What can you be with a PhD?
A publisher relates his transition from academic research to scientific publishing
By Paul-André Genest, PhD Posted on 2 December 2015
As an Associate Publisher at Elsevier, Dr. Paul-André Genest recently presented at the NYU Langone Medical Center at a career convention called What Can You Be With A PhD? This story — and its title — was inspired by that event. (For more career options, see the breakout box below.)
How it all started
Growing up in a small rural town in the province of Quebec, I became interested in biology at an early age; I began collecting insects and chasing butterflies around the age of 7.
Before I knew it, my primary school science teacher was inviting me to give ad hoc lectures in her natural history class, where I would show my nicest specimens and bring along my younger sister disguised as a bee for entertainment. My interest in life sciences never left me during my teenage years, and when the time came to apply to university, the decision process was easy: I naturally opted for a program in biology, at Laval University in Quebec City to be precise.
My first professional experience was a summer internship during my bachelor’s degree in the molecular parasitology laboratory of Prof. Marc Ouellette at the Centre de Recherche en Infectiologie in Quebec City. I immediately loved performing experiments and enjoyed reading about the research conducted by others. The first academic article I ever read was in the journal Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology– a journal published by Elsevier – and I remember back then wondering what was behind the intriguing Elsevier logo. Coincidentally, the work I did that summer ended up being published shortly afterwards in that very same journal.
I want to become a PhD scientist!
My research achievement encouraged me to continue my academic training and, feeling prepared to face a major and exciting new challenge; I opted to go abroad to conduct my PhD studies. My eyes were set on a unique and fascinating project: finding the biological function of the unusual DNA base J. Base J or β-D-glucosyl-hydroxymethyluracyl is a rare hypermodified DNA base found in a fraction of the genome of protozoan parasites like Trypanosoma brucei and Leishmania sp, which respectively cause the sleeping sickness disease and leishmaniasis. It was discovered in 1993 by the research team of Prof. Piet Borst at The Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Substantial work on base J had been done in Trypanosoma, and I was going to initiate the project on Leishmania in the Borst laboratory. The work I did with my collaborators during that period helped understand how base J was synthesized and showed that it was essential for the survival of Leishmania. Those discoveries were judged significant enough for the field of parasitology to allow me to graduate.
Academia may not be for me after all …
What can you be with a PhD?
Throughout the event, presenters spoke of careers in a variety of fields and industries:
- Bench science in private industry
- Technology/business development
- Science journalism
- Careers at Regeneron
- Medical writing
- Non-research industry careers
- Careers in science policy
- Finance and equity research
- Consulting careers
- Teaching and education
- Faculty positions in academia
- Careers in nonprofits and foundations
- Entrepreneurs and start-ups
- Data science, analytics and visualization
Having worked during my graduate studies in a molecular parasitology lab that was unusually located in a cancer research center, I became particularly interested in cancer research and decided to stay at the Netherlands Cancer Institute to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular oncology. Joining the research team of a junior group leader, I saw all that was required to set up a research group, including the difficulties of securing funding and establishing a new line of research. This made me ponder whether a career as a researcher was meant for me at all – my struggles to generate promising and reproducible data only fed further my doubts.
So I started actively looking for a job outside academic research. Having written a good handful of scientific articles and having acted as a reviewer for numerous prestigious peer reviewed journals, I thought scientific publishing was a great option, and I started applying for various roles in the industry. I however found the hard way that securing a “real job” is much more difficult than getting a postdoctoral position.
Making the switch to scientific publishing
I was used to presenting and talking about my research but not accustomed to having to “sell” myself and brag about my accomplishments. So I was turned down many times and took it “hard on the chin.” Having to face the reality that my contract was about to expire, I decided to rejoin the lab of Prof. Borst for a one-year stint. That allowed me to conclude some remaining experiments from my PhD work, which we ended up publishing in the prestigious Elsevier-owned journal Cell. This represented the pinnacle and perfect conclusion to my young academic career, as by that time I had managed to get my first career opportunity in the scientific publishing industry, as a temporary freelance Managing Editor for an open access parasitology journal published by Elsevier: the International Journal for Parasitology: Drugs and Drug Resistance (IJPDDR).
