Emma Pewsey

Associate Features Editor

Former researcher in materials sciences, University of Cambridge (UK)

Academic research experience

I started my PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2010 and handed in my thesis four years later, though for the last nine months I was working full-time in publishing (I’d finished most of my experiments by then, but still had all of the results to write up).

My project looked at what happens to stainless steel that’s implanted in the body if you apply repetitive, really short electrical pulses to it. In theory, this could increase how quickly the implant corrodes, or it could cause harmful ions to be released from the metal into the body. The kind of pulses I was looking at were those produced by a TENS machine – a small electrical pain-relief device that you connect to your skin using sticky pads – which may be only 100 microseconds long, although similar pulses are also used to stimulate muscles and the brain using electrodes implanted in them. I found that the electrical pulses are sufficient to cause chemical reactions to occur at the metal surface – the chemical reactions in fact start taking place within microseconds of the electrical pulse beginning. However, these reactions don’t produce anything that may be harmful to health.

It was a fun project, if a little isolated – I was developing new techniques and experimental setups that were very different to what the others in the lab worked on, and I didn’t get to collaborate with anyone outside of the group. I even got to do one experiment where I tested the pain threshold of my supervisor (with his full consent), which I guess a lot of PhD students would like to do from time to time!

It was during the second year of my PhD that I started to doubt whether I wanted to be a researcher. I was going through the typical second-year slump where it seemed like all my experiments were going wrong, and felt like I wasn’t making any progress. So I was already a bit unhappy, and then I became more aware of the working culture of science – in particular, the idea that your research should be your absolute passion and you should want to work on at all hours. In fact, several more senior researchers told me that if I was going to be a scientific success, I should think about my research 24/7. So I tried that, and within about a month I was burnt out, I was miserable. It got so bad that I took a week off work to decide whether to quit my PhD. In the end, I wanted to see my project through to the end – it might not have been my all-consuming passion, but I enjoyed experimental work and I was curious to see the results. But because I knew I couldn’t devote my life to my project, I felt like I had to accept that I was nothing more than a second-rate researcher.

To stop myself feeling guilty and thinking negative thoughts, I filled up my free time with activities that made me feel productive. I got more involved in outreach activities, and took a lot of online courses (MOOCs). Eventually I realised that the days when I most enjoyed going to work were the days when I had an outreach trip planned to a local primary school, or I had an undergraduate practical class to demonstrate. That’s when I started to think that a career in science communication could be for me.

Transition from academic research

At first I thought of going into face-to-face science communication as that’s what all my experience was in. For a while I fancied working in a science museum. I started searching job sites to see what kinds of outreach jobs were available, and also what kind of skills employers were looking for. “Good written science communication skills” kept popping up, even for jobs that mostly involved talking to people face-to-face. I’d never written about science other than in formal reports, so I figured I should find a way to demonstrate that I could write about science in a way that non-scientists can understand.

For some reason (my thought process baffles me in retrospect!) I focused entirely on a high-risk strategy: I decided to enter science writing competitions. I thought that if I entered enough competitions I’d eventually be shortlisted in one of them, and that would really help my CV stand out. Where the confidence came from to think that I was good enough to be shortlisted, I have no idea!

As it happened, my plan worked better than I expected. In fact, I like to say I won my job in a competition. The first competition I entered was called Access to Understanding, where entrants had to write a plain-language summary of a biomedical research article. And I won! I felt like I’d found my niche, and I decided then to write about science for a living. The only job I knew of where you could do that was science journalism. So I planned to finish my thesis and then apply for internships to get some journalism experience.

I ended up being an editor instead because I happened to run into one of the organisers of Access to Understanding, around the time they were starting to plan the next year’s competition. I volunteered to write a blog post about my experiences, and it was while we were planning that she told me she’d heard that eLife (who were one of the sponsors of the competition) were advertising for a new Assistant Features Editor. She thought the job would suit me – it was in Cambridge, and a large part of the job was (and still is) writing plain-language summaries of research articles. It sounded perfect, but I still almost didn’t apply – I had no experience of editing, and I was months away from finishing my research project. But everyone I spoke to about it told me I should give it a go, so I did, and was fortunate enough to get the job.

My supervisor was supportive of me leaving research, although he warned me to think carefully about it because it’s hard to return to academia once you leave. What was weird though, was that although I had found what seemed like my dream job, and I didn’t hesitate to accept the editor job, I still felt a bit like I’d failed at being a researcher.

Current job – and how it compares           

eLife is an open-access, online only journal that publishes research across a broad range of life science fields. My job is split into two main parts. Firstly, I write and edit articles that explain the scientific research that we publish, which include the plain-language summaries (called “digests”) that accompany many of the research articles. What I love about this is that I essentially get paid to learn about the latest research. In a single day I might work on three or four different digests, all in completely different areas – from epidemiology to cell biology to neuroscience – and I love having that variety. That also means I have to get my head around completely different sets of results quite quickly in order to summarise the research, which can be surprisingly exhausting!

For the other main part of my job I support the work eLife does to support early-career researchers: I commission, write and edit articles that focus on early-career researchers and the issues they face when pursuing a career in research, and manage the @eLifeCommunity Twitter account. Again, I love the variety of things I get to work on, and it’s great to have the opportunity to work with talented researchers and help them share their opinions on how science could be improved. In one of my favourite parts of my work I regularly get to interview researchers and former researchers about their careers – everyone’s story is so different, and it’s been fascinating learning about the variety of career paths and options available to researchers. I just wish I’d known about them during my PhD!

The biggest downside for me is that I very rarely write anything for fun, outside work, anymore. I’m still surprised by how tiring I find working in an office. I miss setting up experiments – it was nice to have a reason to stand up and do something practical for a while, even on the frustrating days when my equipment constantly broke.

Competencies old and new

The most useful skill I developed in academia was learning how to tailor how I explain my research, and science more generally, to different audiences, including schoolchildren, undergraduates, technicians and other academics. I was lucky enough to work with a lot of great communicators – labmates, senior academics and support staff – who took real pleasure in helping me to understand their work, so I learnt a lot about communication from them.

Learning how to read a scientific paper rapidly and extract the important information from it was also crucial. Research also taught me how to receive feedback, but it’s only since leaving that I really learnt how to give useful feedback too – particularly if the feedback’s negative.

Reflections on my career path

I sometimes wonder how my career would have turned out if I’d have known at the start of my PhD how important it is to collaborate during research. I’m an incredibly shy person so working on a project that allowed me to spend most of my time in my own in a corner with my equipment made it very easy for me to isolate myself and limit my future research prospects. But at the same time, I’m almost grateful that my PhD put me in a position where I could see that following a research career would be difficult for me, because it gave me time and opportunities to explore other career options.

I don’t have a future plan. My career path so far has been a case of keeping my mind open and taking opportunities as they arise regardless of what I originally intended, and it’s worked out well so far! There are some new projects starting at eLife at the moment that I’m excited to be involved in so those are my focus for the near future. Longer term? I’d like to continue to support science in some way, whether by staying in publishing or moving more into charity work. And then my ultimate dream goal is to write a book – I started planning one once but then working as an editor got in the way. Though I suspect that might have to be my retirement project…

My advice

As soon as you think of a career you might be interested in, look at the jobs available, and find out what skills employers are looking for. There’s a good chance that research has given you most of the skills you need, you just might not have thought of them in that way. But if you do find that you’re lacking something, take action. Going out and getting those skills or experiences is also a really helpful way to work out whether a career is for you.

And most importantly, never rule yourself out of applying for a job because you think you won’t get it – you have nothing to lose from applying. Have confidence in yourself!

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