Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Interview with Dr. Jan McColm, Managing Editor of a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Dr. Jan McColm earned a PhD in immunology in 1998 from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Following her graduation she came to the United States to receive postdoctoral training in an ophthalmology laboratory at Louisiana State University. After 18 months at LSU, the laboratory where Jan was studying moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She relocated with the laboratory and remained at UNC as a research associate for 6 years. In 2006, Jan accepted a position as the managing editor of Genetics in Medicine, the official journal of the American College of Medical Genetics.

When and how did you decide to become a science editor? When I asked Jan this question she said she couldn’t point to one experience that hooked her on the idea of being an editor, nor did she go through grad school intent on being a science editor. Instead her decision was based on a desire that will sound familiar to many graduate students and postdocs – she loves science, but wanted to find a non-bench career where she could feed her passion for science and support the scientific enterprise at the same time.

Jan’s postdoctoral advisor was a successful clinician trying to establish a new research lab and had a few manuscripts in various stages of completion. Jan helped her advisor prepare the manuscripts for publication and in the process realized that she enjoyed editing and had a talent for it. That experience, as well as favorable grant writing and editing experiences, led Jan to pursue a career in editing.

How did you transition from bench science to editing? Once she decided to pursue a career in science writing and editing, Jan volunteered to write a number of articles for Endeavors magazine - UNC’s research publication (see an example of her first and latest feature articles in Endeavors). She also volunteered to write press releases such as this one for the UNC School of Medicine public affairs office. She even edited manuscripts for non-native speakers who needed help polishing their manuscripts prior to submission.

Those experiences reaffirmed that she enjoyed writing and editing, and made her a strong candidate in the job market. In fact, the quality and range of her portfolio led her current supervisor to jokingly remark that she was “overqualified” when he offered her the job.

What are you duties as a managing editor? Jan explains “the position of a managing editor is essentially to guide submitted manuscripts through the process of acceptance or rejection and then on to the publisher”. Once accepted manuscripts are assigned to an issue, Jan works with the publisher to make sure the proofs, graphics, cover art, and features are correct. At any given time she is working on at least three issues in varying stages of completion.

Jan is the first person who sees a submitted manuscript. She checks to make sure the authors followed the journal guidelines and contacts the authors if reformatting is required. She sends acceptable submissions to the editor-in-chief, who decides, along with the editorial board, whether the manuscripts will be reviewed or not. A large portion of her day is spent following up with manuscript authors, reviewers, invited authors, and other editors to make sure deadlines are being met for upcoming issues.

Because she works for a relatively small journal, Jan has many opportunities besides those listed above. She writes and edits the monthly “Highlights” page for
Genetics in Medicine along with the Editor-in-Chief. This page features genetics news and events as well as highlighting two articles from within each issue. She also records and edits a podcast of the abstracts posted on the Genetics in Medicine website. Jan is also responsible for securing cover art for the journal.

What do you like best about your current position? Jan’s reaction to this question was, “Oh that’s tough, because there are lots of good things about my job”. Jan is in the enviable position of being able to work from home, and she considers that one of the perks of her job. Jan explains that in the digital age it is increasingly common for the editorial board of a journal and the publishing team to be spread across the United States and many science writers and editors that Jan knows in the triangle work from home and are employed by companies headquartered from New York to California and anywhere in between.

Jan enjoys a lot of independence in her job and she gets to express her creativity in every issue. Although she meets with the editor-in-chief once a week, she is largely in control of many aspects of the journal. One of Jan’s most enjoyable duties is commissioning or otherwise acquiring cover art for the journal. She garners a lot of satisfaction from starting each month’s publication as a blank slate, populating it with quality research publications and artwork, ending with a quality piece of work she can put on the shelf as a finished project each month. As she explains it, “Every month your project is complete, it’s out the door and you’re on to the next one – and that’s very satisfying to me personally”.

What’s the most unpleasant part of your job? Remember that one of Jan’s most enjoyable parts of the job was working from home? The other side of that coin is that she doesn’t interact much with others on a personal level during the day and that can lead to feelings of isolation. To counteract those feelings Jan gets together for lunch a few times a month with other science editors and freelance science writers in the triangle.

