Darren Burgess

Associate Editor, Nature Reviews Genetics, Nature Publishing Group UK.

Former research staff in cancer genetics, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, USA; Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Darren Burgess

Research staff experience

I did my PhD and a short post-doctoral stint with Scott Lowe at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, USA from 2002-2007. This was a great learning experience in a vibrant and high-profile lab. The best part was the variety of opportunities to learn: the lab studied diverse but important areas of cancer (such as oncogenes, tumour suppressor genes, chemotherapy responses, genetic screens, in vivo models, apoptosis and senescence). My own research focus was to help develop the new (at the time) technology of RNA interference screens to investigate mechanisms of chemotherapy resistance in cancer. 

Additionally, the lab was full of intelligent researchers at various levels from all around the world, with a mix of scientific and clinical backgrounds. Finally, the graduate school at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (the Watson School of Biological Sciences) really made a big effort to make sure our PhD experience extended beyond focused lab research by exposing us to a vast range of academic courses in broad fields, in addition to the frequent on-site conferences. 

Following my PhD I moved back to the UK, my native country, and worked for three years as a post-doctoral researcher in cancer genetics at the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre, Institute of Cancer Research, London. There I studied potential therapeutic targeting of the DNA repair defects in cancer cells. 

Transition to new career

For many years throughout high-school and higher education I envisioned that my career path would take me to an independent position in cancer research and (hopefully) to ultimately make a positive difference to the health of patients with cancer. However, towards the end of my post-doctoral career I began to have second thoughts about this path, for quite a few reasons:

  • I was frustrated with the number of years of unwavering focus that most research projects take to come to fruition
  • I felt that there was too much uncertainty in the path ahead: uncertainty in my ability to get the right publications to secure an independent position, then uncertainty in my chances of continually churning out enough high-profile publications to keep renewing temporary funding and temporary contracts for a long-term career. It felt like scientific hard work never truly pays off, because there would always be begging to be done in the future
  • I realised that my youthful reasons for pursuing cancer research (improving patient health) were naïve, and even a lifetime dedicated to research is no guarantee of a meaningful impact on patients
  • Looking around me at very senior lab heads that I have great respect for, many were going through troublesome times in their personal lives (particularly family break-ups). Even if I were able to emulate the professional success of them in the future, I was worried about whether the potential detriment to my wider life would be worth it. By contrast, looking around at friends and family in different career fields, those that seemed to be the happiest had more standard lifestyles of nine-to-five jobs and an active family life. 

So, I looked around for careers that would use my scientific training but that could be more varied and stable…. 

I considered a few future career paths. 

I gave a lot of thought to teaching. I’d had some experience of working in schools. I’d been a tutor for high school and middle school laboratory practical classes when I was at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and also a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Ambassador while a post-doc in the UK. However, I felt that teaching at high-school level would mean that my PhD and post-doctoral training would be somewhat wasted. I also considered whether University teaching would be good, but to be a respected lecturer I would probably need to run a successful research group (and continually compete with full-time researchers for limited funding). 

I thought about whether a career in the pharmaceutical industry would be a good move, but there didn’t seem to be any more stability in that sector than in academic research. 

Finally I set my heart on an editorial role in the publishing world, because that would allow me to deal with cutting edge science (but across more varied scientific fields) while hopefully providing more job stability and a better work-life balance. I applied for editorial jobs that arose at Nature Publishing Group. I was delighted to secure an entry level position (Assistant Editor) jointly with Nature Reviews Cancer and Nature Reviews Genetics in 2010. I then moved up to become an Associate Editor solely with Nature Reviews Genetics in 2013. 

Current job

My current role as an Associate Editor is varied and rewarding. We handle manuscripts through all their stages starting with coming up with the ideas of the articles (most of our content is commissioned by the editorial team rather than being an unsolicited submission from authors). When the first draft of the articles are written we then work with the authors to ‘developmentally edit’ their article to make sure that it meets our standards for comprehensibility, structure, interest etc. The amount of work this takes varies greatly between articles, and sometimes there will be multiple rounds of back-and-forth with authors. We then coordinate peer review and finally make editorial decisions about if/when the article is accepted for publication. My editorial predecessors have worked hard to establish a strong reputation for the Nature Reviews journals. Our articles have a high impact and readers have strong expectations of them, so it is important that we continually strive to maintain the highest of standards. 

Although handling articles is the main component of the job, no two days are the same because the subject matter of the articles is so diverse and we learn a lot of science just by doing the job. For example, an article on ecological genetics might be quickly followed by a techy one on the latest next-generation sequencing methods, so the work is never dull. 

Other aspects of the job are writing Research Highlights about published research that we choose as being of high interest (so that readers can get a quick summary of any papers they might have missed). We also organise special projects such as coordinating article collections, posters, calendars etc. 

One of the best parts of the job is the international travel to attend conferences and visit institutions. This is to make sure that we are up-to-speed with the latest research (mainly for inspiring us to commission new articles) and also to interact face-to-face with the scientific community to see if there are any ways that we can serve them better and to get feedback from authors and readers about previous article of ours. 

Competencies old and new

Scientific knowledge is the main part of my higher education experience that I still use today. However, because most lab research is fairly focused, scientific knowledge acquired from the lab is only a small proportion of the subject matter I must now have working knowledge of. Attention to detail is another key skill translated from the lab. Other skills that the job requires that I have had to learn on the job are strict timekeeping (press deadlines are not optional), editorial procedures and business aspects of the publishing industry. 

Reflecting on my career path

I am very happy with my current career. I love the ability to deal with science from diverse fields, the day-by-day satisfaction of completing tasks (in editing, almost all of your efforts achieve something unlike the long and sometimes indefinite timescales of lab research), the longer-term job stability and a good work-life balance. 

I think that doctoral students, research staff and research leaders should be more aware of the diverse career paths that science can take you, and not see a career trajectory towards independent research as the only ‘successful’ route. 

Overall, I find my career very satisfying. Although I worried at first about former lab colleagues thinking that I somehow ‘failed’ by leaving hands-on research, I am now in the position where numerous former colleagues have asked how they can follow similar career paths into editorial roles, which reassures me that maybe my career choice was an insightful move after all. 

Suggestions and advice

I would strongly recommend moving internationally during a career path: beside the personal experiences and opportunities that come with living in a new place, it is a great professional experience and helps you stand out in future job applications due to unique combinations of skills and experience.