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Ask Alice

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your question to Alice via SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

Dear Alice,

“The key is to nurture a broad perspective and cultivate communication skills; you need to know what matters, and you need to be able to express it.” —Alice

Q: I'm a final-year student enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in biotechnology. I like to write and have been involved with several clubs on campus as a writer and in an editorial capacity. While I was interning last summer, a colleague suggested editing scientific journals as a possible career option for me. 

I was hoping you could advise me as to the feasibility of this idea. What, in terms of degrees or internships, would I have to do next? Is there a lot of competition for such posts? What salary range can I expect, both initially and after a period of working in the field?

I'm really excited about the idea of merging two of my interests, but I can't seem to find a lot of information online regarding the procedure involved in becoming a scientific journal editor. Your site, one of the few that could provide information on this topic, helped me better understand the work involved. However, the advice I've seen seems to be directed toward established researchers who want to build their resumes or switch careers. I would like to know how to prepare specifically for a career as a scientific journal editor.

I'm in the middle of deciding what career path I'm going to take, so any advice or referrals you can give me would be a great help. I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,

—Roopa Pai 

Dear Roopa,

A: Editing for scientific journals is a very important job in science. Scientific journal editors are often gatekeepers, determining what work other scientists see and how (and how well) it is presented. In peer-reviewed journals, reviewers usually decide what gets published—but editors may decide whether to even send a paper out for review.

Scientific journal editors must be able to read and understand the scientific literature in their fields, so a Ph.D. in the field of interest is required. Like essentially all professional positions these days, these jobs are competitive, but a Ph.D. (and perhaps a postdoc), broad insight into a particular field of science, and facility with words will position you well to get one—especially if you go into your Ph.D. knowing what you want to do when you come out. The key is to nurture a broad perspective and cultivate communication skills; you need to know what matters, and you need to be able to express it.

As for salary, it’s safe to assume that a good job as an editor at a good journal will pay you a solid professional salary. You won’t get rich doing this, but you can be comfortable enough.

There are lower level editing jobs at science journals, doing routine work. This kind of work can become repetitive and dull for more advanced scientists, but if you have just a bachelor’s degree, you might find it satisfactory. Just don’t expect to play an important scientific role. Also don’t expect to climb the ladder from a job like this into a higher level journal-editing job; it happens but not often.

There are other science communication careers. Science journalism is a highly competitive field, but formal training, while a good idea, isn’t essential, and you don’t have to have an advanced degree: You can succeed with little more than talent, audacity, and a bachelor’s degree. (On the other hand, these days, many staff journalism jobs go to people with advanced degrees in science, training from top science-writing programs, or—quite often—both.)

Staff journalism jobs are hard to find. The field is in flux, with print opportunities declining but online opportunities, which typically pay less, expanding. There are however good jobs doing similar work for universities and research institutions, as staff science writers, public information officers, and so on.

Freelance work is the entry point for most beginning science writers. If you want to enter this field, study and emulate good science writing. Seek training wherever you can find it. Internships can be hard to get, but if you get one (or more) it can be very helpful, partly because it will give you the opportunity to publish your work prominently. Most science-writing internships are paid. If you can qualify for one, consider a mass media fellowship such as the ones offered by AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers). And if you’ve got the time and don’t mind the expense, a top science writing program can give you a great head start on a science writing career. You can make it without formal postgraduate training, but it is definitely the safest (if not the cheapest) route to a science journalism career.

Established writers will hate me for giving this advice, but when you’re trying to get established as a freelancer, don’t worry about getting paid. Just do good work and get it out there. Future employers and editors will judge you on the quality of your published work—the more the better as long as it’s good—and not on whether you got paid for it. The prestige of the venue does matter but not as much as you might think.

Another possibility for a writing-related career is medical writing. Medical writers typically write for an audience of other experts. Some specialize in regulatory documents; others write other internal documents within, e.g., a pharmaceutical company. Still others may assist authors in preparing articles for publication in scientific journals—but be wary of ghostwriting, which is widely regarded as unethical. Like journal editors, medical writers need to understand highly technical scientific material, so they usually have an advanced degree in science, most often a Ph.D. 

Good luck. 

—Alice

doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1500105

Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

James Austin

Jim Austin

Jim Austin is the former editor of Science Careers.

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