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Focus of Study
The MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing is a one-year program that leads to a Master of Science (SM) in Science Writing.
A program for English and science majors, freelance writers or journalists seeking a specialty, working scientists, and others in which to learn the art and discipline of science writing.
An opportunity to contribute to public understanding of science, medicine, engineering, and technology.
A chance to work closely with a distinguished core faculty of award-winning journalists, authors, and scholars within one of the most exciting scientific communities in the world.
The curriculum for the program is:
21W.826 Advanced Science Writing Seminar II (12 units)
21W.824 Advanced Science Documentary (12 units)
21W.THG Graduate Thesis (12 units)
21W.823 Lab Experience for Science Writers
Elective (9 or 12 units)
The Advanced Science Writing Seminar
The Advanced Science Writing Seminar is the core, the intellectual home, of the Graduate Program. During the fall semester, it is a “megaseminar” that meets six hours a week, the equivalent of two regular courses. In the spring, it turns into one regular course that meets three hours a week. Over both semesters, this seminar offers the student an array of writing experiences.
No aspect of science writing falls outside the seminar’s range. Students learn to draw on all the tools of research to enrich their information-gathering skills—interviews, websites, institute archives, scientific journals, personal experience. They sample daily science journalism and the culture of the newsroom, writing on tight deadlines and learning to sniff out fresh news stories. Later, these skills are applied to longer, magazine-style feature articles.
Students explore the rich possibilities of the essay, applied to science, technology and medicine, in all its myriad forms—from formal and academic, to light and personal.
Throughout this process, workshops are conducted to critique each student’s completed writing assignment, as well as analyze assigned readings—from books, magazines, and newspapers. Moreover, guest speakers—either distinguished scientists or noted science writers—are invited in across the year to discuss ethical and professional issues and probe recent events in science and technology.
MIT‘s is a one-year master’s program, designed to cover much ground in a limited time. It is conducted at a rapid pace, and requires the energy and devotion of student and faculty alike. The Advanced Science Writing Seminar is designed to maximize the educational value of that year. It lets faculty more intimately integrate instruction on journalism, the essay, long-form writing, and research methods, with workshops and critiques in those subgenres. Treating the seminar as a whole, from the very beginning, as a unified academic experience, reduces the redundancy inevitably found among distinct but potentially overlapping courses. Seminar makes sure our carefully selected students get all of what they can get out of the year, and enhances the prospects for a unique bonding experience among each year’s class.
Each student spends twenty hours in one of MIT‘s hundreds of laboratories, seeing its work up close and absorbing its life and culture. The student must then report back to the class in both written and oral form on the workings of the lab. These reports are sometimes published in Technology Review magazine.
In the spring semester, the Advanced Science Writing Seminar focuses primarily on the prose facet of science writing. Advanced Science Documentary focuses on the non-linear multimedia methods of storytelling. Students create audio and video works of a variety of lengths. Because the class is a hands-on video production class, the Science Writing Program maintains an inventory of equipment for the students to check out and use, including video cameras, tripods, lighting equipment and digital audio recorders. The students edit using Final Cut Pro.
The program’s electives help accommodate the wide range of education and experience of our students. Electives might fill a specific hole in the student’s background; allow him or her to pursue a scientific area of particular interest; or provide a humanistic or arts perspective that will enrich his or her writing. A student with a strong background in the necessary mathematics might wish to enlarge his exposure to the hard sciences through coursework in physics. Another student might study science fiction or creative writing. A third student with a special interest (for example, the colonization of space), might take an ethics or philosophy course in the fall, aerospace engineering in the spring.
Each elective choice emerges through discussions among student and faculty, sometimes in consultation with the department in which a student hopes to take a subject. Many students will find that offerings from MIT‘s Science, Technology, and Society program, which includes courses in the history of science and technology, are particularly appropriate.
The thesis is a substantial and ambitious piece of writing about science or scientists, completed over the course of the academic year. Normally, it is around 10,000-12,000 words. While demanding the intensive research of a traditional academic thesis, this project is written for general audiences. It can be journalistic, literary, investigative, historical, even personal—so long as it meaningfully bears on science, technology, or medicine. In any case, it tackles the subject with greater depth and thoughtfulness, and to a higher degree of polish and refinement, than normally possible in a regular classroom setting. Students can apply for a small grant to cover travel expenses for their research.
At first frequently, then less so over the course of the year, students meet in Thesis Seminar (a class distinct from the Advanced Science Writing Seminar) to discuss, refine, and develop their thesis projects. About six weeks into the fall semester, they are assigned individual thesis advisors with whom they meet regularly for the rest of the year.
Candidates for the Graduate Program should have in mind, even at the time they apply, several ideas about the sorts of topics or approaches they might wish to pursue.
With the help and under the direction of an advisor from within the program, the student secures an internship for the summer following the regular academic year. Tailored to the background and interests of the student, and intended to broadly complement his or her classroom experience and career goals, the internship can take a variety of forms but must always include substantial writing. The student might find a place with a newspaper or popular magazine, a television or radio station, a science publication or website, a science institution, or a museum. Another alternative is to secure a regular science writing position, the first ten weeks of which would satisfy the internship requirement. The internship is monitored by the faculty advisor during the summer, earns academic credit, and is graded pass-fail.