It’s no secret that the bench is not for everyone. But while most people think that leaving the lab means heading straight for sales or marketing in industry, there’s another career path that some researchers find more appealing: being an editor at a scientific journal.
It’s a job that keeps you engaged in cutting-edge science and puts you in touch with some of the best researchers of the field. Step one toward editorial happiness? Put aside any bias you have that leaving the bench is a cop out, says Chris Gunter, senior editor at Nature. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re a failure because you’re not an academic PI.”
Gunter, who earned her PhD studying Fragile X syndrome and completed a traditional postdoc, knew early on that academia wasn’t going to be the place for her. “I didn’t have a burning passion to take one question and follow it through for the next 30 years,” she says. During her postdoc, she worked with her PI, Hunt Willard, to arrange a schedule that would let her work both in the lab and at the journal he edited. That training made it possible to get her first job at Science; soon after, she was recruited by Nature, where she now handles all genetics papers.
The most important characteristic of a good editor is “having a very broad interest in research topics,” says Jami Milton Dantzker, associate editor at PLoS Biology. She says that people who “really like to focus on the big picture” will find journal work most fulfilling. Dantzker, whose background is in studying neural activity, adds that it helps to be someone who enjoys an intense environment with lots of responsibility. Good editors make time for as many as six conferences a year, she says, in addition to the regular work of juggling authors and reviewers, meeting strict deadlines, and keeping up with the scientific field.
Publishing can also be a path to a range of other careers. “You build a huge network” as an editor, says Gunter, and that can pave the way for jobs in teaching or scientific administration (such as being a grant advisor at NIH). Gunter, for instance, has an adjunct faculty position at the University of Pennsylania.
So You Want to Be an Editor? Start with These Practical Tips
Ask your advisor for a chance to review. This is good practice even if you aren’t considering a career in journal publishing. “I think all advisors should give students chances to review papers,” says Gunter. “That’s how you learn what is a good paper and what isn’t.”
Pursue a postdoc, but choose a PI with editorial ties. When Gunter was ready for her postdoc, she decided to join Hunt Willard, who was editor of the journal Human Molecular Genetics. She worked with him on a part-bench, part-journal schedule that gave her a chance to look at papers, suggest reviewers, and even plan and execute two review issues of the publication. “That was great training,” she says. Dantzker notes that editors who haven’t completed a postdoc tend to start at a lower level.
If possible, write some general science articles. “If you can find some time to write general articles, accessible articles about research, that would definitely be helpful,” Dantzker says. This step gives you writing samples to send to journals with job openings, and also lets you see how you fare writing about other people’s research.
Try to set up an internship at a journal. Even a short-term stint as an intern will give you a better sense of whether you’ll really like life at a journal, says Dantzker. “It’s the kind of job where you have to be on every day. A person has to like that intensity.”