A follow-up to: My best tips for your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application.
If you got it, congratulations! If you didn’t, you know what? Screw everything. Life sucks. I’ve definitely been in the same boat with other fellowships.
But any case! Here’s my top ten list of things you should know as you prepare for your summer:
1. The airplane ticket situation at AAAS is TERRIBLE!
Take heed. Getting your airplane tickets for your placement will be the first order of business, so it’s the first thing on this list, too. When they contacted me about getting the fellowship, they asked me if I wanted them to take care of buying the airplane tickets first to Washington DC (for orientation) and then to San Francisco (for the fellowship). My other option was to arrange flights myself, pay for everything, and then get reimbursed. Well, I didn’t want to have to deal with extra responsibility, so I told them to handle it. They picked out my flights, sent them to me to check over, and like an idiot, I agreed.
My flights sucked. Liked sucked so much. I had the worst flights out of everyone in the whole group. First, I was already at a disadvantage because along with the rest of the fellows placed in California, we had the greatest distance to travel. Now, as this is just a consequence of geography, I didn’t really care that much — at first. Because of the way my flights were set up, I actually had to leave the last day of orientation a few hours early. Again, this was a bummer, but again, geography — what can you do? So on the last day of orientation, I found the other person who had been placed in San Francisco. I figured that we would probably be on the same exact flights out. I told her: isn’t it too bad that we have to miss part of orientation, and do you want to take the metro together to the airport? That’s when I found out that she — although headed to San Francisco as well — was in no danger of missing any part of orientation. Not at all. Instead, she had been given a direct flight out. She not only was going to depart from Washington D.C. after me, she was also going to arrive in San Francisco before me. That’s when I got really mad. I was like just completely screwed over for no reason. If she got a direct flight, why didn’t I?
The answer I got from the program director, who really didn’t like me from before she ever met me for some reason, was that airplane tickets were purchased as fellows were placed. The placement process is an on-going thing, and it’s based on — I guess — how quickly any given editor makes their choices about what fellow they want. Apparently, when I was placed, the cheapest flights sucked, and when the other person going to San Francisco was placed, the cheap flights were far more favorable. That or the program director (who’s no longer working there, so don’t worry about it) wanted to make me miserable. And yes, I was miserable. Not only did I miss the last part of orientation; not only did I have like a 10-hour trip across the country; but then I also got to San Francisco super late at night. And to top it all off, after spending like an hour extra on the public transportation to get to my apartment in Berkeley, I ended up at a train station that was still a few miles from my final destination. It was close to midnight. I was hungry, had heavy bags, was super tired, and in a place I’d never been before. I took a taxi to cover the last bit of distance, and that taxi driver was a big jerk.
Same thing, by the way, happened on my way back from San Francisco going to the wrap-up in Washington D.C. Again, I had to leave super early; and I arrived super late. And the other person in San Francisco, her trip back east only lasted about half as long as mine. And I completely missed all the first night of wrap-up activities. I was like the only one who missed it all.
So key advice: no, don’t accept the stupid flights that they give you. Yes, do insist on direct flights. Yes, you are getting screwed over on your flights when someone else is not. Yes, make a big fuss and argue with them about it.
2. Do what your editor tells you to do … or not?
During our wrap-up in August, 2018, one of the speakers asked us, “so of course, if your editor assigned you a story, none of you turned it down … ” and every one nodded sagely, while I thought, oh, darn it. Because of course I had done just that. This is something very touch-and-go, of course. Every editor is different. My editor at WIRED was a little chill and didn’t micromanage or dictate over my head too much, so we had a certain hands-off dynamic between us. And furthermore … you don’t want to be part of the further erosion of power in the American labor force, do you? You’re getting paid $500 a week (at least, we were) and you’re basically free labor for WIRED or wherever … the media company isn’t paying you, your sponsor is paying you. So there is really no cause to bow down to every command from your editor too, too much.
3. Really, should you suck up that much?
I mean, you don’t want to wreck your reputation. Some of us (not me!) got jobs and stuff at the same media organization or another one shortly after completing the fellowship. But just think of it this way … you might spend all your time sucking up to your editor and the other hot-shot writers around you and you still might not get any job. So wouldn’t you rather leave with your dignity in tact? All I’m saying is, don’t go in there breathlessly in awe and anxious to please.
4. Maintain a healthy work-life balance.
This is obviously up to you, but in my opinion, and you can see it is in line with my previous notes, you don’t need to make this as stressful as writing your dissertation. Work your 40-hours — oh, I stayed a bit later now and then when I wanted to finish something up — but again, you’re getting paid for 40 hours a week. And when you apply for jobs afterwards [**at least, the kinds of jobs I applied to, which were mostly science communication jobs at universities or organizations ***], they are going to ask you for THREE writing samples max. They’re not going to ask for 10 or 20 writing samples. Often, they might just ask for one or two. So just get a few good stories out there. Don’t break your back working 60 or 80 hours a week. First of all, you’re not getting paid enough, second of all, do you really want to be free labor for anyone, third of all, do you really want to further diminish the power of the American worker? NO! Leave at a proper hour and enjoy the city you’re getting to live in! Enjoy your life! My editor was pretty good about this. Once I did stay really late and come in early to finish an article on a deadline, so she gave me a free afternoon the next day. If your editor is not like that, honestly … forget that editor. They have no right to demand even more free labor from you.
