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How to become a manuscript editor at a research journal [Interview with Jean Mary Zarate]

How to become a manuscript editor at a research journal [Interview with Jean Mary Zarate]

Senior Editor, Nature Neuroscience (published by Springer Nature)

Tell us about yourself

My name is Jean, and I’m a senior manuscript editor for the research journal Nature Neuroscience, based in the Springer Nature office in New York. Although I’m a native New Yorker – born and raised in New York City – I consider Montreal, Canada as a second home after living there for 10 years to attend graduate school at McGill University.

My family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, and I am the first-born American on both sides. Trying to fit into American culture while being raised on Filipino ideals and values was not easy, and this struggle is still reflected in my two separate lives: one rooted in science with a long academic path, the other rooted in the arts with years of live performances on stage and a few albums. My PhD research was probably the one time I was able to integrate both lives for several years.

I told a story about this struggle once for The Story Collider, and it reignited my active search to be more artistic again since the science side had taken the majority of my focus and energy.

Interview with Jean Mary Zarate

What is your PhD about?

My PhD, MSc, and BS degrees are all in neuroscience, but my research experiences changed a few times across all three degrees. I investigated genetic factors contributing to schizophrenia-related symptoms and treatment for my MSc. My PhD research examined the brain regions involved in controlling our vocal pitch when we sing. I had professional and amateur singers come in and sing single notes or short melodies in an MRI scanner. Sometimes, I would change their vocal pitch to see how they would adjust their voices, and this adjustment would recruit certain brain regions differently in the professional and amateur singers.

Why did you decide to no longer pursue an academic career?

As I was nearing the end of my postdoctoral fellowship, I realized that my research interests were not as competitive as those of my fellow postdocs, in terms of securing large grants in the United States or high-profile publications. It felt like my research was better appreciated in other cities and countries than where I lived, and I did not have enough flexibility in my life to move too far from New York. Although I really loved my research interests and getting my hands dirty with designing and troubleshooting experiments, I felt that if I wasn’t a strong competitor for grants, then I wouldn’t be able to support a sustainable laboratory and its staff. So I began looking for other opportunities that would still use the general skills I developed as a PhD.

What resources did you use when making the career transition to an alternative career?

During the last year of my postdoctoral fellowship, I began seeking out other careers besides academia while still applying for tenure-track academic appointments. I attended career fairs to hear about positions in pharmaceutical companies and consulting. (At that time, there weren’t as many options as there are now.) I also took workshops to prepare myself for making the leap away from academia, which helped me recognize the skills I had developed inside and outside of my PhD that were applicable to more industries besides academia.

How does having a PhD help you in your current position?

The minimum requirement for being a manuscript editor at a Nature-branded research journal is a PhD. But the job really relies on your critical thinking skills and the ability to digest a great deal of material before making some executive decisions. We have all had to use those skills when we read the background literature related to our research, before we decide how it will affect our research questions and/or designs. Group editorial discussions about submitted manuscripts can often resemble journal club meetings, but the stakes are higher since the discussion about the research needs to lead to a decision about whether or not we consider a paper further for our journal.

For me, though, it was my changes in research interests that helped me adapt to this job. Across my scientific career, I worked on visual psychophysics, infant cognition, clinical research in dementia, genetic factors related to schizophrenia and its treatment, and auditory cognitive neuroscience. You could consider this trajectory as one that lacked focus, but little did I know this all helped me become a manuscript editor. I have to ability to switch from reading one paper in one subfield of neuroscience to another with a completely different set of techniques and research questions. And this is the essence of my job: the ability to identify the research questions, understand the findings, and recognize their potential impact for the field, regardless of the specific area in neuroscience.

What does an average day in the life look like for you?

It’s all about keeping on top of your manuscript pipeline. I’ll come into the office and answer e-mails from authors, reviewers, or other editors that need quick attention. Then I’ll check to see if any of my editorial colleagues have asked for my opinion on their manuscripts, and send them my advice based on their synopsis of the main points, the related literature, and sometimes my own quick read of the paper’s files (if needed). I usually reserve a few hours after this to focus on reading my assigned manuscripts to determine whether they may be a good fit for our journal, and also send some queries to my colleagues for their opinion on my papers. In between those three big items, I look for (or send reminders to) reviewers for papers that we’ve decided to send for peer review, or do one last check over the final revisions on papers that are on their way towards copy editing, production, and publication.

With a team of eight editors split between two countries, we’ll also have two video meetings a week to discuss any tricky cases with papers, plan the content for upcoming journal issues, and update the team on any interesting research we saw at conferences. Each of us travels to different research conferences about 4-5 times a year to stay up to date with the latest research and invite some submissions to the journal.

It sounds like a lot of small deadlines and paper pushing, but we take time to guide the authors through the review process and through subsequent revisions to make their papers stronger. We also try to suggest more appropriate journals in the Nature portfolio for a paper that is not suitable for our journal. In some cases, we can become champions for some papers that we feel may become very impactful for the field. I’ve battled a good number of times to defend a paper’s merit when discussing it with my less enthusiastic colleagues. I haven’t always won, but I’m very proud of the published papers for which I fought and have received well-deserved attention.

How to become a manuscript editor at a research journal

What advice would you give others looking at an alternative career path?

Cast a wide net. Be open to hearing about as many options as you can, since you never know which opportunity will be a good fit. It may even be a surprising fit, as it was for me.

Do not be shy about reaching out to people and asking for informational interviews, but always be courteous about it. Follow up with them. (As an introvert, that’s a big ask even for me… but it is worth it.)

Start exploring other opportunities at least 6-9 months ahead of when your current position ends, so that you are not too stressed while you look around. (If you feel like you’ve started your search too late, don’t worry about it. Take a breath and start looking anyway.)

Recognize that your PhD training in critical thinking, problem-solving, and project management is very marketable in other industries besides academia. Your experiments are ‘projects’, your grants are budgets that you’ve had to manage, and your manuscripts and invited research talks are ‘deliverables’.

And do not worry about how your career trajectory looks; your experiences during your PhD training and outside of it can count toward a meaningful career.

How can my readers connect with you/find out more?

Science-related website: https://sites.google.com/site/jeanmaryzarate/
Music website: www.ladyginseng.com
Twitter or Instagram (@lady_ginseng)
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jeanmaryzarate

Considering a non-academic career but not sure if a manuscript editor at a research journal is a good fit? Check out my full list of non-academic careers and side-hustles for PhDs.

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