Dr Kat Arney is a science writer and broadcaster whose work has featured on BBC Radio 4, the Naked Scientists, BBC Focus, the Times Educational Supplement, the Daily Mail and more.
She has written two books about genetics, ‘Herding Hemingway’s Cats – Understanding how our genes work’ (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2016) and ‘How to Code a Human’ (Andre Deutsch, 2017), and presents the monthly Naked Genetics podcast.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
[ Laughs ] no. When I look back I can see the path that got me from there to here, but there was never a real plan.
I just kept saying ‘yes’ to interesting opportunities, and working on doing the things I love (and paying the rent).
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
When I was young I wanted to be an inventor or a mad professor. I loved science so I did science A levels, went to university to study natural sciences, and did a PhD in genetics. I even went on to do two short postdoctoral research jobs. But it turns out that I’m really bad at lab research. I have a very short attention span, I’m clumsy, and I never felt happy as a researcher.
By my mid-20s I was working in a lab in London and seriously depressed, feeling like a failure. Then I realised that I did have other passions and transferable skills, and started applying for jobs that were related to science but not research itself – medical writing, journal editing and so on. None of these seemed right until I got a job at Cancer Research UK – the world’s biggest independent cancer research charity. I spent 12 years there, working up to becoming science communications manager and one of the charity’s main media spokespeople.
It was really hard pulling myself out of the research world and working out that I could use my skills and passion elsewhere, but it was my dream job.
I’m now in the next phase of my career as a freelance writer and broadcaster. Again, making the move over to being a freelance 18 months ago was very challenging, as I was terrified that I’d have no work. I ramped up my freelance work in my spare time and holidays, and went down to four days a week at Cancer Research UK and it has worked out so far. I also took a chunk of unpaid leave to write my first book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, which I believed would be a stepping stone into a successful freelance life. It was a gamble as I didn’t receive an advance from my publisher and I had to rely on odd bits of freelancing and savings, but it was definitely worth it.
What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?
I don’t have much advice about leadership, as I deliberately turned down the opportunity to become a team leader at Cancer Research UK. At that point I knew I wanted to focus on writing my first book and eventually using that to take the plunge into a freelance career, so it didn’t seem fair on me or my colleagues to take on leadership responsibilities. For me, it was about realising that an opportunity to become a leader in one part of my life (along with a nice pay rise) might actually not be a great idea if I wanted to focus on becoming my own boss in the longer term.
When faced with two equally-qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?
I’d go with the one that can make me laugh, or who laughs with me. My personal rule in any interview – whether that’s a job interview, or an interview that I’m doing with a guest for a radio show – is to always try and get a laugh out of them. Working relationships should be professional, but shared laughter is a useful glue.
How do you manage your own boss?
I’m my own boss, and I’m still figuring out how to work with her! I work from home and only have to answer to myself, so discipline and time management are an issue. I’m a ruthless user of to-do lists and calendars, and I love Trello for managing the many projects I’m working on at any time. I also use a website blocker called Stayfocusd to keep me off social media when I have looming deadlines.
More importantly, I’m learning how to view myself as a professional business, and make sure I account properly for my time.
Saying ‘yes!’ to almost anything (paid or not) has got me a long way, but I’ve hit the point where I simply can’t do that anymore.
On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?
I’m a bit of a night owl, and tend to do my best writing in the evenings unless I have a talk or event to go to. As a result, I’ll usually go to bed at about 1am so I get up quite late. My brain doesn’t really work in the mornings so I tend to do admin, chores and other mindless stuff before going to the gym at lunchtime. Once I’m back and have stuffed my face with lunch, I can get down to some proper work, such as writing, editing audio, researching.
Alternatively, I might be out and about giving talks or interviewing researchers about their work. No two days are the same, and I’m entirely in charge of my time. It’s incredibly liberating and also terrifying. I could spend the whole day on the sofa eating popcorn and reading Facebook if I wanted to (and believe me, I often want to), but the sensible bit of my brain knows it wouldn’t be a good idea.
What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?
Don’t be afraid to challenge, raise suggestions or ask questions when you see the opportunity. Good leaders recognise the benefits of having staff who can clearly articulate ideas, ask questions and voice concerns. Obviously, it’s a bad idea to be contrary or obnoxious just for the sake of it, or to ask a question you haven’t properly thought about, but strong organisations need people who are prepared to think, stand up and speak out. All too often this kind of thing falls to men, who stereotypically tend to be more confident with their opinions in the workplace, but it’s vital that women step up too.
How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?
I’ve had a couple of mentors in my life, which were useful at the key transitions between leaving research, and then again more recently going freelance.
The first one was little more than a chat in the pub with an established science journalist, who talked me through my fears about leaving the lab. He doesn’t know how important that chat was, but it helped to set me on the path towards science communication.
My second mentor was Vivienne Parry, a fantastic science communicator and TV presenter, who has given me a lot of good advice about the media world. I should also mention Professor Dame Amanda Fisher, who led the last research lab I worked in. She was so patient with me as I wrestled with my feelings of unhappiness and tried to figure out what to do with my life, and still sends interesting science communication projects my way.
Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker?
Yes, incredibly important. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without networking and (more importantly) following up those interesting leads and opportunities. People now tend to connect on social media, but I would always come home from events with a bra full of business cards, and then the next morning I would make sure to send follow-up emails where appropriate.
My top tips would be:
1) Always follow up quickly if someone offers you an opportunity. If you can’t take it up right now, get in touch to say “not now but I’d love to later.”
2) Be brave and get in there quickly if there’s someone you really want to meet. There’s nothing worse than plucking up the courage all night to approach someone, only to discover that they left an hour ago.
3) Don’t feel you have to stay stuck in conversations that you aren’t enjoying at networking events, especially if it means you’re missing out on making new contacts. You’re expected to circulate, so make a polite excuse (popping to the loo is a good one) and get out of there.
Also it’s tempting to stick with friends at events if you’re feeling shy, but it can hold you and them back from meeting great people. Make sure you and your buddies know it’s OK to break off quickly and grab a chat with an interesting person if they’re nearby. It’s also handy to share ‘hit lists’ of people you each want to talk to, so you can all keep an eye out for each other in case opportunities arise.
What does the future hold for you?
Right now my agent is about to start pitching my third book, so hopefully writing another book will be in my future. Apart from that, I’m just taking opportunities as they come. I’m writing for a range of outlets, making my monthly Naked Genetics podcast, taking up invitations to speak at events, festivals and conferences, and pursuing TV and radio opportunities. I’m always hustling, baby.
About the author
Dr Kat Arney, Science Writer and Broadcaster/Musician and Harpist