Aside from posting on the Scholarly Kitchen, the Chefs often have background conversations. We might talk about SSP happenings (like the Scholarly Kitchen webinars), events in the news, or questions raised by our Editor or a Chef. We had one of those email conversations a couple of weeks ago. It was brought on by the post Joe Esposito references in the introduction to his interview with Jeffery Beall.
The crux of our discussion (not the original post that inspired it) was contemplating whether or not having an advanced degree helped or hurt an individual that chose a career in scholarly publishing and communication. As you’ll see from the responses below, our overarching conclusion was “it depends.”
This month we asked the Chefs: Is it necessary to have an advanced degree to succeed in publishing?
Joe Esposito: Possession of an advanced degree, even one in the STEM fields, should not in itself disqualify someone from seeking a career in publishing. Although the activities of publishing and research are very different, people with advanced degrees have already demonstrated their ability to learn things, to learn on a large scale, and to learn quickly: this has a reasonable chance to carry over even when it is necessary to start from square one, as would be necessary in a publishing concern. It is unfortunately true, however, that not all individuals can make the leap, just as someone who is not a native English speaker will forever speak with an accent (in English). Publishing requires that its participants relax their deeply developed skepticism, focus on the mostly unknowable future instead of the evidence of a carefully designed experiment, and understand that their activity is not about the scientific content in whose creation they invest but about the various business processes and expectations that are brought to that content. Where people with a scientific background would almost certainly be at a considerable disadvantage is in the governance of publishing entities, as the nature of operating in a marketplace economy is difficult to grasp for someone not brought up to it.
Phill Jones: The short answer to this is a clear and resounding no. It’s pretty self evident that there are a great number of people at the top of the publishing profession who don’t have advanced or terminal degrees. You might ask whether it’s helpful to have an advanced degree to work or succeed in publishing. That depends entirely on what you do in the industry. For professional editors for example, it’s generally a job requirement isn’t it? On the other hand, most (not all) of the best sales people I know don’t have PhDs.
From a personal perspective, I’d like to awkwardly sidestep the whole ‘successful’ part of the question, set the bar a little lower, and just ask whether it helps me do my job. I’m going to say that no, my PhD doesn’t really help in my role per se. Those that know me, might find that statement a bit odd, considering that I spend a good deal of my time and effort talking about how I think researchers think and act, the challenges they face, and how the industry might serve them better. Having a PhD, however, doesn’t make a person an academic. There’s a lot more to winning funding, managing a lab, developing a research program and managing a professional reputation than you learn during a PhD. To make matters worse, the needs of researchers are changing, so anything I thought I knew back then is significantly out of date. For whatever it’s worth, most of what I have learned about the needs of researchers (and research itself) I picked up either as a working scientist or from talking to the parts of my network that still work in academia. Obviously, you don’t need a PhD to spend time talking to researchers and learning from them, although there is a bit of an art to getting them to tell you what they really think (Hint: Alcohol can be a helpful shortcut for those so inclined). So, if you’ll forgive the presumption, I don’t really use my knowledge of my discipline in my work, but I do use my familiarity with the academic system, its peculiarities and frustrations. Whether I’m successful or not at it is still an open question.
David Crotty: Necessary? No. Helpful? Sometimes.
I came to publishing after completing a degree in genetics and doing a postdoc in neural development. This has given me an edge over many of my colleagues because having those three letters after my name provides an immediate “in”, a bit of instant credibility, with the many academic editors and research societies with whom I work. Being able to speak the same language, to pick up a research article and make sense of it, helps in communicating with many clients. The experience of being a journal reader, author, peer reviewer and editor provides an insider’s view as to what works and what doesn’t. The extensive network of researchers I built as a scientist is also constantly valuable when seeking expert opinions or authors. These are things that are much more difficult for my colleagues who came to publishing straight out of college.
That said, because I took a 13 year sojourn in the sciences, I’m nearly a decade and a half behind those colleagues who have been publishers that whole time. Scientists tend to have a bias against any profession other than their own. What I do is hard, what you do is easy. This is probably strongest felt toward business (Business? How hard could that be? I’m investigating the very secrets of life itself!). As someone who has done both, I can attest that neither is easy, and for me, it took an equivalent number of years to feel comfortable in publishing as it did to feel like I knew what I was doing in the lab. So in many ways, I continue to play catch-up to my colleagues who were building publishing expertise while I was running around in a lab coat.
Karin Wulf: I think there should be a widget for inserting my standard Kitchen comments that emphasize the differences in all things Scholarly Communications between STEM and HSS, among disciplines, and within fields. In this case, however, I think the relevant differences are between academic training and professional experience. While there are some clear advantages to having specialist knowledge of an academic field, there are also advantages to knowing a lot about the publishing industry. Publishing is so complex (all 96 responsibilities) that as a professional field it requires an awful lot of training, too.
