I’m a public information officer (PIO) at a research institution. That basically means that I do public relations and media relations for a place that conducts a lot of research. And I love my job.
Before becoming a PIO I spent more than nine years as a reporter, covering environmental policy issues for several “inside the Beltway” publications in Washington, DC. When I left reporting to become a PIO at North Carolina State University, I had very little idea what I was getting into. It was, for lack of a better term, a leap of faith.
I knew that I was leaving a job that I liked (and that I was good at). In my mind, the worst case scenario was that I’d find myself part of a mind-numbing bureaucracy, pushing out bland news releases on things that even I wasn’t interested in. But I was hoping that I’d be able to write about research, covering such a wide variety of disciplines that I’d never get bored.
The worst case scenario never materialized, and over the past seven years I’ve written about research on everything from Peruvian skulls to big city ants to the family dinner. That’s a pretty sweet deal.
But people still ask me two questions about my decision to become a PIO: “Do you miss being a reporter?” and “Do you like being a PIO?”
The first question’s easy to answer: I do miss some things about being a reporter. I particularly miss the rush of breaking a really good story. (There’s nothing quite like it.) But there are definitely things I don’t miss, such as the unpredictable schedule.
The second question is also easy: I really like my job. Everyone’s different, and I completely understand my friends who would never leave journalism. But I don’t regret my decision either. This post is about outlining some of the things I really like about being a research PIO.
Third to Know
Research is about learning new things. When a scientist makes a discovery, she is the first person in the world to know that thing. That is pretty amazing. As a PIO, I’m not in the first group of people to share in that discovery – that’s the researcher and her lab. I’m rarely in the second tier either – that’s usually the journal editor and reviewers who evaluate the research.
But I’m often third to know. By the time I find out about something, there are still only a handful of people in the entire world who know about this particular discovery. How cool is that?
I really enjoy working with researchers to raise the profile of their work. I like helping them explain their research in terms that are accessible to people outside of their sub-discipline. And this isn’t because all scientists are wonderful people.
As with any cross section of humanity, the research community does include some really wonderful folks. But there are also jerks, narcissists, and bores. (I’m fortunate to work with a collection of researchers who have a pretty good nice/jerk ratio.) But my personal opinion of the researcher has little bearing on whether the work is exciting.
I like helping to promote research findings because it is, ultimately, good for the entire research community. Even with tools like Google Scholar, it can be easy for a paper to get lost in the sea of academic literature. So anything I can do to raise awareness of research findings makes it that much more likely that the work will be seen by someone who can use it as the jumping-off point for future research. I like the idea that I might be helping to connect information with new audiences that might be able to make use of it. Of course, the researchers I work with usually benefit as well.
Learn Something New
I was one of those kids who loved going to school. I may have hated having to stay in my seat (and I often got into trouble for talking in class), but I loved feeding my brain. That never got old.
So the thing I like most about my job, the thing I never get sick of, is the fact that I get to learn something new every day. Every time I interview a researcher about a forthcoming paper, I get to ask them as many questions as I want. It’s like having my own personal class, with a steady rotation of teachers and a staggering variety of subjects. I never get bored.
And you’ve got to love a job like that.