Jan points out that when she spoke with editors during her period of transition from the bench to editing, some of them warned her that editing can be very repetitive. For her, however, that has not been an issue. It’s true that she uses the same skill set over and over, but her skills are never applied to exactly the same manuscript or exactly the same journal issue.

Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Jan is happy with her current position and plans to stay on as managing editor of Genetics in Medicine through the tenure of the current editor–in-chief (who usually hires the managing editor). When the current editor–in-chief’s tenure expires, Jan will either make a case to the new editor-in-chief to keep her on as managing editor, or she has also toyed with the idea of doing freelance science editing full time.

Is your path to becoming a managing editor a common one? In the past most managing editors were not science majors, Jan explained in answer to this question. In the days of hard copy submissions and snail mail reviewing, managing editors did a lot of clerical work. That is less true now that author submissions, peer reviewing, and even submission to the publisher is all done electronically. For that reason managing editors with PhDs are in increasing demand because they can fill multiple essential roles (especially at smaller journals) and can serve as an additional reviewer to catch science based or technical errors before articles are printed.

What salary can a PhD scientist expect to earn as a science editor? When I asked Jan this question she remarked that compensation for science writers and editors differs greatly depending on whether you are employed by a for profit or not-for-profit company, and whether you are freelancing or working for an established entity. For example a medical writer working for a big pharmaceutical company will likely be paid between $75K and $100K per year, whereas an editor or writer working for a non-profit or educational entity could expect a salary of $50K to $80K. Experienced freelance writers and editors with a PhD can make $100 per hour, but they don’t have company benefits (i.e health insurance or retirement plans) and must constantly be looking for the next project.

What advice do you have for aspiring science writers or editors? Without hesitation Jan replied, “Go and write - find someone who can look at your writing objectively and can give you feedback and criticism...and then practice”. She elaborated by saying that one great way to prepare for a career in editing is to critique others’ writing – not just critiquing their experiments, controls, and hypotheses, but analyzing how well they convey their message and how they transition from one idea to another through the manuscript.

If Carolina Bioscience readers have questions that you would like Jan to address, she invites you to append your questions to this post between now and Friday 4/25/2009 at 5:00pm at which point she will do her best to answer any questions that have been posted. If you’re unsure how to post a question on this blog, please direct your attention to the text box at the upper right hand corner of the blog titled, “How do I post a comment or question?”.


  1. Dear Dr. McColm,

    It was mentioned in the post that many science writers and editors freelance either on the side or full time. How do find freelance jobs? Do clients come to you by word of mouth, or do you advertise somewhere?


  2. Jill,

    Freelancing positions can be found (or advertised for) on many websites though sometimes membership is required to see the lists or post your resume. Word of mouth certainly works and often a busy freelancer will pass on jobs to colleagues if they can't take the job on themselves.

    Websites to investigate for jobs (not just freelancing) are:

    International Society of Technical and Managing Editors

    American Medical Writers Association (local chapter with local meetings)

    National Association of Science Writers

    Council of Science Editors

    - Jan

  3. Hi Dr.McColm,

    Does Endeavors hire student writers?

    Aside from Endeavors, do you do any additional science writing for the public? For example, articles for local newspapers or museum publications. I would like to try writing for these audiences, but I don't know where to start looking for opportunities.

    Do you know how to look for jobs teaching scientific writing? I am interested in this as a potential career path, as well.


  4. Hi Lisa,

    In response to your first question,
    "Does Endeavors hire student writers?" ...
    They don't hire in the sense that they will pay you, but they do take on student writers. You would need to contact the editor, Neil Caudle, to find out if they have any opportunities for students right now.

    In response to your second question, "Do you know how to look for jobs teaching scientific writing?" ...
    My short answer is, "I don't really know". I do have some ideas, however, and if you'd like to contact Patrick Brandt he can give you my email address and I'd be happy to discuss this topic with you in more detail.

    - Jan

  5. Jan is impressed by the interest expressed in the first two questions about freelance writing and editing, but she herself has limited time to freelance and therefore doesn't consider herself an expert in that area. She asked me to direct those who are interested in freelancing to the blog of her colleague and friend, Bill Cannon, at That blog should answer some of the freelancer questions and has links and guides to help too.

  6. Hi there thanks for sharing your interview about Dr.Jan McColm