5. The people at AAAS are not deities upon whose every word you should hang.
AAAS publishes ‘Science’, the top-tier journal. We got to meet and endure long presentations by some of the people in charge. They had just come off of a big lapse in judgement for an op-ed they had published. The op-ed maybe had a good point hidden in it somewhere, but it was not very well written, so it came across as jealousy. Wouldn’t a good editor have caught that and stopped it from being published? Well, the AAAS editors did not, I think because they’re mostly male. And the reason I think that especially is because one of the people in charge, while he was giving us a four-hour-long lecture that I’m sure he was very proud of, said something very off-color and gender-biased. I called him out on it (yes, I did, because as I say, AAAS people are not deities whom you should suck up to), and he still DIDN’T GET IT!! In fact, he relentlessly kept making the same joke on and on, just to really drive it in. Big surprise, honestly, coming from people who published this.
6. Don’t expect your news room to enclose you in a big hug.
Some news rooms did do that. Mine did not. I mean, every one was very nice, and bent over to make my experience fulfilling … like my editor who let me write stories I had pitched and cared about … or the guy from the artwork department who let me fulfill my dream of making 3D imagery to go along with my article … or the established science writer who let me bore her one lunch as I asked her questions. So in all the important ways, I was supported. But in the meantime, over on Slack, I was reading about the experiences of other fellows, and they were all like [okay, not all, but it felt like that] “OMG! I was thrown a big surprise party today!” and “OMG! I got taken out for lunch and ice cream.” Etc etc. When we all re-congregated in D.C. for the wrap-up, we were talking and those of us who’d gotten no parties or ice cream commiserated together. So see, it’s not you. It’s just that particular news room.
7. National newsroom, or local paper? Well …
They will tell you that all the sites are equal, blah blah blah. But let’s face it, when you get placed at NPR, or the Washington Post, there’s an extra ‘WOW’ factor in place. Let’s just say that out-loud so we can get past it. It comes out in some really snooty ways. Like for example … some hot-shot someone-or-other was a speaker at our Wrap-Up. And later he tweeted a thread about “check out the cool articles the MMFellows wrote this summer!” Well, all the ones he tweeted were from the Post, NPR, PBS NewsHour, etc … all the well-known, national places. Forget him.
8. You’re new to this, not a professional; so don’t let anyone stress you out.
I know there’s always the profile out there of some person who, with no experience at all, shows up and does everything better than all the people already working there, and comes with great insight and great energy, etc etc. Well. If you’re that person, great. But the majority of us should accept that we are not. You are going into a professional newsroom, and you’ve probably never worked in one before. Don’t put pressure on yourself to “know everything” and to appear polished and well-experienced and like you’re going to hit the ground running. Obviously, also don’t go around telling everyone, “OMG! I don’t know what I’m doing!” Just use whatever gumption you can summon to get you through, but also be honest about what you think you can handle, and what you need help with.
9. Forget about everyone else.
Some people published 20 or 30 articles during their summer. I published 8. That was one of the lowest numbers. But I was super happy with that, because they were eight articles that I cared a lot about, and I’m proud of them. So proud, I encourage you to find my favorites and read them! Yes, there was a bit of time during the middle of the summer when I still only had 3 or 4 articles and the edits on my next article were so slow in coming, and every time they came back there were more problems I needed to address, and I thought, I’ll never get another article published! And there were so many other topics I wanted to move on to… eventually, I did! Literally, this is a case of “you do you”. If you want to publish a lot of articles, then do that. But don’t do it just because you’re trying to keep up with some threshold. If you feel bad, just remember I published 8. Compare yourself to me.
10. Are you the oldest fellow of your cohort? Don’t worry!
I was either the oldest or one of the oldest. And yes, going into it, I did feel like I would be out of place, or feel behind everyone .. but as soon as I got to DC, all those feelings melted away. Everyone was super nice and welcoming and no one worried about comparing age. And maybe even because I was older, I wasn’t as willing to sacrifice every single minute of the summer to this fellowship and this fellowship only.
11. Last but not least, AAAS MM Fellows are the sweetest …
I can be quiet and reserved, but pretty much everyone in my cohort acted like I was their best friend anyways. Especially by wrap-up, when we’d all congregated back in D.C. again (when I FINALLY made it there — see point #1 above). They were all so lovely, and I have very nice, warm memories of how included and cared-about everyone made me feel.
(This is a follow-on article from My best tips for your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application.)