PNAS: Katherine Porter, Educational Content Editor

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Katherine Porter, an editor of textbooks and other educational materials.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work as a science content editor for Words & Numbers, an educational content developer. Our company works with textbook publishers, online education companies, school districts, and other clients to develop a variety of K-12 (and some post-secondary) educational materials. I’ve worked on student and teacher textbook editions, online courses, test preparation materials, and a number of other products.

2) What is your science background?

I have a B.S. in geology from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D. in geochemistry from Cornell University.

3) What led you to this job?

When I was nearing the end of graduate school, I realized that academic research was not something I was highly interested in. I started looking for other types of jobs. I’d always been interested in education, and I’d done some editing for a variety of projects while I was in graduate school. I saw an advertisement for a science content editor, so I applied and got the job.

4) What’s your work environment like?

My work is primarily office (computer)-based, although I do occasionally travel for educational conferences or client meetings.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Most of my work involves writing, editing, and reviewing educational materials. I have worked on products at all grade levels and in all of the major science disciplines. A typical day might include writing test questions, writing or editing online lessons, reviewing content from other writers for scientific accuracy and grammatical correctness, and meeting with clients (or other project management tasks). Outside of work, I try to stay up-to-date with science and education content by reading Science magazine, browsing science- and education-related websites, and reading textbooks.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

All of the products I work on involve science content. One of my primary job duties is ensuring that all science content produced by our company is scientifically accurate and not misleading. Because we work on materials covering all the major scientific disciplines, I need to have a very broad understanding of many different areas of science (including the nature of science and scientific research). I also need to be up-to-date (well, as much as possible) in a wide range of fields so that I can make sure the material we produce is current and accurate. Because most of the products we work on are standards-based, I need to have enough science content knowledge to understand and interpret those standards and ensure that our material fully and accurately addresses them.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

First, read a lot. Any reading is good, but reading good writing is best–especially popular science non-fiction books. One of the most important skills a science writer or editor can have is the ability to write well, and one of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read good writing. Obviously, practicing good writing–by blogging, taking writing courses, or just keeping a journal–is also a good idea. If your college or university has a writing center, make use of it; seek out feedback from others on the quality, accuracy, and clarity of your writing–and apply that feedback! If you can, take a foreign language, or some English grammar classes. Although being able to diagram a sentence isn’t a requirement for science content editing, you should at least be able to recognize and fix common grammatical errors.

You should also take a broad range of science courses. Don’t take just what’s required for your major. Take at least major-level introductory courses (i.e., not the lower-level “fulfill a science requirement” versions) in physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Make an effort to find the connections between different science disciplines, and to understand the nature of science. If you can, do some undergraduate research. It’s important for a science writer or editor to be able to think like a scientist, as well as to recognize gaps in logic and misleading statements. For educational products, an understanding of learning and pedagogy is also critical. If you can’t take education classes (or even if you can), get involved in educational outreach, peer tutoring, or undergraduate TA’ing–anything to learn what it’s like to teach and what concepts students struggle with.

If you decide to go to graduate school, try to stay broad instead of focusing on a specific thing. Obviously you will need to work on a specific project to get your degree, but try to keep your knowledge base broad if you can–take classes outside your department, do some volunteering, things like that. Definitely become a teaching assistant if you can.

At Words & Numbers (as at most content developers and publishers), science editors are expected to be able to work in many different disciplines. For example, right now I am working on a chemistry product, a physics product, an environmental science product, and an engineering product. A few weeks ago, I was working on biology and marine science; in a few months, I may be doing Earth science. I’ve even done some work on some math projects in the past. Specialization in one specific field can make you extremely valuable for certain projects, but because we can never predict what projects we will have at any given time, people who can’t work in multiple areas are generally not successful in this type of work.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

I’m not really sure how to answer this question. The science classes I took in college and graduate school definitely helped me understand the connections between different concepts. My scientific training also helped me learn how to think logically and how to reason out things I don’t know off the top of my head.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Take as many extra classes outside your major as you can. Seek out extracurricular activities that interest you. The more experiences you have, the better. Even if you think you know exactly what you want to do, try some other stuff too–you might find something you didn’t expect that really fascinates you. And ultimately, having a lot of experiences and interests can help you be more successful in landing the job you want.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

I won’t lie–educational publishing is not a high-paying job. We typically get paid less than public-school teachers with equivalent qualifications. The pay is adequate, but you’re not going to get rich doing it. On the other hand, writing and editing tends to be more telecommuter-friendly than a lot of other scientific jobs, and there’s almost no chance of being injured by noxious chemicals.