When I started my career in science outreach at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, I was a student. While doing public presentations people would often be curious about my work and ask if I was an astronomy student. This seemed normal to me until I finished my studies and continued to work full time in the field of public astronomy programming and outreach.
People continued to ask me if I was a student and I started to wonder why they would assume I was doing this work while waiting to do something else in life. Why wouldn’t I choose to do science outreach as a career? I loved explaining the basics of astronomy to the public as a full-time job.
Vague language around job title can create uncertainty, or fail to recognize science communicators, educators, or ‘popularizers’ as legitimate professionals in our field. While attending my first conference among people in a similar field, I finally found a title which I liked: Education and Public Outreach (EPO) Professional. It lends credibility to what I do and proves I’m a professional in my field. But it’s long a long title and therefore requires an explanation to the majority of people who hear it. Even today, when people ask me what I do for a living, I usually ask them if they have a few minutes so I can explain!
There are probably many reasons why STEM outreach isn’t an obvious career path. First, there are very few study programs in the field, and most of them are done following another degree in a STEM field, such as the Science Communication master’s degree at Laurentian University. We also often see science outreach programs run by volunteers. Although I appreciate the work of these volunteers, and thank them for investing so much time and energy, it sends a strange message: that this work isn’t deserving of a salary, creating an assumption that the work will be done without compensation. I think this creates the impression that doing science outreach isn’t meant to be a career and that anyone can do it: Just get volunteers and they’ll do the job! While it’s true that some aspects of science outreach can be done without much experience, there’s a limit to what volunteers can do; experience definitely helps and needs to be recognized as a strong asset.
It's always inspiring to find others who have also chosen to share their passion for science as a career. Organizations like the STAN help people working in STEM outreach and education come together. I think this role is very important, especially for young people starting out in this field who wonder if it is a viable choice. If you have comments about this aspect of working in STEM outreach and would like to see STAN discuss it further, either at a future conference or in a webinar, please let us know!