Jen Middleton, media officer
Find out more about her communications career
How does science get onto the news or into the newspapers? Jen Middleton is a media officer, helping to connect scientists who carry out research funded by Wellcome with journalists, to ensure that there are accurate, interesting stories about science in the media. She spoke to Amy Olson.
(This interview was conducted in 2012. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the essential subjects and salary guide sections.)
What do you do?
I’m a media officer at Wellcome.
How do you describe your job in a single sentence?
I work with journalists to communicate the science that is funded by Wellcome to people through the press.
What did you study at school? Did you go to university?
I studied biology, chemistry and French at A level. I originally wanted to do classical studies, English literature and French, but they cancelled classics and there was a timetable clash between English and French. I never wanted to do science, I just fell into it! I studied biology at university because I fell in love with it when I was doing my A levels. I specialised in immunology – studying the human immune system. While I was at university I became really interested in how the immune system tackles cancer, so I went on to do a PhD in cancer immunology.
What did you want to be when you were at school?
When I was 16, I wanted to be a rock star! When I was younger, about 13, I wanted to be a vet. But I’m a bit squeamish!
What jobs have you done in your life?
I didn’t think of my PhD as studying: I count it as my first job because I was working in a laboratory, and I was no different to other scientists working there – just at a junior level. Then I did an internship with a scientific journal called ‘Nature’. That’s when I started getting interested in science communication. I moved into the press office at ‘Nature’, and then I came here.
Was it hard to find your current role?
Yes and no. I was really lucky at ‘Nature’ to get my foot in the door with the press office there, so I got that initial experience. I’ve also worked really hard at networking, because the communications industry is very much about relationships.
Actually, quite a lot of jobs come up. I’m in a professional association called Stempra, and they advertise a lot of jobs through there.
Why did you choose this role?
Because I love science – I’m just not very good at physically doing it! I like thinking about it and talking about it. I like explaining it to people so that they can understand it, so it suits my skill set.
What one tip would you give to a young person who’d like the same job?
Try to get some work experience. Most big companies and universities have press offices and will take people on work experience.
What’s your work–life balance like?
I pretty much work nine-to-five. Wellcome is quite unique for media relations jobs in that respect. In theory, I’m on call at any time, so somebody could call me in the middle of the night. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but it’s not a problem.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
A big part of my job is trying to make sure that the science is communicated accurately. It can sometimes be as challenging to convince a journalist that something isn’t a story as much as to convince them that something is. And managing the expectations of scientists can be challenging – explaining that the journalist is trying to communicate the science in an accessible way, so it might not appear exactly as they might hope it would.
What’s the most satisfying thing about your job?
When you get a great headline and the science is reported accurately. One recent example is a story we had about a new IVF technique to help some mothers have healthy babies. It made a big splash. The coverage helped raise awareness among the public and MPs of why this potentially controversial technique is necessary and should be allowed. Not only that, but a lot of egg donors have come forward, so it’s had a positive impact on the research as well.
What prospects for progression are there?
You can climb the ladder. You can become a senior press officer, head of press, and even the head of communications if you get to that level. Obviously, the higher you climb, the broader your experience of other areas (marketing and so on) needs to be. Alternatively, a lot of people go freelance and set up their own company. So there are prospects.
Do you belong to any professional organisations, unions, etc?
What do you do for pleasure?
I run, I snowboard and I like music festivals and gigs.
A levels: biology, chemistry, French and general studies (2000).
BSc (Hons), biological sciences (immunology), University of Edinburgh (2004).
PhD, oncology, University of Nottingham (2008).
CIPR Diploma, public relations (currently studying).
Internship, Nature Publishing Group (2007–08).
Press officer, Nature Publishing Group (2008–10).
Media officer, Wellcome (2010–).
Membership of professional organisations
British Society for Immunology (2004–08).
British Association of Cancer Research (2004–).
Science Technology Engineering and Medicine Public Relations Association (Stempra) – member (2008–) and committee member (2011–).
Association of British Science Writers (2010–).
Chartered Institute of Public Relations (2011–).
Media officers earn on average £15,000–£40,000, dependent on experience, location and the organisation that they’re working for (PR WeekJobs).
Essential subjects (2017)
You will need a degree to be a media officer, though the subject you study is less important than experience – you’ll need to have worked in journalism or have gained work experience in a media-related environment (PRWeek Jobs).