize winners to uncovering scientific misconduct, readers come to be entertained as well as for expert, in-depth analysis. But what does blogging do for the blogger? Can blogging be beneficial for your career? Or could it damage your employment prospects? Could it even become a career in its own right? Chemistry World asks some academic and industry bloggers.
Derek Lowe – In the pipeline
Considered by some to be the original chemistry blogger, Derek Lowe has combined blogging with a career in the pharma industry since 2002 – when ‘mastodons roamed the Earth’. Before he started In the pipeline, he was already an experienced researcher, with five years at Bayer and eight years at Schering Plough under his belt. But he felt he had skills he wasn’t using in his day job. Having read some early blogs, Lowe thought ‘I could do that’ and started writing what he knew: drug discovery.
Now with Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Lowe regularly receives calls from people who think he’s a full-time journalist. The blog is much as it ever was – flitting between pure chemistry, biology, patents and scientific publishing – and Lowe does much of his writing during the 40 minutes he spends on the train each day. But he has no intention of giving up the job he enjoys. ‘I would probably end up eating weeds out of my back yard to stay alive,’ he jokes.
That said, he is well aware of the positive effect the blog has had on his career. When he last changed companies, he was upfront about his blog and put the link on his CV. ‘People could go to the blog and see the sorts of stuff I was interested in, that I had experience in and that I knew about, and it actually led to a very high percentage of job offers,’ Lowe says. He thinks of his blog as a fairly accurate simulation of his personality – like being stuck in an elevator with him.
At Bayer, back when no one had heard of blogs, he asked the legal team to put a basic agreement in writing, which among other things stipulated that he wouldn’t give out proprietary information. But Lowe has always been careful not to shine a spotlight on his employers and says his current company has no problem with his sideline.
See Arr Oh – Just like cooking
Synthetic chemist and anonymous blogger See Arr Oh has a different story to tell. Although the job he now has in industry came as a direct result of his blog, when he started Just like cooking in 2011, it was a ‘shout out at the wilderness’ during a difficult time in his life. Stuck in a job he didn’t enjoy, in a place he didn’t like, he decided to reach out to other chemists through the internet in the hope of creating the community he was missing at home and in his career. Since then, he says it’s become more about uncovering those who are ‘not doing the right thing by chemistry’ and highlighting good projects that don’t get enough attention.
I would not have this job without the blog I wrote
See Arr Oh has always blogged under a pseudonym – including pieces for professional publications such as the Scientific American blog network – because he wants to be able to give his viewpoint without fear of repercussion. ‘So if I publish something that pushes buttons or if someone gets upset by it, I don’t professionally suffer from that.’ Though, of course, he can’t take credit for anything either.
Still, that didn’t stop him from accepting when his manager sought him out via his blog and offered him a job. ‘I would not have this job without the blog I wrote,’ he says. And, like Lowe, he sees the benefits of having a job that he’s fairly paid for, and he never considers giving it up – especially having tried his hand at freelancing.
Unlike Lowe, however, his advice to prospective bloggers is coloured by bad experiences in industry. ‘Be very careful,’ he says. ‘The company owns the servers that you’re speaking on and probably the laptop you might be writing on. You must be very certain that you’re playing fair ball with them.’
Paul Bracher – ChemBark
So is blogging in an academic post a different ball game? Paul Bracher is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University in Missouri whose lab studies the chemistry of the origin of life. He’s been blogging since 2005, mostly for his very well-known chemistry blog, ChemBark, which has garnered attention for uncovering scientific misconduct.
Following posts on the data fabrication scandal involving Bengu Sezen, formerly of Columbia University, and more recent discussions about data integrity, Bracher has gained a reputation as a whistleblower. He sees his blog as a way to deal with ‘stuff [that] was getting swept under the rug’. But not everyone appreciates his approach and he’s realistic about what the blog might mean for his academic career.
‘Maybe someone will be a reviewer on a paper and hold it against me,’ he says. ‘Or maybe when I was applying for jobs there were people who said, “We don’t want that guy”. But at the same time, where I did get a job, they were familiar with the blog and they viewed it as positive. It’s hard to tell how much this has helped me or hurt me – think it’s both, and that’s life.’
Despite the potential downsides, and a recent change to a more senior role placing heavier demands on his time, Bracher continues blogging not only because he enjoys it but because he thinks it’s important. His pages already get a lot of hits, but he says it’s always been about generating discussion rather than about building an audience. He cites the power of online discussion in ‘democratising conversation’. His advice to others is simple: ‘Make sure that this is something that you want to do. If you’re not enjoying it, then you’re not going to get much out of it.’
Steve Ford – Experiment, experience, explore and engage
On the other side of the Atlantic, research fellow Steven Ford has spent the last year getting to grips with blogging at the Cancer Research UK Formulation Unit at the University of Strathclyde. Although he was encouraged to start a blog as part of the university’s researcher development programme, he says he’s never enjoyed writing in the style of academic papers and was keen to try his hand at something with a little more emotion.