What is critical is for anyone in scholarly publishing to understand the culture of their academic field, its scholarly organizations, funders, and principal publications. How do scholars in this field do their research? What are their tools, methods, approaches, priorities? How do they consume and evaluate the work of other scholars? Collaborate? What do they want and need from scholarly communications, in other words? These are all incredibly variable, and they change, but not quickly.
Having an entrée to a field’s culture through graduate study is helpful in that regard. Hanging out in the field for a long time, too, is instructive. I have seen lots of missteps and some outright disasters from a failure to understand how scholars in a given field do and value their work. So perhaps all the best folks in publishing are just very good anthropologists — even if they’re not trained!
Angela Cochran: My name is Angela and I am an English major. Well, was an English major, like 20 years ago. I throw this “caveat” into a lot of conversations. It’s not an excuse, or an apology. It’s taking a step back when I am asked for technical advice. You see, I don’t know how to build bridges or avoid sinkholes or plan urban traffic patterns. Truthfully, none of those things make me qualified to manage 35 peer-reviewed technical journals.
I don’t think that having an advanced degree in the field of your publications is necessary to succeed in scholarly publishing.
I don’t have to be an engineer to manage the engineering journals. We have thousands of engineers that work on our journals — the editors, reviewers, and oversight committee members. I imagine that if I were an engineer, I would spend more time with the content and discussing technical issues with the editors. This seems redundant to me when that expertise is already well covered.
What the program needs is someone who can organize and motivate these engineer volunteers to move the program forward. What I know about is scholarly publishing — something the volunteers don’t need to study deeply. I think that they appreciate that perspective from me.
So back to the original question, I have been disqualified for positions I feel I am qualified for because the society wanted someone with a degree in the field of the society. I think this happens in many societies where the society leadership thinks that all senior positions should be filled with “people like them.” In non-technical positions, I think this is a waste. What most societies need are professionals who know how to be good association managers and publishers.
David Smith: There are very few jobs at all where it is necessary to have an advanced degree. Not many people obtain such letters after their name, so it follows that there isn’t a large market that absolutely requires an advanced degree. Apparently it’s not absolutely mandatory even to become a professor, though other exceptional talents would need to reveal themselves in order to achieve that goal (for example: Andrew Casson). So, is it necessary? Nope. Has my advanced degree come in useful? Oh yes indeed. This question isn’t really about the need though; it’s about those of us with such qualifications, and why we are doing ‘publishing’ with our advanced certificates in the study of X. This is my (very) personal answer.
I left research science because I took a look around one day, realized I wasn’t going to be a Nobel Prize winner and watched somebody else who wasn’t going to be a winner either sweating the cold sweat of the highly stressed, as they tried to escape the postdoc trap. As a vision of the future it was chilling – and it was my likely future. But science is a bug you cannot shake, especially if you’ve just put another 4 years into it. So I looked around at what I could do that would keep me close. And there was scholarly publishing.
And I fell in love with it.
In my experience, whether they have an advanced degree or not, those who interact with academia as part of their role in publishing, often develop a true knowledge to go with the love they have for the fields they are part of, however tangentially. People who have worked incredibly hard with their academic teammates to build journals of quality or books that have become the ‘bible’ of their field, or any of the other things that are co-created.
I started with Molecular Biology; that’s where I got the certificate, but since then I’ve covered Critical Care Medicine, Agriculture, The Environment, Climate, Plant Pests and Diseases, Sustainable Development and now ‘engineering’. It’s been a privilege to work with experts in all of those fields.
Ann Michael: Out of curiosity, I decided to look at the career profiles being published on the SSP website. While I did not peruse them all, I quickly found two great examples of folks with advanced degrees making a difference in publishing (Alicia Wise and Amy Brand). I’m sure there are more. There were also several English majors in scientific fields, several folks with Master’s degrees (Business, Computer Science, etc.). It was quite a mixed bag!
My takeaway from reading what my colleagues have written is that there are many factors that lead to an individual’s success in any field. Their preparatory education is only one of those variables. Finding their passion seems to be another, as is drive, lifestyle requirements, cultural fit, etc. To anticipate success or failure based on education alone feels like a vast oversimplification.
Now, as usual, it’s your turn. What do you think? Should advanced degrees be required in publishing? Are those with advanced degrees that elect to pursue a career in scholarly publishing and communication abandoning their field? What do you think leads to success?
On a separate note, I’d like to ask you for your help. I’ll be moderating a “live” Ask the Chefs at the London Book Fair on April 13th (or should I say 13-April). Alice Meadows, Phill Jones, Robert Harington, and David Smith have agreed to join me.
We’re hoping to cover 2-4 Ask The Chef-type questions (the more serious ones) and we need your suggestions. What topics should we cover? What questions should I ask the Chefs at that London Book Fair?
Thanks for your help!