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Posted: 27 Jan 2012
Career Pathways: Jocalyn Clark

Jocalyn Clark, a Senior Editor at Public Library of Science (PLoS), describes how her traditional academic career took a turn toward scientific publishing.                                    

Tell us about your current position

I am Senior Editor at PLoS Medicine, the leading open access general medical journal, published weekly by the Public Library of Science. I have responsibility for the journal's Magazine, which contains commentaries, editorials, education & debate pieces, Policy Forum articles, etc.  I handle peer review and commissioning of content, write regular editorial and blogs, develop editorial policy, and advocate for open access publication.  I am also an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, where I teach on topics related to writing for publication, publication ethics, and global health.  I am a former assistant and associate editor at BMJ (British Medical Journal), and a current member of the editorial policy committee of the World Association of Medical Editors.

What is your background/training in?

After a BSc in Biochemistry & Microbiology, which stoked my interest in infectious disease, I pursued a MSc in Community Health Sciences that allowed me to study the social and political contexts of health and health behaviour, and introduced me to qualitative research. During my master's degree, for which I received a 2-year provincial fellowship and conducted an ethnography of treeplanters' health risk taking (at the time, a controversial area that made me unpopular with the silviculture industry), I realised a research career in the health sciences was for me.  I pursued a PhD at the University of Toronto in Public Health in a research stream that offered training in medical sociology and critical theory, as well as the traditional topics of epidemiology, statistics, health systems, etc. My dissertation research examined the health care use and patterning for women who had been sexually assaulted — it combined quantitative (administrative data) and qualitative (interviews) methods and I received a 5-year fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (my proposal ranked #1 across the whole country for that year). In all my three academic degrees I did minors in women's/gender studies, which gave me the interdisciplinary training and perpective I wanted, and feel is necessary for a career in health/medicine. 

What other positions have you held and how have they influenced your career?

After my PhD I was *this close* to accepting an NIH post-doc at UCSF, an exceptionally good medical school that offered outstanding training in health policy studies. However, my desire for an academic career was waning and with no tenure-track positions available in health sciences in Canada I began to think about other options. During my graduate studies I had pursued my love of writing by doing freelance work for "throwaway" medical magazines and newspapers and I had become a connoisseur of medical journals.  When a serendipitious encounter with two medical editors — Richard Smith (BMJ) and Richard Horton (Lancet) — introduced the possibility of using my scientific training to pursue an editorial career, my curiousity was piqued.  I applied for the editorial registrar (fellow) position at BMJ and got it — this was unusual, since they had never hired a non-Brit and I was to be their first non-clinical fellow. They told me I was "an experiment", but it was a successful one because the next year I was appointed as an assistant editor and I stayed at BMJ for five years until I came to PLoS Medicine in 2008.  I love everything about my career in medical editing and journalism, including the fact that it keeps me connected to academia (because of course most journal authors are academics) without the pressures and challenges of constant grant writing and "soft money".  I love working to deadline and working with people passionate about the broad contexts of medicine and global health.

Who or what had the greatest impact on your career?

The single most important person in my career has been Richard Smith, former editor of BMJ, who hired me in 2002 and continues to advise and influence my career.  Being at the BMJ under his leadership opened my eyes to the importance and dynamicism of medical journalism and to the social responsibility and influence of medical journals.  I tried to model his ability to channel his writing skills in entertaining and provocative ways to write about and influence understandings of health issues.  He and the team at BMJ very much see health and medicine to be politicised space, and they were determined to carve out a strong editorial vision for the journal that often provoked as much as it informed.  The BMJ was pioneering in terms of raising awareness about threats to the integrity of the medical literature, including conflicts of interest, and helped set new standards for research and publication ethics.  A thick skin is very important for an editor, and I learned to develop one at the BMJ.  Having such a solid foundation in medical editing and journalism has helped me develop my career and my senior editorial role at PLoS Medicine.

What advice would you like to share with our readers who may be early in their careers?

1) Remember that all tracks do not lead to tenure.  Interdisciplinary training in health and medicine will prepare you for a wide range of careers and will give you skills that apply to most aspects of contemporary society.  Keep your mind open and feel confident about pursuing diverse or unusual career paths. 

2) Consider a career in medical journalism or editorial.  The internet has transformed how health and medical information is disseminated, and patients/consumers/readers receive this information from a range of media.  Solidly trained science and medical editors and journalists are extremely valuable. 

3) Do not give up balance in your life.  Whether it's fitness, hobbies, volunteering, or whatever else, these extracurricular activities are immeasurably valuable for personal growth and development, and will enrich your intellectual/professional life.  If you set boundaries around your work, people will respect them and give you space to pursue other aspects of your life.

Dr. Jocalyn Clark is a Senior Magazine Editor of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) in the United Kingdom.

Career Pathways is a series of stories highlighting career trajectories of highly respected individuals working in HIV vaccine research and development that gives a glimpse into the job possibilities, decision-making processes, and situations that got these individuals where they are today.