I'm doing a PhD in mathematics at one of the world-leading universities. I spend a lot of time engaging in science communication: both speaking (talks for general audience, some of them quite successful) and writing (popular science blog, I started to publish also in some magazines). Even though I enjoy maths a lot, I prefer communicating it to non-mathematicians much more.

Would getting a job in science communication as opposed to continuing research or working in industry be a "waste" of PhD?

Also, would I need a degree in journalism or science communication to be considered a serious candidate for jobs in popular science or media? I've done some research online but it seems that there aren't many scientists (not to mention mathematicians) with a PhD who would focus their career on communicating science.


5 Answers 5


A PhD is only "wasted" if you believe it is wasted. If you enjoyed your research, and it's helping you to engage in a long-term career you enjoy, why would it be wasted?

However, there is a very clear need for people with solid scientific backgrounds who can clearly communicate complex mathematical and scientific ideas to the general public. People who can bridge the gap—for example, explaining concepts like "herd immunity" or "cryptocurrency"—in ways that the public can understand, are valuable in the scientific community, and we should be encouraging people to make that kind of outreach. It's not as popular as it should be in academia, but I believe that as more people engage in such careers, we will see room for growth.

So if it's something you really want to do, go for it!

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    "there is a very clear need for people with solid scientific backgrounds who can clearly communicate complex mathematical and scientific ideas to the general public" - the problem is if it's reflected in job opportunities.
    – Paula
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 18:28
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    'A PhD is only "wasted" if you believe it is wasted. If you enjoyed your research, and it's helping you to engage in a long-term career you enjoy, why would it be wasted?' +1 for that
    – posdef
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 12:58

A job in science communication after a PhD in Mathematics is not a waste at all! In fact, in my country, there is a well known example of a math PhD and science communicator (in addition to recently having become professor in science communication): Ionica Smeets (Wikipedia).

She mainly is known from co-writing a popular math-blog ('wiskundemeisjes') and more recently from presenting the yearly 'national science quiz' ('de Nationale Wetenschapsquiz') on Dutch television. As far as I know, she's never had any formal training in journalism. (but perhaps you could email her to ask if you're serious enough, she might be receptive)

Her inauguration speech (In Dutch), roughly translated is titled 'On the value of science communication' has some important paragraphs (translated and paraphrased):

When mathematicians exposed the Monty Hall problem to the general public, the responses to the correct result reported where both massive and hostile! First in the US, then when I reintroduced the problem in the Netherlands. (One reader asked whether it wasn't written by someone who has studied mathematics instead of her [she was a PhD student at the time])

She proceeds that she continued her effort to explain the correct solution to her readers.

I suggested that people try to solve the problem by repeated simulation it. One reader wrote that he spend whole night playing the game and didn't understand why, but he did understand that she was correct.

This, I think, is key. The role of science communication is both to explain and convince. If explanation fails, try to at least convince people of the scientific (here mathematical) truth.

Of course, whether people know the correct answer to a puzzle can hardly be called important. But it is a good example of what can go wrong and right in an explanation and that explaining science is far from trivial, a discipline in itself! She proceeds to show examples from medicine where the understanding of the general public is important and were completely misrepresented by journalists (not completely their fault, as I said, science communication is hard)

@DaveLRenfro mentions two more examples: Helen Joyce (Ph.D. under David Preiss) and Evelyn Lamb (Ph.D. from Rice University).

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    Thank you for the example, I've never hear of her. It's really reassuring to know that there mathematicians out there who succeeded in such a career.
    – Paula
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 20:55
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    @Paula I've just thought of an example more 'close to home' (in English, at least): Raymond Smullyan. The late logician is well known for his puzzle books, which are basically recreational introductions into the field of logic. He's inspired plenty of would be puzzlers and mathematicians, no doubt! Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 22:19
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    A couple of examples I know are Helen Joyce (Ph.D. under David Preiss) and Evelyn Lamb (Ph.D. from Rice University). Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 9:32
  • @DaveLRenfro, thank you for these links. It's very interesting and reassuring to read about their career choices.
    – Paula
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 11:13
  • More examples: Barry Cipra (see laughmaths.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-making-of-barry-cipra.html and laughmaths.blogspot.com/2014/03/…) and Dana Mackenzie (see danamackenzie.com/about.htm, noting that he attended the science writing program at UC Santa Cruz that Cipra mentions).
    – KCd
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 14:19

You may well have heard of these but in case not:

  • For combining a career in Mathematics with a lot of communication there is Professor Ian Stewart (now retired from Warwick University, England, but still active) and Professor Marcus du Sautoy.

  • For having moved from mathematics with a lot of communication to - for now - mostly communication, maybe look at the career of Dr Eugenia Cheng, mathematician and pianist:


Mathematics PhD at Cambridge University, England

Tenure in Pure Mathematics (Category Theory) at Sheffield University, England

Currently Scientist In Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Dr Eugenia Cheng is Scientist In Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Alongside her research in Category Theory and undergraduate teaching her aim is to rid the world of "math phobia". Her first popular math book, How to Bake Pi, was published by Basic Books in 2015 to widespread acclaim acclaim. Her next book, Beyond Infinity, was published in 2017. Eugenia is also math columnist for the Wall Street Journal, a concert pianist and founder of the Liederstube.


An insightful interview: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/26/eugenia-cheng-interview-observer-nicola-davis

An even more insightful interview/podcast, which you might or might not be able to access: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09nvrcn


Not only is it not a waste, it might even be a prerequisite! How are you going to communicate complex ideas on the bleeding edge of science, if you cannot follow or grasp the literature yourself?

Ignoring everything else, having a PhD title makes it clear that you have had experience reading and writing literature (at least in most fields I can think of). Overall, I think seeing your research time as a waste is not something you should be worried about at all, no matter the career choice. Even if your future or prospective employer does not value your hands on research experience in financial terms, you will surely benefit from the experience, in my opinion.

On the other hand, if you start to compare yourself to what you consider as your peers now, several years down the line, that's a different story. You may, or may not, be happy with how you have invested your time, professionally speaking. There is no objective way of knowing that in advance. That kind of regret or frustration is called hindsight and it's a common human fallacy :)

  • You just nailed my problem: my alternative is a career in finance, so a highly respected and well-paid job. What if I regret not following this path... But no way of knowing if I don't try, you're right.
    – Paula
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 13:17
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    Maybe you can try to dip your toes in the water, before you take a metaphorical dive? Have you considered applying for an editorial position in a research journal, there are many well respected journals with cross-disciplinary focus and thus are on a more general audience level. It would be well respected in academia and you might even be able to combine that with a research position if you later down the road decide not to pursue that career?
    – posdef
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 13:24
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    As for finance, that's tricky to predict. My only advice there is to make acquaintance with people that have done similar career choices as you are considering and try to get a feel for their day-to-day lives. Then you can see if that is more appealing to you then communicating science to masses
    – posdef
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 13:25

To my point of view - PhD skills are definitely a good and valuable thing for oneself and the community

  • Hopefully, during the PhD time, it makes some sense for you and your environment, as well as fun.
  • It will personally increase your insight in your research topic (and also to the areas around). For the community later, these insights as well as your achieved abilities will make a difference.
  • Normally, it is paid better later - a good science communicator is invaluable.
  • As aeismail mentioned before, people understanding and translating complex topics (such as in a PhD) are needed.

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