So what’s next? Industry or academia?

When discussing a graduate student’s future career plans, this is the question that is usually asked: Do you want to do research in industry or academia? What many graduate students don’t realize is that there is a multitude of career paths that are available to them with a Ph.D. in the life sciences, and many of these career paths don’t include bench work at all!

Beverly Purnell photoDr. Beverly Purnell, Senior Editor at Science magazine and Penn State alumnus, made her way back to Happy Valley on May 29, 2015 to speak to students, faculty, and staff in a two-part seminar about her career path and responsibilities as well as about the process of publishing a paper in Science. As a Senior Editor, Purnell serves as a gatekeeper, working as a member of a team that has to turn more than 10,000 submissions into 700 published articles each year.

With 200+ students and faculty present to fill the Berg auditorium in the Life Sciences Building, Purnell’s seminar was the first in the Career Exposure and Professional Development Seminar Series. This seminar series was started by the Huck Graduate Student Advisory Committee (HGSAC), a group of student leaders from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and the BMMB graduate program.

In addition to her seminar, there were two opportunities for graduate students to meet with Dr. Purnell in small group settings (no more than eight students). I myself attended one of these small group meetings, and I really enjoyed hearing from Dr. Purnell more one-on-one. Students were able to ask her more personalized question about her career and what it takes to get into a career as a science editor.

Just in case you weren’t able to attend Dr. Purnell’s seminar or you’re just looking for more of the “inside scoop” on being a science editor, the HGSAC sent a follow-up questionnaire to Dr. Purnell to get some extra information about her career and advice she has for young scientists:

What’s your educational background? Is there anything specific that prepared you for your current career?

I graduated from a small liberal arts school with a double major in biology and chemistry and a minor in math.  At Penn State, I obtained a Master’s degree and PhD in the department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Working in several research areas helped prepare me for the broad coverage of research handled by an editor.  While an undergraduate student, I worked at a USDA Agricultural Research Station with a stone fruit breeder.  Over the summer between undergraduate and graduate school, I had an internship at the NIAID, National Institutes of Health.  My research for the Master’s degree and PhD at Penn State included two different models and systems.  The Master’s research was in sex determination of the nematode C. elegans and my PhD research was on Drosophila basic transcription machinery.  Then my postdoctoral work at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysical Chemistry spanned Drosophila gene regulation and developmental biology.

I feel that the international perspective and exposure gained while doing the postdoc in Germany was helpful—whether communicating with international researchers or for the considerable amount of travel of an editor.

What are your current roles/responsibilities? How have these changed over time?

A Science editor has three major jobs: solicitation, selection, and editing.  Solicitation entails attendance at international meetings and visiting labs to find out about exciting research for possible submission to the journal.  The editing that we do is technical editing.  Copyeditors take care of grammar and style issues.  The largest part of the job is in the selection of papers for publication in Science.  We reject about 75% of papers without in-depth review.  For the remaining 25%, we select international experts to evaluate the work.  Finally, about 1/3 of papers that go to review are published.  These general duties have remained largely the same over time but the areas of editor coverage shift with changes in research trends/advances.

Was this career path something you had always considered?

No, an editing career was not something that crossed my mind.  As I was applying for positions to come back to the U.S. from the postdoc in Germany, I saw the ad for Editor at Science.  The job description sounded very interesting.  I applied for the position at the same time as applying for research positions.  I thought that if I did not enjoy the editing job after about two years, I could still go back to the bench.  However, 18 years have passed and I’m quite happy with my decision.

What skills have made you and others in your field successful? Were there any unexpected skills that you needed to learn?

The science world is constantly shifting. To be successful, an editor must be open-minded in order to discern which advances will take us in a new direction. Listening to and communicating with researchers, as well as keeping up on the literature, are key. This aspect of the editor’s job is separate from written communication. Editors frequently write for a technical or general audience, and this is a skill that continues to develop over the years. However, publishing research extends beyond communication with scientists. Several departments cooperate in the presentation of papers. Once a manuscript has been accepted, editors work with staff in many different departments for copyediting, art and online presentation, commentary, as well as News and public outreach. All of these aspects make for a varied, interesting, and sometimes hectic job.

What’s the most challenging part of your career?

The first year at Science was quite challenging since my work shifted from a very focused area to that which covers many different disciplines.  Editors must keep up on their own topics and papers but also comment on submissions that are circulated from fellow editors. Keeping up on submissions and circulated manuscripts, while at the same time attending international conferences and reading the literature, is challenging and requires considerable dedication and organization.

How do you think your career will change in both the near and distant future?

The means by which science is disseminated is ever-changing.  We have seen a major shift from a focus on the print to the digital product.  I expect that digital features and opportunities as well as social media will continue to expand.

What can a young scientist do to position him or herself for a career in science editing? Any tips on specific ways to network in the field?

Conducting top-notch research is most important.  Editors at Science need to be able to think critically and present work in a clear and logical manner.  Furthermore, participating in science review, such as journal clubs, in-depth review for journals, or evaluating grant proposals for colleagues, can be helpful.

Regarding networking, top international meetings provide networking opportunities—whether presenting a talk or poster or just sitting across the dinner table talking science.  Collaborative science is also helpful in extending one’s reach.

If you weren’t at Science, where do you think or where would you like to be? 

Although some people take editing positions because they are fed up with research, that was not my situation.  I truly enjoyed working at the bench.  If I had not taken the job at Science, I expect that I would be doing research in academia or industry.

Outside of research, the communication and dissemination of science, including education, are areas for which I have a particular interest, so my career might have taken one of those directions.

How easy/difficult is it to balance work and family life in your career as a science editor? 

One reason that I decided to apply for the job as an editor was that I viewed it as a potentially family-friendly job.  Editors often put in long hours, but this is true of most people in the sciences.  I have definitely found it possible to balance work and family life.  Once editors have worked for several years as an Associate Editor, there has been the option to work remotely.  I took advantage of this 14 years ago—after working in the DC office for four years. Telecommuting eliminates time-consuming commuting and allows for more family time.

What advice do you have, about anything, for current graduate students?

Keep your options open.  Many different science avenues can lead to worthwhile and fulfilling positions—at both a personal and professional level.  If something sounds potentially interesting, check it out.


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