Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Christine Herman graduated from Illinois in 2012 with a PhD in Chemistry and then again in 2014 with her MS in Journalism. Now, she is a multimedia producer at Illinois Public Media, working on a new statewide talk show called "The 21st." Every day, she monitors the news and social media platforms to get discussion ideas for the daily radio talk show. She also reaches out to potential guests and assists the host of the show prepare questions to guide the conversation.
What was most surprising about your career path? Or, what has surprised you most about your current job?
When I started the PhD chemistry program, I thought I wanted to become a chemistry professor. But I soon found out that I was more interested in learning and communicating science generally than taking a deep dive as a researcher into one narrow area of science. So I began exploring alternative careers for chemists, and I'd say the biggest surprise is that I've slowly moved away from a science career into a career as a journalist with no official ties to science anymore. Because I have a background in science and a strong interest in science and health issues, a lot of the ideas I propose to discuss on our show naturally fall into one of those categories. I've had to become much more well-rounded since getting into journalism - and I consider that a good thing. I will always be a scientist at heart.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
The best part of my job is that I learn new things every single day and it's a fast-paced environment where there is never a dull moment. You get a rush working on a live, on-air show, even if most of your work is behind the scenes, it's exhilarating. We cover so much ground on a daily/weekly basis, and that's also the most challenging part. One day I'm producing a segment about the K-12 school funding formula, and the next day we're talking with an X-ray crystallographer about solving a crystal structure for a Zika virus protein. But it's so much fun. Journalists are lifelong learners. Sometimes I wake up and think to myself - wow, I get paid to learn all this really interesting stuff! And it's rewarding because the purpose of my learning is to help get the news out to our audience about important issues that matter to people. I work with a team of really great journalists who have become my friends and mentors. I love that the mission of our show is to be fun and relevant while shedding light on issues that matter to people in Illinois and inviting people to be a part of that conversation.
What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?
The most valuable transferable skill I gained from graduate school is being fearless in approaching a topic that I may know absolutely nothing about and taking steps to figure out what I need to know. In research, your goal is to break new ground in your field, and that requires first becoming aware of the current status of the field and then figuring out what open questions remain. In journalism, it's very similar in the sense that you can't be intimidated. You have to just dive right in, find the information you need and not be afraid to ask questions. I also learned perseverance and hard work. Being a researcher was the most grueling job and I have ever had, and I worked in a lab that was very supportive of having good work-life balance. I look back on those days and think about how they were really character building. That's why when people ask me if I would do it all over again and get the PhD if I had known I wanted to ultimately be a journalist, I'm torn. You certainly don't need a PhD to do what I do, but there are so many ways that the graduate school experience has really helped me.
What experiences made an impact on your career choice?
When I look back, there's a bit of "hindsight is 20/20" that takes place. For example, I can tell my career story like this: I discovered I loved science communication and started taking steps in that direction. But the truth is that I had a really rough third year of graduate school, where I felt like nothing was working on my project and I wanted to quit. I knew I had to figure out a backup plan if the reality was that research was not the career for me. And that's how I began my search. At the end of really bad days in the lab, I would google "nontraditional career for scientists" and I began reaching out to people who had made the jump from chemistry into various science communication careers: grant writing, medical writing, public relations, blogging, journalism. My PhD adviser was extremely supportive of me taking a journalism class one semester and signing up to be a features reporter for The Daily Illini student newspaper. It was through those experiences that I realized journalism was the career for me.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
If there are graduate students reading this who are questioning their decision to pursue a career in research, I would say - as long as you're not extremely miserable - stay in the program and continue to do your work while using your spare time (what little you may have of it!) to explore. A google search on alternative careers will lead you to many great resources that are out there. Then start reaching out to people who are doing things that you think you might be interested in doing. These kinds of "informational interviews" are really valuable. You can ask about their career path and get their advice for up-and-coming people like you in their field. Many scientists who work in non-traditional fields are very willing to talk to people about their career paths because they know how hard it can be to navigate without mentors and role models. Then start taking small steps to figure out if that's the direction you want your career to move in. Build up your skills while keeping your day job (grad school) so that by the time you graduate, you will be able to market yourself as a person with the skills you need to be competitive.
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.