Career Pathways—Explore the Possibilities, Scientific Editor

Interview with Caeul Lim, Ph.D., Scientific Editor, Cell Press

Interviewed by Joana Dias, Ph.D., Visiting Fellow, Immunology Laboratory, Vaccine Research Center, National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases





Caeul Lim, Ph.D.

Caeul Lim, Ph.D., Scientific Editor at Cell Host & Microbe and Trends Reviews credit Caeul Lim, Ph.D.

Credit
NIAID

Caeul Lim, Ph.D., Scientific Editor at Cell Host & Microbe and Trends Reviews credit Caeul Lim, Ph.D.

Credit:
NIAID

The “Career PathwaysExplore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on a scientific editor, someone who evaluates the papers that are submitted to a scientific journal and decides which ones are appropriate to publish. Dr. Caeul Lim has a unique role at Cell Press, where she works as a joint scientific editor at Cell Host & Microbe and Trends Reviews, a portfolio of 16 review journals.

Dr. Lim was a postdoc at NIAID for two years, where she worked in the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research under the supervision of Carolina Barillas-Mury, M.D., Ph.D., and Thomas Wellems, M.D., Ph.D. Read this interview with Dr. Lim to learn more about her journey of becoming a scientific editor at a major scientific publishing house.

Tell me about your role as a scientific editor.

I spend half of my time with Cell Host & Microbe and half with Trends Reviews. This was the first time Cell Press opened a joint position between these two journal groups. Trends Reviews has 16 different journals, and each has one main editor who plans issues and commissions and edits manuscripts. If a main editor takes leave, I jump around as needed to fill gaps. My position was created to allow flexibility to work on a particular Trends journal for a few weeks or months. I also plan Trends-wide initiatives, which is a less traditional role for a scientific editor—a role with more project planning and management. My work at Cell Host & Microbe is dedicated to that specific journal and is more in line with traditional roles for a scientific editor—handling papers, first-desk evaluation, finding reviewers, and working with authors through the publication process.

What does a regular workday look like to you?

At Cell Host & Microbe, four editors, including myself, meet every day to discuss the new papers that came in earlier to form a consensus opinion on each paper. Then each of us is assigned a certain number of papers to read in depth, do more background research, and make educated decisions. If there is anything that we initially thought was great but isn’t upon further review or vice versa, we bring it back the next day to discuss and make sure that the whole team is on the same page. Although we have various backgrounds, we share papers from different areas, which helps expand my knowledge. Other routine tasks include finding reviewers and making sure that everything is moving along with the papers that we have been assigned. At any point, we have papers at the very beginning stage and others at the very last stage. When the paper is close to being accepted, we go through the methods in detail to make sure that everything is accurately reported.

Editors also work on general things for Cell Press-wide initiatives like planning webinars and Cell Symposia as well as special issues for the next year, including topics that we want to cover and authors that we want to invite. On the Trends side, I coordinate special collections between the different journals if there are articles that we want to put together and other initiatives that could involve more than one journal. This is the less regular but more diverse part of the job that keeps it exciting.

What is your favorite part of your job? What is the most challenging aspect?

It’s very exciting to see excellent science first-hand. It is a privilege for me to be able to read those papers in their complete form and discuss them before they’re published. Every day, we get to see studies that we weren’t aware of during our Ph.D. or postdoc. Seeing the diversity of work being done by different groups in a field that I am interested in is exciting, and it’s rewarding to see its completion. Sometimes there are papers that are interesting but missing a few things. The papers become stronger through the review process, making the authors and us happy. That is a very satisfying part of the job and probably one of the main attractions of being a scientific editor. As for the challenging part, there is a lot more interaction with authors and reviewers than I initially expected. It’s nice to be connected to the community, but as editors, we are in a position to reject a lot and we disappoint a lot of people. Dealing with unhappy people is not fun in any job, but there is a little more of that here.

Why did you decide to pursue a career as a scientific editor?

After my Ph.D., I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in academia. I felt I wouldn’t know for sure without a postdoc—I thought I would always feel I left research too early if I hadn’t explored that path. I was also interested in non-profit work related to infectious diseases, and I had a vague interest in scientific editing. I started exploring different career paths by going to career panels and talking with people in scientific editing.

How did your time at NIH help you prepare for your transition?

I went to several of the NIH career panels. At one of these panels, I spoke with an editor from Science Translational Medicine. I also attended a peer group that met every week to prepare for interviews. We reviewed interview questions together to prepare ourselves to step out of our “postdoc bubble.” Another thing I did at NIH that assured me I would like an editorial position was serving as part of the Fellows Editorial Board. We did more line editing than I do now as a scientific editor, but I did read drafts of papers in fields that I was not familiar with. The language used in advising authors is very similar to the language that I use now, and I knew how to form decision letters based on that experience. It was a big plus that I got to do that at NIH while hopefully helping other postdocs get their papers published. Generally, my lab and Dr. Barillas-Mury were very open to discussing paths that were not academic and there was a lot of freedom for me to travel from the Twinbrook campus, where I was working, to the main campus for these various different activities—that general support was helpful.

What skills do you think are important to succeed as a scientific editor?

Communication is very important. Half the job involves emailing different stakeholders: the authors, reviewers, and different editors in the journal. You have to be clear in what you are trying to say. You cannot be vague in rejecting or accepting a manuscript. There is significantly more interaction with the community than I expected, which has a positive side, but it was something that I wasn’t quite prepared for in the beginning. During my Ph.D. and postdoc, I always felt that I was more of a big picture person. Although attention to detail is needed for this job, having a broad scientific interest and wanting to learn is definitely a plus. We have to make rapid judgments from a quick read-through of the manuscripts, so being able to form a critical scientific judgment in a limited period of time helps. This is actually one of the exercises that we go through during the hiring process and, for me, this was the steepest learning curve.

Can you walk through the application and hiring process for a job like yours?

I want to point out that this is different by journal, even within Cell Press, but step one is usually submitting the resume and cover letter, followed by an exercise stage designed to test the applicant’s skill set and to give them a taste for the position. In my case, because of the Trends aspect, they asked me which topic I would choose and whom I would invite to write the articles if I were to plan a special issue. They also asked me to go through the past six issues of Cell Host & Microbe and choose papers that I thought were the strongest or weakest and explain why. I was also asked to pick papers from different journals that I thought could have been a good match for Cell Host & Microbe. After that, I had a Skype interview that asked the basic interview questions (weaknesses, strengths, etc.). Then I flew in for a one-day interview, where there were also a few exercises (for example, they gave me a set of papers and then asked me what they were about, what I thought about them, and if I would send them out for review or not). But mostly at that stage, it was about meeting the different people that I would work with. All in all, each stage was informative about the job. Some of my colleagues also hosted a Q & A on how to start a career as editor at Cell Press. I would recommend giving it a read if interested: Working at Cell Press: An FAQ for would-be editors.

Do you have any advice for fellows who may be thinking about pursuing a similar career path? What makes a competitive candidate?

Show your interest in editorial work early. You don’t necessarily need editorial experience because you will get trained on the job, but it’s beneficial if you have experience writing a review or a grant. Those processes are quite similar to how we plan a special issue. Keep up to date with science outside your field, for example going to the various seminars offered by the different groups at NIH.

Is it okay if current NIAID fellows contact you with questions?

Sure, my email is clim@cell.com.

Resources mentioned in this interview:

NIH Fellows Editorial Board

Working at Cell Press: An FAQ for would-be editors

 

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