My job

While I was in Southampton earlier this year I was asked to write a short post on my job for the maths postgraduate students’ blog. I’m posting it here as well, in case anyone else is interested in what I actually do all day.

The job of an academic editor

I received my PhD from Southampton in 2015 in algebraic K-theory. After briefly pursuing postdoctoral study I left academia and found myself at a bit of a loss: what to do next? While browsing maths-adjacent jobs on (a useful site to know) I saw an ad for an editor of maths books at Cambridge University Press. They were looking for somebody with five years publishing experience, or, failing that, a PhD in pure maths. Throughout my PhD I’d always found I was more interested in learning about other people’s work and communicating it to others than forging ahead with the difficult and often frustrating job of research. So I thought, why not? I applied, had a great interview and got the job.

I’ve been here for nearly two years now. The learning curve was not too steep, but it was long (I was missing 5 years of experience!). I am still learning but I now have a good grasp on what makes a good editor. The role of editor is varied and encompasses lots of different tasks large and small, but my core duties can be separated out into two strands: commissioning new titles and managing existing projects.

Commissioning is where I get to use my mathematical knowledge. This part of my job involves traveling to universities and conferences, meeting with people and talking about their research and where they expect their fields to go, getting a feel for which areas are popular (and where the literature lags behind the latest work), and finding people to write the right books. While a PhD is not strictly necessary for this kind of work, it certainly helps to have a broad mathematical knowledge and to understand quickly what a subject is about—the sort of knowledge you pick up by going to department colloquia in parts of maths that are away from your research, or by talking to your office-mates who work in different groups. That said, deeper knowledge of any specific area is rarely that useful—simply because the vast majority of books aren’t on the very small (I couldn’t believe how small! there’s so much maths) class of topics I know a bit about—and there is no call to actually do any mathematics for the job. If you want to do maths every day then publishing probably isn’t for you.

(Being surrounded by interesting maths means I’m always finding new things I’d like to know more about. I do still spend some of my spare time following some of these things up and working on a couple of nagging research problems of my own, but there’s rarely enough time in the day to get really stuck into something. In my interview I asked, a bit cheekily, if I got free books as part of the job. “Oh yes,” my interviewer replied “as many as you want. But you’ll end up bringing them back.” He was right. That said, treating maths as a hobby has so far been as lot more satisfying than I would have expected.)

Once a proposal arrives then comes of the business of evaluating the likely quality of the resulting book and deciding whether or not to publish. This comes partly by judgement on experience built over time and partly by consulting with series editors and experts in the field—it helps to have a wide network of people you can ask for an opinion. There can also be back-and-forth discussions with the authors as I try to work out with them how to make the best possible book out of their proposal.

The commissioning part of my job can be a lot of fun (do I like lots of free foreign travel? yes!) and is reasonably self-directed—there is lots of scope for trying new things, little day-to-day oversight and plenty of flexibility for me to work the hours I choose. The downsides of this are much like the downsides of research: sometimes things just don’t work out and you need the motivation to keep on plugging away without immediate reward.

Managing existing projects is in some ways more straightforward than commissioning—there are pretty well-defined goals and things that just have to be done—and at the same time more demanding: unlike doing research, managing projects necessarily means anticipating and reacting to the needs of others. As the editor of an academic text I do not produce the book, or design and typeset it,1 nor market or sell it. But I am the ultimate ‘owner’ of the project and I coordinate the activities of those who do these jobs, and respond to and make decisions on any difficulties that may arise. With several books at different stages of the production cycle to look after, as well as my commissioning duties, I have needed to develop serious time-management skills that weren’t necessary as a graduate student when I had the luxury to think about one thing for a long period of time. I found this juggling act challenging to begin with but it’s certainly a useful skill to have learned.

This is the biggest difference I have noticed between working in publishing and working in a university: almost everything I do now I do as part of a team. This can of course be very frustrating—how much easier life would be if everyone just did things my way!—but it can be rewarding to succeed as a team too, and freeing not to shoulder the entire burden of failure on one’s own. And while a university maths department is in some ways more diverse than I think people expect, it has been refreshing to move outside of the comfortable bubble I inhabited for most of a decade.

A final thread of my job, which runs through everything else I do, is planning for the future. New technologies have fundamentally changed academic publishing and will continue to change it. Will people still read academic books in the future? Will our conception of what a book is stay more-or-less constant or are radical changes on the way? In an era of inexpensive online dissemination of knowledge, what is the role of a not-for-profit publisher such as CUP? Thinking about these things makes this a particularly interesting time to be in publishing.

  1. Knowing LaTeX well has been a big time-saver though. Rather than waiting for a typesetter to fix something minor I usually just do it myself. ↩︎

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© Tom Harris 2015–2018.

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