Student case study - Hal H
Can a fascination with science tie in with a love of writing? Not on the UK school syllabus, it seems, where timetabling clashes often make it impossible to study English alongside subjects like maths, physics or chemistry.
Such study options are rare at university too – one reason why Hal H found himself studying astrophysics at Trinity College in Dublin after leaving school.
“But after a couple of visits around the labs in my final year to look at PhD projects, I knew it wasn't for me,” he recalls. “It was too specific for too long, and I didn't even know what I wanted to do yet.
“I settled on trying to be a journalist when my sister suggested it to me in that summer after my last year in uni. She said I was good at talking to people and interested in lots of varied things, and that I should try journalism. It fitted with what I've always enjoyed.”
Hal duly enrolled on the LSJ’s six-month postgraduate course in September 2010, aged 22 – although he could hardly have realised at the time that within two years the decision would take him from a classroom in Maida Vale to Boston in America, as technology reporter for New Scientist magazine.
Highlights of the course included the interaction with his personal tutor, Tim Bouquet, an experienced journalist, author and broadcaster.
“There's a special place in my heart for writing, and Tim really helped me hone my abilities with firm, but gentle direction,” he says. “The news writing and law classes were also particularly useful.”
The lectures provided a useful “foundation” he says – helping to hone an “instinct which informs everything I write”.
But in terms of getting most of the course, his first tip would be to ask a lot of questions: “Discussing interesting concepts helps you remember them, and the interaction with classmates and lecturers makes everything more fun.”
He got his first job after responding to a job posting on the online journalism and PR website Gorkana, on the business and technology trade magazine, Information Age.
What helped him get the job? An enthusiasm for the subject matter, he believes – plus the fact that during the course he had blogged for a website called Urban Times, which gave him some useful links to show to his published work.
Ironically his editor, Pete Swabey, was also a former LSJ student, from the “class of 2004”.
“I'd say the main thing I learned at Information Age was speed. It also eroded my fear of picking up the phone and cold calling anyone. I remember for one story about data breaches at the NHS – I called about 10 different hospitals before I found the right person.”
However he believes the key to getting the New Statesman job was his freelance activity.
His first breakthrough was a commission from an Australian science magazine called Cosmos, which bought a 2,000-word feature idea from him on "The Future of Food".
“It remains one of my most enjoyable freelance projects to date, as I called researchers all over the world and got to write about things like vertical farms and eating insects,” Hal remembers.
The research from the feature cascaded into a news story for the Guardian, and a feature in the Independent about vertical farming. Those freelance stories gave him the confidence to pitch more stories to the Indy, get a couple of little travel pieces in the Guardian, write more features for Cosmos, and eventually get New Scientist to buy a full-length feature about using GM plants to make drugs.
“That freelance work showed my commitment to science journalism, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have had a sniff of a job at New Scientist without it. It was pretty difficult to balance that with a full time job at Information Age. There were a lot of late nights and early mornings.”
And the new job? Most days are spent scouring science and tech journals for stories and then building up ideas to pitch to his editors, although there is always the prospect of travelling to science conferences.
“I've only been here a month, but I'm working hard to build up contacts and get out of the office for some old fashioned face-to-face reporting,” says Hal. “The new job is fantastic. The highlight so far was attending a bioterrorism sensor test at 3am in the Boston subway. The Department of Homeland Security sprayed a vat of bacteria across the station, then drove a train through it and watched how their new sensors performed!”
So arts and science CAN mix, it seems? Says Hal: “My advice to people who are torn is go for science. That said, you don't need a science degree to be
a science writer, although it will definitely help with jobs.
“The biggest thing is just proving that you're fascinated by science, and have a knack for explanation. You don't need to be an expert to read a science paper and digest it, but having the science vocab and mindset definitely helps.”
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