May 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

An interview with Cristina Coman with a focus on her journey into science communication and her experiences of the MSc Science Communication course here at ICL.

8th April 2022

Tell us a bit about your studies before your MSc Science Communication here at Imperial.

My undergraduate degree was in biology in Paris, followed by a MSc in Neuroscience with a year abroad in London (at ICL). Whilst I knew I was going to Imperial, as I had made my choice for neuroscience, I still felt the uncertainty of where my studies would take me strongly. 

When did you realise you were interested in science communication?

After graduating (back in 2016), I started working at the Brain Institute in Paris as a research associate. Back then, I was still very unsure of what my career would be. I was hesitating about doing a PhD but I didn’t see what else I could do while staying in the field of neuroscience. 

It was during my time there working at the memory clinic (which was in collaboration with the institute), through interaction with medical staff, patients and caretakers about clinical protocols, their disease and care, that I realised I loved sharing medical knowledge and general ‘science bits’. Once I realised that, I started looking into science communication (mostly journalism at first) and how I could swerve from research into this field.

Why did you choose the masters at ICL?

Whilst looking into the different schools (both in France and abroad) which offered courses in science communication, I came across ICL’s MSc. I saw that this encompassed a broader vision of sci comm (not just journalism, which I didn’t feel like going into) – and the possibility of graduating within a year sealed the deal.

Cristina (middle) in the radio suite at Imperial

Did you have any experience in sci comm prior to the masters?

Most of my experience came from my time at the clinic. I worked there roughly for about 2 years as a research associate and then a clinical projects assistant. A great part of my time in both those jobs was communication: either with people coming and going at the clinic or collaborators from labs.

What were the highlights of the masters for you?

Tough question haha! From the course itself, I believe it was the ‘eye-opening’ effect.

During my previous experience as a student, 99% of what we were told from our professors about the typical ‘scientist’ trajectory was: undergrad -> postgrad -> PhD -> post-docs and so on until you might get a permanent position somewhere. However, with the sci comm degree I realised that there was so much more out there beyond pure academia or working in the private sector. 

It might sound silly now, but back in 2019 I never considered the possibility of purely using my science background as a foundation to do something else, such as working in a comms agency, or government, or museums, being involved in media campaigns, documentary making or working in radio…I was a guest on two of the iRadio Monday shows and it was soooo much fun! Nowadays, you can switch careers quite easily, taking what you’ve learned and applying it to something else. There are less barriers between fields. You’re not stuck in a box. 

For this master’s in general, the people made it. This might sound like an obvious answer, but it does make a difference. All the staff were welcoming, involved with your wishes for a career and the students were relaxed, learning and enjoying themselves – which was very different from what I had experienced in France and refreshing! Having the support of your fellow students was reassuring. We were quite a cohesive group which made both work and life in the MSc easier. 

Where was your placement and did you enjoy it?

I did my placement in a medical comms agency in London (fully remotely due to COVID). 

A sci comm alumni worked for this company and in one of the Tuesday seminars talked about her job. I was fascinated by it and decided I wanted to see for myself what it was all about. 

It was only 4 weeks but it gave me a feel for this field of work. Overall, I enjoyed it. It was a comfortable job since I was mostly in charge of doing research for different projects in the company. I felt it was a shame I didn’t get to do the more exciting bits like exchanging with clients, or taking part into the briefs.

What was your journey like following the masters? Were there any challenges in finding a job?

It was full of bumps on the road! I really want to blame COVID and Brexit on this one although part of it was my negligence as well. When the pandemic started, I went back to my parents’ place in Romania. I thought I would be back in London for the placement and from there I would start looking for a job, find one quickly and resume my career. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. 

My first professional disappointment came after I started a long recruitment process for a big global medical comms company late in November 2020. I pushed for the recruitment to move faster because of the looming end of 2020 and Christmas.

After successfully completing all the intermediate steps, they told me I wasn’t selected. Massive blow. Sadly, they never gave me feedback on why. At such a stage, feedback is so important for you as a candidate to get a feel for what you did/ said that was wrong, or why you didn’t fit with their vision in the company. It’s important for personal growth. Eventually you move on from the disappointment, but it still stings the first few days, especially around the holidays. 

From January 2021 onwards, the difficulty came with finding a position which would sponsor visa – and my junior position. I knew I wanted to continue working in medical comms, so that narrowed down my options. Also, I didn’t want to go for short-term positions which wouldn’t give me enough perspective for my future – this narrowed down the availabilities even further! 

Mostly, I didn’t want to rush into a job that I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted and would fit me. I did that after my first MSc because everyone usually wants to land their first job quickly to start earning money and become an ‘adult’. Having been through that once, this time I wanted to take my time and not rush into anything. 

After a while of receiving offers which eventually amounted to nothing once the companies found out that I needed a visa, I decided to stop searching in the UK and focused on France and other European countries. 

It took me a while to find something, mostly because too many positions expected you to arrive with 5+ years of experience. In 2020 and 2021, it was hard due to all the remote working and companies generally not hiring young people long-term or at all, especially when training was involved.

What are you up to now? What is your favourite bit about your role?

I work full-time as a science writer in a medical communication company (shocker!) in Paris. It’s a permanent position and in the field of my initial studies so it’s really what I’ve been looking for. A whole year of searching was worth it!

It is hard to pinpoint one favourite bit, but I would suggest the diversity of the job. In my role, I take care of the science information which goes into whatever we are doing for our clients. These clients are from all medical fields, which makes it all very fulfilling and challenging. The work itself is exciting – the knowledge you personally gain from doing it is even greater.

What advice would you give to current students on the masters/those thinking about entering the field of science communication?

If possible, explore as much as you can in science communication (whether you have some experience or not). Nothing trumps experiencing something for yourself. It’s the best way to find out if a job is truly meant for you or not. Talking to people doing what you think you want to do is great, but until you get a feel for it yourself, you’ll never truly know if it’s meant for you. 

Again, if you can, don’t rush into the first job which lands on your lap just because it’s there. You learn from every experience – good or bad, you come out with something. But if there is something that you know for sure you want, be patient. You’ll eventually get it. 

Removing the pressure from finding THE job is also a good point. People no longer spend their lives in a single job, so don’t be afraid to land somewhere you eventually don’t like. BUT, be selective. It’s important to work in a good environment, especially for a first job. 

To me, a first job shapes your perception of the professional world so much.