SciArt: How do I get into a career like yours?
Updated: Jul 29
What would you say to someone who asked you how to go about making your own career a reality for themself?
I’ve been pondering that question since the ‘Sketching for Scientists’ course I recently taught for the faculty at Harvard Forest. For a sense of context, that session was a highlight among the many SciArt workshops and classes I have taught in the past few years, for a few specific reasons.
The participants – researchers, grad students, technicians, communicators, and policy-oriented folks – were one of the most fun and engaged groups I’ve worked with in a long time.
We had extremely lively discussions about the role of visualization in their professional work, in science and SciComm in general, and similarly thought-provoking discussion about drawing and photography as complimentary (or not) tools.
Our concluding discussion led to invaluable insights regarding professional applicability of the material I shared and how I can tweak it for future sessions with researchers.
Following the session, I received an email from a grad student who had been in the course. The student posted a deeply nuanced set of questions about how to engage in SciArt in a way that effectively incorporates science, art, and education.
Part of their email said:
I wanted to ask if you could give me some advice. I am at the point of trying to begin building a career that will combine and nourish my interests in science, art, and education. I am particularly interested in working collaboratively with people to create visual documentation of places and ideas […]. However, I am just in the beginning stages of imagining how I might do this. If you have any suggestions on where or how someone who has artistic skill and a background in science could look for employment and gain experience translating scientific concepts into visual summaries and representations, I would really appreciate your recommendations.
So many thoughts raced through my mind, starting and ending with, “I’m still asking myself these same questions!”
Ultimately, though, here’s what I (at this point in my career and life circumstances) would suggest considering.
What kind of work can a ‘SciArtist’ do?
Continue working as an ecologist, and be an “embedded” advocate for SciArt integration by incorporating art and artists into your research, particularly in the ‘broader impacts’ aspect of your projects.
Join an organization like the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, and explore the possibility of transitioning into an art-focused career. Consider whether you’ll need additional training. There are a number of science illustration programs offered in the U.S., each with their attendant considerations re curriculum, professional experience offered while in the program, and cost.
Work as an educator or outreach coordinator, and make the arts a fundamental component of your education and communication strategies.
Be a volunteer, or work with/for, nonprofits, schools, etc. that run art or science programs (for kids and/or adults), and make a deliberate effort to contribute expertise in whichever component of the SciArt equation may be lacking.
Also, look for an Urban Sketchers group that meets near you. One of the most important things, if you’re interested in this kind of work, is to a) make lots of art/drawings/sketches/visualizations, and b) interact with other people who are doing it or might need it done.
I hesitate to say this – since fair wages are a constant struggle in this field – but, if you’re in a position to volunteer or take lower-paying jobs, scour the internet for internships at museums or nature centers, botanical gardens, etc. (An alternative is to just make sciart or share related resources as part of your personal time. Either way, building up a portfolio of work is crucial.)
To find opoprtunities to do this work, you can reach out to your favorite institution and propose one. There are a host of art-science-education programs out there, and many would love to have assistance if it didn’t require overhauling their budget.
This approach could provide solid experience, along with great exposure to program planning, management, budgeting, etc., and having institutions on your CV is generally always helpful.
Plus, these types of projects are a great opportunity to network, and I can say from personal experience that good volunteers are often the first considered when a new paid position opens up in an organization.
Think strategically about a SciArt career
There is a serious (and growing) interest in transitioning traditional STEM education to STEAM, which incorporates the arts into STEM at all levels. Read up on the STEM to STEAM movement, and consider how you can weave the language and data supporting this effort into your pitches, explanations, and proposals.
In general, using trending (not trendy!) terminology that people can recognize will help them much more easily decode/understand what you’re suggesting/doing.
Try to avoid field-specific jargon, both from a science and an arts point of view, and your ideas will be much more accessible (and appealing) to collaborators, funders, and the public.
If you do it, then you are it. So, do SciArt and SciEd, and don’t sit around waiting for someone to officially say that you are a scientist-artist.
Introduce yourself as that, take pride in your own personal style, and create the kind of work that you’d want to be paid for.
People will definitely ask you for examples, so consider making some business cards that serve as a mini-portfolio, or start a blog and chronicle your explorations and ideas.
Don’t wait for someone to ask you/hire you to do what you want. Approach/pitch possible clients and collaborators. The worst they can do is say not (or not reply). Keep your pitch focused on solving problems they have, not just on making a nice illustration or doing a social media series, etc.
Do some research into the types of organizations, institutions, publications, and companies that might utilize that type of work.
Keep obsessive records. If you actually want to make money at this, as an employee, consultant, or freelancer, you need to know what it takes you to produce x, y, and z types of work/projects. Not just material costs, but time, at a fine scale. For example, I’m doing an illustration commission right now, and I tracked travel to the focal site, time spent making field sketches and taking reference photos, time spent scanning and organizing all that material, time spent corresponding with the client, and now, time spent making each individual illustration (because there is considerable variability in complexity among them). I know what I’m getting paid for this commission, and it’s possible the balance won’t be in my favor. But, knowing this will help me better estimate time and value for future commissions.
Figure out what you should charge to make a living. When I started working for myself (in ~2011), the standing advice was that self-employed people needed to make at least $65/hour to compensate for the benefits that you would (ideally) get if you received a salary. These include savings, retirement, health care, vacations, medical leave, etc. Various advice posts and calculators exist online to help you reverse-engineer your rates, starting with your regular, monthly expenses, the amount of time you want to work/bill weekly or monthly, etc.
There are a lot of free arts organizations and entrepreneur coaching programs that can be a great help. Look up, and connect with, organizations in your area that support artists’ business development efforts and/or entrepreneurs. You’ll learn a lot about the administrative aspects of working in an arts-cross-over field.
Even when working for free or below value, still treat the project like you would a professional paid project. Provide estimates and invoices (just note that you’re offering 50% or 100% discounts, to help the recipient place a value on your contribution). And, negotiate for valuable in-kind compensation, such as mention as a major sponsor/donor, or something like that. Also, keep a record of all donated services and products you offer. Some of that may be relevant when filing your taxes. If you don’t approach work (paid or not) professionally, there is little likelihood that the entity you’re working with will think of you when they want a professional later.
Above all, DO the kind of SciArt you want to be doing.
And, keep tabs on others (organizations and individuals) that are doing similar things. Reach out to them and make connections. Regardless of whether you wind up working with them, you’ll be stimulated and inspired by being part of a community pursuing the sorts of goals that motivate you.