Ford doesn’t shy away from mentioning his institution, or his work, and thinks one of the benefits of having a blog is that it allows him to explain some of the complexities of his research in layman’s terms. In September, for example, he wrote a post about an arsenic-based cancer therapy his group was working on, covering some of the history of arsenic in drugs, as well as parts of the modern formulation process. Although his blog is not yet reaching a wide audience, he recognises its value in engaging the wider public and feels the online networking skills he has learned may turn out to be important in the future.
As yet, though, Ford is not convinced blogging is benefiting his career. ‘I really blog, I think, for the fun of it, rather than the professional development,’ he says. ‘I could put on my annual appraisal form that I’ve got a blog that’s got a couple of thousand hits, but my feeling is that universities don’t know how to value that. How does that square against someone who’s got a paper published in a [high] impact journal?’
At the same time, he’s optimistic about what can be achieved through blogging, going so far as to suggest that a recent post about Ramadan could help ‘break down barriers’. Despite having little to do with chemistry, the post does touch on diversity issues relevant to working in a multicultural institution.
You might not find your ideal job in the blogosphere, but you may just find an interested ear or two. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you dream.
Kat Day – The Chronicle Flask
If you can’t imagine how anyone could find the time to blog, maybe you need a lesson from Kat Day, who combines blogging with teaching chemistry and looking after a young family. She would like to do more professional writing but feels there’s little support for slightly ‘older’ people who are keen to get into science communication. ‘[Blogging] seemed the easiest way forward,’ she says. ‘Having a body of work up there, it’s kind of like an online portfolio, in a way.’ Day has already been asked to write for several publications, including Sense About Science, off the back of her posts.
The chronicle flask is aimed at ‘intelligent’ readers. Day pitches it at chemistry GCSE level, but she’s not writing it for her students. In fact, she tries to keep the two separate, only occasionally pointing students in the direction of her posts if they happen to make for good background reading – for example, a post about the history of phenol turned out to be useful.
Colleagues have been nothing but complementary about her blog. However, Day acknowledges that, as a teacher, she has to be very careful about what she puts online and says she avoids writing directly about anything that has happened in school. Some schools have very strict social media policies and she can understand why.
‘I know that some schools actively discourage it,’ Day says. ‘Obviously if you’re a teacher you have to refer to your own school’s policy. I think a lot of the time, where they have strict policies about blogging, it’s because they are worried about people giving away personal information, which I don’t do.’ On the other hand, she’s well aware of the benefits of social media for getting her profile ‘out there’ and is making (careful) use of her online network to get her writing noticed.
Jess Breen – The organic solution
One blogger who has made the leap from writing as a hobby to writing as a day job is The organic solution’s Jess Breen. She started her blog in 2012, while working as a postdoctoral research fellow in carbon capture chemistry at the University of Leeds, UK. By August that year, she was working as a communications officer for the Society of Chemical Industry – alongside her postdoctoral work – and in September 2014 she left academia for a job as a medical writer.
Breen says she knew that she might not be destined for a life in the lab, but she’d never considered a writing or communications career until starting her blog. ‘It mainly told me what I liked doing,’ she says. ‘It helped me focus in that respect. And I didn’t want to waste my degree either – I didn’t want to do something completely random like accounting, or law.’
Initially, Breen wasn’t even sure that there would be jobs for people who wanted to write about chemistry or medicine. But the more she wrote and was offered opportunities to write, the more she became aware that science communication could be a potential career path. She drew attention to her blog by creating graphics that linked academics by their Twitter connections (‘everyone wanted to be on that thing’) and was asked to write articles for Nature Chemistry. She also writes the Academic family blog for Chemistry World.
Breen decided to include her blog on her CV and during the interview for her current writing job, it came up. ‘They did ask me about it and why I started it, and they had read it. I wasn’t sure whether it would be seen as a bad thing or a good thing,’ she says. It seems it wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Renée Webster – Lost in Scientia
Unlike Breen, Webster has no intention of changing of changing careers. She’s a PhD student and research chemist studying fuels and lubricants with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, in Melbourne, Australia – a role she’s very happy with. But she also enjoys it when, every so often, her blog – covering everything from lab safety to science book reviews – grabs her some limelight. After a series of posts reporting her studies on Vegemite, she was invited to discuss the results of her ‘aroma analysis’ on Australian national radio. The compounds she identified included one that’s often associated with the smell of old people – the ‘waxy’ cis-9-hexadecenoic acid.
Webster doesn’t blog to advance her career, but she’s learning from it nonetheless. ‘Going on radio, that was the first time I’d done that,’ she says. ‘So it’s adding to the skill set that I have and giving me new experiences.’
Another Lost in scientia post that has garnered a lot of attention is a how-to on doing your hair up in the lab when you haven’t got a hair tie – as Webster demonstrates, this can be achieved with a pen, or a pipette.
‘It’s really weird the things that people are interested in,’ she muses. ‘I can’t predict it. Sometimes I’ll put up a post and think, “This is really exciting; people are going to love this,” and nothing happens – no interactions, nothing. And then I put something up that I think is silly and people think it’s fantastic. So if you feel like you want to write about something, then just go ahead and do it.’
Hayley Birch is a science writer based in Bristol, UK
This article was updated in March 2015