Katherine Brown

Katherine Brown, executive editor at Development, takes time out of what sounds a very hectic schedule to answer some questions about her experience in editing.

Short summary of your work in developmental biology:

I fell in love with developmental biology during my undergraduate Natural Sciences degree in Cambridge, where I was fortunate enough to be lectured by giants of the field like John Gurdon. I then spent several months working as a Research Assistant in Mike Bate’s lab in the zoology department, indoctrinating me in the Drosophila model and convincing me that I wanted to work on fly development for my PhD. I was lucky enough to get a PhD with Matthew Freeman at the LMB in Cambridge, where I worked on morphogenesis and adhesion in the developing Drosophila eye disc. Much as I loved flies, I grew frustrated with the limitations in live imaging in the imaginal disc system, and I really wanted to watch morphogenesis happen. So I moved to fish, and to EMBL Heidelberg for my postdoc, working with Jochen Wittbrodt on morphogenesis of the medaka and zebrafish retina.

New role and company:

Executive Editor, Development, The Company of Biologists. This is a multifaceted editorial/publishing role, encompassing the following responsibilities:

  • Overseeing the day-to- day running of the journal
  • Managing the in-house team and journal budget
  • Providing editorial support to the academic editors
  • Commissioning and editing review-type content for the journal
  • Developing and implementing journal strategy (along with the Editor in Chief): scope and content, editorial policies and practices, online developments
  • Working with the marketing team on journal promotion
  • Handling ethics issues with journal content
  • Community networking – conferences, lab visits etc.
  • Involvement in organising journal-related meetings and conferences
  • Oversight of our community blog, the Node, and social media activities

Why did you choose leave academia?

During my postdoc, I realised that I much preferred, and perhaps was better at, other people’s science than my own. What I most enjoyed was talking to colleagues about their research, helping to identify exciting new directions or problems with their work, attending seminars and providing critical feedback on manuscript drafts. I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the ever-receding deadlines of academic research. I’d always thought about scientific editing as a possible career choice, and was encouraged to apply for an editorial position by a colleague at EMBL. While I didn’t get that position, the process of application and interview gave me a clear idea of what the job involved, and convinced me that this was something I would enjoy doing. Several months later, I applied for and got a position at The EMBO Journal. This position primarily involved handling primary research manuscripts from submission through to acceptance or rejection, and I was there for 3 years before moving on to my current role at Development.

Did the experience and skills gained in academia prepare you for the new role? Was there any training, etc. you wish you had done?

Yes and no… During my PhD and postdoc, I learned what makes good science, and also what makes a project ‘hot’ (and these two things are definitely different – though some papers manage to be both!). I’d done some reviewing papers for journals, and written or helped write fellowship and grant proposals, which were definitely helpful experiences. By working at such great institutes as the LMB and EMBL, I’d been exposed to a huge range of fantastic research, and this stood me in very good stead for my position at EMBOJ, where I handled manuscripts across a very broad range of topics.

I’d also been involved with the EMBL postdoctoral association, and so I’d gained some experience beyond just research, particularly in terms of organising events and supporting the postdoc community within the institute infrastructure. I’m not sure this directly helped with my position at EMBOJ, but it’s more relevant for my current job, and I think also just helped to broaden my horizons.

That said, I definitely felt underqualified and overwhelmed when I started at EMBOJ, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I did in my first year or so there (perhaps not in terms of hours – lab days could be much longer, but definitely in intensity). The editorial team there was great in helping me learn how to be a good editor, and I’m not sure there’s a huge amount I could have done while working in the lab to teach me that.

Moving from EMBOJ to Development, I took on managerial responsibilities for which I’d had no formal training (though I discovered that things like mentoring students had given me skills in that area), and also had to learn a lot more about the publishing industry – in general, I think scientists have quite a poor understanding of how publishing works, particularly from a financial point of view. I was quite surprised how much I enjoy that side of my current job – I’ve always thought it was mainly the science that interested me, but actually academic publishing is going through a really interesting time at the moment, and I’m fascinated to see where it’s heading!

What is your favourite thing about your job?

The variety. One day I might be planning how to improve our peer review process, the next I’ll be editing a review on some aspect of developmental biology, and the next thinking about better online display of movies and data. I also get to work with a really fantastic and dedicated team of editors and in-house staff, and on top of that, I have the opportunity to travel to some fantastic places for conferences! As I alluded to above, it’s the mix of science and publishing that I really love about this position.

What do you miss the most about research?

Looking down the microscope and watching embryos develop – endlessly fascinating. I also used to enjoy the manual tasks of dissection and transplantation. I’m definitely better off out of the lab, but I do sometimes miss working with my hands. Perhaps that’s why I love cooking and baking!

What do you miss the least about research?

As mentioned above, the ever-receding deadlines: you’d always say ‘well hopefully when this experiment is done, I can start writing the paper’. But then either the experiment would fail, or it would lead you to think about another experiment you should do, and suddenly 3 months or more would have gone by and you still weren’t writing.

I have to say that I also have a much better work-life balance since I left the lab. I work reasonably regular (though quite long and very intense) hours, and I generally manage to have evenings and weekends free from work.

Do you have any CV tips?

This is probably obvious but if you’re applying for a non-research position, remember that your papers aren’t the most important thing about you. Make sure you present your ‘transferable skills’ prominently. For example, I don’t think I made enough of the fact that I’d been the EMBL postdoc committee chair when I was applying for editorial jobs. It was something I did on the side, and I didn’t really see its relevance. But it gave me organisational and communication skills I didn’t gain from research. Something like working as part of a multi-site collaboration definitely gives you expertise in networking and diplomatic communication, while – as I mentioned above – mentoring students helps you learn what it takes to be a good manager.

And when you’re writing a cover letter for a job, make sure you explain clearly not just why you think you’d be good for that position, but also why you want it. I’m amazed by how many job applications I get see don’t tell me that, or that tell me they really want to be a PI but they don’t think they’ll succeed, so my job is the next best thing. In my opinion, if you can’t (or don’t) explain to me why you want the job I’m offering, you don’t get to have it!

Do you have any other advice for young researchers?

Don’t feel like you’re selling out or you’re a failure if you decide you don’t want a career in academia. The stats say you’re part of the majority. I definitely struggled with this – there was definitely an assumption at both the LMB and EMBL (though not actually with either of my PIs) that you should go down the academic route, and I worried that I wasn’t living up to my training when I first thought about leaving the lab. And also remember that it’s not a one-way street. I’ve met enough people now who left the lab for editorial or other jobs outside research but have since returned to have really successful academic careers to know that it can be done, and perhaps that it can even make you a better scientist!

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