Becky Ham

Freelance Science Writer

(Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style)

What is your current job field?

Science communications and public information officer/ writing and editing.

What degree(s) do you have and in what discipline(s)?

I hold a B.S. in Anthropology (archaeology emphasis) from the University of Arizona (archaeology emphasis), and an M.S. and Ph.D. in biological anthropology from New York University.

What is your current salary or salary range?

My current salary is about $90,000 a year, but being a freelancer, it can vary wildly. In the past 15 years, I’ve been as low as $40,000 and as high as $130,000. It mostly depends on the number and type of clients I have in a year and the types of assignments.

I can set my own fees in some cases, charging either by the hour or by the word,  and in other cases the client has a set fee or a budget cap for an assignment. I’m a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and one of the great services they provide is a guide to salaries and freelance contracts, so that our community knows what the going rate is for specific clients and jobs.

What can someone with a BA/MA/PhD expect to earn in this job?

In this field, the degree doesn’t matter as much as the level of experience. Someone with a B.A. who has a substantial portfolio of writing can command a higher salary than someone with a Ph.D. who is just getting started and hasn’t had a lot of assignments.  

What type of benefits are typically provided in your job field?

Benefits are the downside of a being a freelancer. I pay for my own health insurance, there are no paid sick days or holidays, and there’s no retirement plan. However, there are options for buying into things like health insurance and unemployment assistance through organizations such as the Freelancers Union. 

What does a typical workday look like for you?

A typical workday for me usually involves writing stories, reading and research, interviewing scientists and sources, and editing work by others. I work with a lot of scientific societies and universities as a part-time public information officer, so sometimes that means interviewing scientists and writing press releases. Other clients may ask me to write a story about a broader scientific topic for a magazine or website. I’ve edited academic science books and worked on museum exhibit text. Multimedia is a huge part of science communications, so I regularly work with graphic designers, video editors, and social media people.

What do you like the most about your job?

The best part of my job is the variety. I write about so many different types of science—most of the time about fields that I know nothing about. It gives me a chance to jump into a topic with the same curiosity and enthusiasm that I remember from my early days in academia. I also like asking people questions, so it’s nice to have a job where that’s acceptable behavior.

What do you like the least about your job?

The worst part of my job is the bookkeeping aspect of it: sending out invoices, keeping track of receipts, figuring out taxes, and bugging clients when they’re late on payments. It’s important but boring.