SciArt: How do I get into a career like yours?

What would you say to someone who asked you how to go about making your own career goals a reality for themself?

Is there a SciArt career road map?
Is there a SciArt career road map?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

I was asked a deeply nuanced set of questions about how to engage in SciArt in a way that effectively incorporates science, art, and education.


How do I get here!?!?
How do I get here!?!?

The 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, here’s what I (at this point in my career and life circumstances) would suggest considering.

What kind of work can a ‘SciArtist’ do?

Bison ecologists with telemetry, SaskatchewanWhile the following list is by no means exhaustive, here are some big-picture ideas:

  • 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.
  • Tadpoles in eggs_4_sigThere are also a lot of neat SciArt+SciEd projects taking place largely online, such as, which might be just the sort of thing you’re looking for. Search for #sciart on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to find lots of forums and communities engaging on the topic, and who knows what kind of opportunities or ideas you’ll discover.
  • 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.

Getting work/experience

20140810_ESA2014 (37)_plants for sketching_rsIf none of the above offer the structure you’re looking for, try institutions.
  • 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..
  • Or, 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.

Thinking strategically about a SciArt career

  1. Outdoor Education: Children learning about natureThe timing is right.
    • 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Don’t wait for someone to ask you/hire you to do what you want.
    • 20140609_green beetle (6)_cr1_wmFigure out generally the kind of work you want to produce. This could be arts-based science ed lessons, illustrations of the subjects you study, etc. Sky’s the limit.
    • Then, do some research into the types of organizations, institutions, publications, and companies that might utilize that type of work.
    • Identify a couple to approach (this might initially be based on who you know, and that’s okay), and contact them re collaborating, hiring you, etc. Be tactful and persistent when necessary. And, study these targets, to ensure you are proposing something that suits their needs. For example, I spent nearly three years pitching this class (over and over!), finally figured out the right angle, and after it happened, participants and host organization alike only wished we’d done it sooner.
    • Penguins_Biodome (12.2012)_ps_rsGet some experience under your belt, and then start casting your net wider, if that’s part of your professional vision. For example, I started teaching afternoon workshops for an undergraduate minor program I took, then taught community workshops, and eventually was able to scale up to national science organizations and invited classes at universities across the country. When I first started, teaching a workshop at Harvard never crossed my mind. Be aware that it probably won’t happen overnight – it took me nearly a decade to get there!
  4. Finances are not an afterthought.
    • 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.
    • You also need to figure out what you should charge to make a living. If you work for Outdoor Education: Children learning about natureyourself, in any field at all, the general rule is that you need to charge at least $60.00/hour to be able to account for taxes, insurance, retirement, overhead, etc. Depending on who you work with, that could be a deal-breaker, so you’ll need to be able to project value in more ways than just an hourly wage. And obviously, sometimes, you’ll make a lot more, and other times a lot less. Your records will help you figure out how to balance charitable projects with paying projects.
    • There are a lot of 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. You’ll learn a lot about the administrative aspects of working in an arts-cross over field.
  5. 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. 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.
  6. Think of other SciArtists as collaborators and colleagues, not as competitors. The field is 20150121_120606_c_wm_rssmall, and most people got into it with similar motives to your own. Don’t expect others to make your career happen for you, but do reach out and connect with those that are doing work that inspires you. You’ll likely be surprised how much people are willing to tell you about their process, networks, and even the administrative nuts and bolts that are key to funding their work. Be respectful, leave an opening for them to decline to respond (why is up to them), and be sure to pay it forward when you have a chance to help someone else.

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.




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