Ingrid Ockert *18 (HOS) interviewed by Duygu Coskuntuna, GS (NES).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I graduated in 2018 with a doctoral degree from the History of Science Program at Princeton University. In my dissertation, "The Scientific Storytellers: How Educators, Scientists, and Actors Televised Science," I explored the origins of television as a tool for science communication and the rise of the telegenic scientist.
Currently, I am the Marketing Communications Coordinator for the Workforce Development and Education Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I also advise the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and serve as the Online Content Manager for the Radio Preservation Task Force of Library of Congress.
Laying the groundwork
I started out as a student at Portland Community College. From the onset, I knew that I really liked science and I also loved communications, but I didn’t know what to do with either of those interests. So I took a lot of science courses, and I interned at OPB, a public television studio, which gave me my first taste at working in a fast-paced newsroom.
When I transferred to a state school, Oregon State University, there wasn’t a science writing major, so I designed my own major around the topic. I discovered that there was department called the history of science, where the professors focused on telling the untold stories of science. That seemed exactly like what I wanted to do! The rest of the courses that I took at OSU were a mixture of science, history, and writing courses.
While I worked the library, I also wrote articles for OSU’s TERRA magazine. Honestly, I took every opportunity that I could find to learn. I was hungry for experience. When I was close to graduating, I decided that I wanted to try for graduate school. Neither of my parents have graduate degrees, but they told me that getting a graduate degree was very important. I was incredibly lucky to get into Princeton University and join their Program in the History of Science. After spending my life at public schools, I was overwhelmed and appreciative of all the resources that I had access to at Princeton. It allowed me to establish a firm foundation in science communications.
When I started at Princeton, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in writing. I didn’t know how you could find full-time work as a writer. I didn’t know anyone else who’d ever done that before. Suddenly, in Princeton, I was surrounded by people who were excited by life in the humanities. I spent a lot of time going to events on campus, like lectures, so I could meet new people and learn their stories.
As for my doctoral research, I decided to research the history of science communication because I was fascinated by the field and wanted to learn everything that I could about it. I was lucky to have Erika Milam as my doctoral adviser – from the beginning, she had the confidence that my research track would help me find a rewarding career. Researching the history of science communications was exciting and helped me meet experts across the broadcasting industry. I met some of my personal heroes, like Brian Greene and Michael Ambrosino, and I developed a deep understanding of the field that’s really helped me contextualize the ways that we tell stories about science.
The moment that changed everything
I think that the moment that changed everything happened during my fourth year in 2016. I happened to bump into a colleague on campus, Stevie Bergman (now a PhD in astronomy). She told me that she and another friend, Brian Krauss (now a PhD in plasma physics) were starting a radio show on WPRB about science called These Vibes are Too Cosmic. Would I be interested in appearing on a segment? I was very curious and told her yes. A few weeks later, I ended up chatting with Stevie and Brian about the history of science education. It was so much fun! I asked if I could come back and do a regular segment about science history. They agreed! So, for my last two years at Princeton, I appeared about once a month on the show and talked with them about an exciting book in the history of science. Those two years ‘on-air’ helped teach me valuable skills as a science communicator. I learned how to translate tough scientific concepts for a lay audience. I found my voice.
I also met a wonderful group of people through ‘These Vibes,’ and got involved with other on-campus organizations like Princeton Citizen Scientists. My final year at Princeton was in 2018 and I held a University Administrative Fellowship and worked as an outreach specialist at the Council on Science and Technology. I spent a year managing a lecture series for them which brought in speakers from NOVA, Scientific American, and Science Friday. I really enjoyed working with the CST staff and administering the series. Working at CST helped me know that, yes, I wanted a career in communications.
Life beyond academia
One of your other interviewees, Ben Sacks, had some really good advice about the value of a post-doc and I agree with him. After Princeton, I held a two-year postdoc at the Science History Institute. I also held the 2018 HSS/NASA Fellowship in Aerospace History. Both of these fellowships really helped give me time to catch my breath and figure out where I wanted to go next. For me, that was the West Coast. I had been out on the East Coast for 8 years by 2020. I had a great time, but it was time to go home.
My post-doc finished in May 2020, right as the pandemic hit. I distinctly remember tuning into the first GradFutures Forum, which helped me think of ways to market my skills. While I was looking for work, I freelanced, gave interviews, and built up my writing portfolio. I decided that I needed to enhance my digital skills so I volunteered to become the online content manager for the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force, a group that I’d started to work with because my doctoral work. As the OCM, I recruited and managed the redesign of a website. I developed a social media strategy. I managed two other volunteers. It’s been a very fun experience (I’m still doing it!) and I’ve learned a lot.
These were all skills that helped equip me for my current role as the Marketing Communications Coordinator for the Workforce Development & Education Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As the Marketing Communications Coordinator, I spend roughly a third of my time designing marketing materials, a third of my time editing online content, and a third of my time writing feature stories.
The Workforce Development & Education Department facilitates internships for Berkeley Lab; we help interested interns discover research opportunities at Berkeley Lab. It’s such a rewarding place to work. These internships help participants gain valuable experience and skills that will launch them into scientific careers. I really enjoy working with my colleagues. At Berkeley Lab, we strongly believe in ‘Team Science,’ and “that innovative solutions to complex problems arise from a diversity of thought, approaches, and experiences.” I feel like the interdisciplinary environment of Princeton prepared me well for a multidisciplinary career in communications.
Best advice for graduate students
Connect with other people in industries you’d like to explore. It’s much easier to do informational interviews while you’re still a graduate student. Find people on Twitter and follow them. Politely ask them if they might answer some questions for you. I really found myself inspired by Jennifer Polk’s tweets (@FromPhDtoLife.) Through her threads, I met someone in my industry and asked them for some perspective. They were very kind and wrote me a long email back that really helped me prepare for several job interviews.
Volunteer for a non-profit that’s in your area of interest. Read articles written by people in your industry. Join professional organizations. I found a wonderful community online by joining the National Association of Science Writers. I also found LinkedIn to be a very helpful resource.
Connect with other students within your cohort who are looking at life outside academy. Build a community within your department. Think out loud and strategize with them. Once you’ve got your first year under your belt, mentor others who ask for advice, even if you don’t feel like an expert yet. Trust me, you know more than you think!
This interview has been edited for clarity.