An Interview With Ines Chen, Chief Editor of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology
Are you interested in a career at a journal like Nature or Science? I spoke with Ines Chen, Chief Editor of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology about what qualities she looks for in graduate students and postdocs transitioning from the bench.
Can you describe some of the roles and responsibilities of a journal editor?
At Nature and Nature journals, we employ professional editors [who] are PhDs, and most of them have some postdoc experience. We assess the submission [of manuscripts] and decide whether we should send them out to review or not. We also coordinate the review process – we engage reviewers, and when the reviewers’ reports come in, we make a decision whether we should request a revision, accept it as is, or whether the author should go somewhere else.
We do a lot of reading, and we keep in touch with the field – we attend meetings and establish relationships with researchers within those communities.
What qualities does somebody coming from the lab need to have to be successful in this role?
A lot of the skills that you develop doing your PhD and your postdoc are the same skills you will need as an editor. You have to understand the science. You have to be able to understand the logic of an argument, and you have to interpret whether that's an over interpretation or a correct interpretation.
In terms of technical aspects, we rely more on reviewers that our own expertise, although each person brings his or her own expertise to the table. But because we handle manuscripts in a variety of areas, it's impossible to know everything within that area.
I think the most important thing for an editor is to be curious – to want to learn more, and you have to get out of your comfort zone. You'll be handling articles in many different areas. The other thing that helps a lot is enjoying reading about science in general and about papers in other areas. If as a graduate student or postdoc you like browsing journals and attending seminars on subjects that are not related to your own research, I think these are all good signs that you might be a good fit for an editor.
If you have a solid training, you have broad interest, you're curious, and you like to talk to people about science, these are all good points to have.
How do you assess whether a candidate has these particular qualities while looking at a resume or during an interview?
One thing we ask for at NSMB is some writing samples – to write a Research Highlights or something like that. The way a person writes reflects how that person thinks. Even though it's not a main part of what we do on a daily basis, it is important to be able to write clearly. All of our decisions are made within a group. What is contained within the manuscript and how it fits into the current thinking and field – these are all important things that you have to be able to capture and communicate.
Do you have any standard questions that you ask people to see if there might be a good fit?
I like to know why the person is looking into an editorial career. That tells me a lot. Each person will have different motivations, and it's important for me to know because that may give me a hint as to whether they would be happy doing that.
I always want to know about what excites them in science. Some people just don't know what to say. I'll say ‘Can you tell me about something recent that you read outside of your area that you thought was interesting?’ I think it's the equivalent of asking ‘Tell me what's going on in The New York Times’ but this is for scientists. If you want to be an editor, you should be interested in things other than your own area of research.
How much weight you put on things like publication record or conferences or other measures of success in science?
Those help because it tells us how much experience that person has and the areas that a person has training in, but a lot of the feeling that I get on a candidate is through the interview. We deal a lot with authors and reviewers, with the community in general, so it's important that the person feel comfortable talking to people about science.
During the interview, I try to get them to talk about what they're interested in about science, what’s happening, can [they] tell me about recent developments? Try to read broadly every week, try to get a broad sense of what's happening in science, try to be informed at a more general level. When you're working in the lab, you have that laser sharp focus, it's very hard to keep up with the literature.
In addition to having a broad interest do you also look at the specific expertise the person has?
We are specialized journal, so it helps if your degree or training falls within the areas that we cover. Over time, I think you can develop and broaden your horizons. Initially you start with one area where you feel quite comfortable, and then you slowly branch out.
Are there any things about the job that a new editor may not expect going in?
You're reading the whole day. I try to warn people during the interview process because it's quite different on a day-to-day basis compared to what people are used to in the lab environment. In the lab, you're always moving around talking to people, but here everybody's reading and concentrating, so it's almost a little isolating at the beginning.
We do have meetings every day, and you go out and talk to authors, but on a normal day, you're in the office looking at your screen. I think some people find that a little harder to adapt to.
I think some people are very hands-on – they like to have their own ideas and test them; that's why they like being a scientist. I still see an editor as a scientist, we are just not asking our own questions and designing our own experiments. For some people, that's not satisfying so it's a different role and it's not for everybody.