Careers in science illustration: Everything you ever wanted to know

About the animation

We created this animation to answer the most common questions that students have for us at careers fairs. Claudia has been attending the University of Cambridge’s careers fair since 2015 to answer students’ questions about freelancing, creative careers, and science illustration specifically. Due to COVID-19, we’re not able to attend the 2021 fair in person, so we made this animation instead.

1.

What is a Science Illustrator?

A science illustrator helps scientists communicate. They do this by creating graphics, illustrations and other visuals. They tend to have a background in science, and training in graphic design, illustration, or animation.

2.

What’s an average day like?

Like all creatives, illustrators don’t spend all their time working on client projects. On top of drawing, and reading papers, you’ll also need to spend time working on marketing, finances, and pitching new work. Often you’ll work on multiple projects at once, so having a system to keep track of tasks is important. Design work is usually done remotely, so you can work from home if you want to, although quite a few prefer to rent an office.

3.

Who are your clients?

As well as making images for scientists, science illustrators can work with biotech startups, medical communications, publishing, education, and public engagement. You might be creating artwork for an advertising campaign one day, and figures for a journal manuscript the next. You can choose which areas to specialise in, if you have a preference.

4.

Are there any qualifications you need?

You don’t need a specialist course to be a science illustrator, just a really good portfolio, and a good understanding of science. That said, courses can definitely help. Particularly any that help you with design software, sketching ideas, or business skills.

If you’re interested in creating 3D medical art, the University of Glasgow runs a masters degree in Medical Visualisation and Human Anatomy. There is also the London-based postgraduate diploma in medical art, run by the medical artists Education trust.

For a broader understanding of science communication in general, there are masters degrees in science communication. Imperial college London, and the University of the West of England, run taught masters degrees in the subject, amongst other universities.

5.

Is there any software I should learn?

If you’re still at University, see if the computer department offers training courses in how to use the Adobe Suite. The main applications to learn are Illustrator and Photoshop. You can usually get student discounts on the software if your college doesn’t already have access. If you’re interested in 3D and animation, Blender is a good place to start – It’s also free.

6.

Do I need any equipment?

You’ll need a decent computer for 3D illustration, animation, and large illustration files. You’ll want around 16GB of memory for large illustrations, and a fast processor for rendering animation or 3D. This doesn’t have to be expensive. You can pick up 8 year old Macbook Pros for around £500 * which will work fine for illustration, you just might have to wait a while when rendering. You also might want to get a tablet for sketching ideas as it saves you from scanning **. The ReMarkable tablet is a good choice if you don’t like the feeling of drawing on glass screens.

* Alternatively, refurbished 2013 Mac mini computers can be bought for around £200 and manually upgraded to 16GB for around £60.

** Wacom or XP-PEN tablets are recommended.

7.

Should I take drawing classes

Life drawing classes are really useful to improve your sketching skills. They’re essential if you want to become a Medical artist, although you’ll probably do them as part of a training programme. If you’re creating technical figures and 3D modelling, drawing is definitely helpful for sketching concepts.

8.

Is there anything else I should read up about?

It’s also important to learn a bit about the business side of things. Most science illustrators either freelance or run their own companies. Business skills are a must as you’ll need to do your own accounting. Natwest run a free business accelerator that you can apply to if you’re starting out. There are also several books that are worth reading for business accounting basics.

9.

What can I do to build a portfolio now?

The point of a portfolio is to show potential clients that you have design skills. If you’re at university, see if there are any societies that need design or illustration work doing. Theatres always need posters, and student papers always need pictures to break up the text of articles. If you want to work in science illustration, it helps to have science illustration projects in your portfolio, but it’s not essential if you have a good grasp of the science.

10.

What’s it like starting out as a freelancer?

Starting out as a freelancer can be tough on your finances. Make sure you have savings in place as a buffer *. Some people prefer to start out by doing it on the side of their main job before committing full time. You can always add in other flexible income streams if you need to. For instance if you have a science degree, you can probably private tutor in sciences and maths. You’ll need to register for self-assessment and pay your taxes direct to HMRC at the end of the year. Make sure to save up for your tax bill, the first one always catches people out.

* You can get startup loans from the government if you don’t have easy access to savings

11.

Any tips?

First, start your website and portfolio now. This is the main thing you’ll be showing potential clients, so it’s good to get started early. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but good images and your own domain name go a long way.

Second, join the Association of Illustrators. If you come from a science background, you might not know a lot about the business of illustration. The Association of Illustrators, or AOI, is a very useful source of advice on contracts, pricing, and copyright.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try out new things. There’s no set path to being a science illustrator, and it’s good to have your own projects to see you through the natural ups and downs of businesses *.

* When I’m not illustrating for researchers I’m designing science posters to sell online, tutoring chemistry, and creating new patterns of neurons to print onto dresses.

12.

Do you take interns?

So far Vivid Biology has hosted four PhD interns on PIPs placements. We’ve also had a few undergraduate summer interns who were part-funded by the University of Bristol and the Santander internship scheme. We’re also interested in taking on students for a day a week during term time, particularly if they’re studying science communication.

How we made this video

This video was created using the whiteboard animation software Doodly. The illustrations were all drawn by us. The script was written by Claudia Stocker and converted into speech using the text-to-speech software Play.ht. We used the voice Mia, who is neural-network trained, and therefore sounds more like a real person.