The freelance Managing Editor role soon became a permanent position in Elsevier’s New York office. The rest is history, after managing IJPDDR and International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife (IJPPAW) for two years (and working on a variety of other projects including the Malaria Nexus webportal and a conference on the impact of climate changes on infectious diseases IECID2015), I was promoted to my current role of Associate Publisher, where I am responsible for the management of 10 journals in Elsevier’s Life Sciences portfolio.
The importance of transferable skills
I like to compare a PhD diploma to an international passport for job mobility. Once you graduate, the career possibilities are almost infinite (in terms of job types and location), but the challenge often lies in finding the right “destination” for your career journey. Unfortunately, data from the National Science Foundation show that for most fields of scientific research, less than 20 percent of PhD graduates end up with a tenure appointment. This means that sooner or later, a majority of us will need to investigate other career options like industry, nonprofit or governmental organizations, entrepreneurship, consultancy, education, etc.
Looking back at my transition from academia to scholarly publishing, I realize how determinant my PhD was in helping me make the switch. As a scientist, you become an expert in your specific field of research; this expertise is crucial, especially in the role of Scientific Editor or Managing Editor, as you need to evaluate the quality of the science in the manuscripts that are submitted to the journal you are responsible for. By working in the laboratory and attending international conferences, you also create an important network of colleagues and contributors, which is very precious once you become an editor as you are responsible for inviting scientists to join your editorial boards and write content for your journals. Furthermore, you constantly need to identify reviewers who will advise you and help you make the right editorial decisions on the manuscripts you handle. You therefore need a great network of people you can rely on.
In addition, as a PhD scientist, you are responsible for the management of your research projects and often have to supervise interns or undergraduates. These project and people management skills are very relevant in scientific publishing – as in other employment sectors. For instance, as a publisher, you have to manage a portfolio of journals and a group of editors located all over the world. You need to be a good manager to develop and implement, in collaboration with your editors and colleagues, the publishing strategy for your journals.
There are also a variety of projects you have to direct, such as the launch of a new journal – starting with the market research, followed by the writing of a journal proposal, the recruitment of editors and editorial board members and culminating with the official journal launch. The process is actually fundamentally similar to managing a project in the laboratory, where one first gathers information from the literature, then writes a research proposal, gets a team of researchers together to perform the actual experiments and hopefully eventually publishes the outcome of the work in a scientific journal.
Lastly, during your PhD or postdoc, you learn to present and discuss scientific data by attending journal clubs to discuss recently published articles, going to scientific conferences, and writing articles. You may even have the chance to act as a reviewer for a journal or edit the manuscript of your colleagues or collaborators. These communication skills are relevant to any job, but especially to those in the publishing industry; as an editor, you need to write and edit scientific text, and as a publisher, you conduct publishing workshops and pitch ideas for new projects.
Reaching out to the scientific community
As a publisher, I find it important to engage with the scientific community so people have a better idea of the work we do and the service we offer to our editors, reviewers, authors and readers. For this purpose, I try to participate to publishing workshops whenever I have the occasion (I am giving workshops at Yale University, Columbia University and Stanford University this fall). I am also a firm believer in the importance of networking events like the recent What Can You Be With A PhD? Career convention at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. With over 1,700 registrants and 98 speakers and panelists, the fair aimed to connect the next generation of scientists and engineers with the private, industrial and public sector and help them find the right career path in this world full of possibilities. I was honored to be one of the panelists on the session on careers in publishing and hope I managed to convince some of the attendees of the interesting career possibilities offered by this industry.
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Dr. Paul-André Genest is an Associate Publisher at Elsevier, responsible for a portfolio of 10 journals in Life Sciences. He co-organized a conference this year on the Impact of Environmental Changes on Infectious Diseases (IECID 2015) in Sitges, Spain, and launched the journals Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications and Current Opinion in Systems Biology. He is also the project manager of Elsevier’s Atlas award. Previously, he was the Managing Editor for the International Journal for Parasitology: Drugs and Drug Resistance and the International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife and the Malaria Nexus web portal.
Dr. Genest has a BSc (Biology) degree and a MSc (Microbiology-Immunology) degree from the Université Laval in Québec City, Canada, and a PhD (Molecular Parasitology) from the University of Amsterdam. He held two postdoc research positions at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam prior to joining Elsevier in 2012.
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