I started my freelance copy editing and proofreading business when I was 39 years old. If I had been asked a decade earlier—just as I finished earning my doctorate in organic chemistry—if I ever imagined I’d be a business owner, the answer would have been “No.” As for many newly minted PhDs, I had a decision to make: what was next for me? Not only was I looking for a position at the beginning of the Great Recession but also was my husband of two years. It was difficult to find one chemistry position. But two? Our goal was to find two positions in the same city or region, not to live separately. However, after multiple offers for one of us or the other, but never both, I decided to become the trailing spouse. Although difficult for some, I was ready for a break from bench chemistry and willing to investigate an alternative, nontraditional career.
I lasted two months. My graduate advisor had told me that not working for a year or two was too long, and he was right. I was ready to get back into the lab, and as luck would have it, a postdoctoral position opened up at the same national lab as my husband’s postdoc position. There were many great things about my postdoc experience: I got my own funding, I learned a new branch of chemistry (and microbiology and mass spectrometry, etc.), and I worked with great people. Furthermore, I learned a lot about my passions and career goals. During my postdoc tenure, I had the opportunity to lead a class review session and teach an organic lab at a state university’s local campus. By the end of the three-year position, I had confidently decided a few things. Research is exciting and rewarding, but it’s not the career I wanted. The decision to leave a research career was easier because I also had a two-year-old daughter at home. Teaching wasn’t my passion either. Leaving the bench and the classroom was the right decision for me.
For six years, I worked as a stay-at-home mom—yes, it is work! We had two more children, and keeping the kids fed, safe, and happy was a full-time job. This was a great time to pursue hobbies and find a community. Meanwhile, I was always thinking about what to do when all the kids were in school. I didn’t consider returning to research or teaching; those days were finished. I was considering nontraditional uses of my training that were flexible and preferably done at home.
Language editing intrigued me because, during the last year of my postdoc, I was often frustrated by language errors I encountered in academic papers. The fields I was learning were complex, and poor writing made learning the science even harder. This soon became my passion. I was never taught how to write a scientific paper in graduate school. I followed the format of other papers from my group and purchased the ACS style guide; but, at the request of my advisor, I had to look for online writing tutorials to learn effective writing. Furthermore, I assumed most graduate students don’t receive writing training, although writing doesn’t come easily to everyone. Could I focus this discovered passion on helping others publish their research? Yes!
There are many programs that provide training for language editing, copy editing, and proofreading, such as self-paced online certificate programs (Poytner) to actual enrollment at a university (UC San Diego) to obtain a degree or certificate. With my background in science and my experience in academic writing, I decided to try an entry-level, self-paced program that wasn’t too expensive or extensive. Within a year I had finished the course, joined the Editorial Freelance Association, gotten a freelancing/contractor job with an editing agency, and started my own freelance copyediting business--Scitech Proofreading.
It quickly became apparent that there is a need for academic copy editors and proofreaders. Many scientists are multilingual, and writing in English can be especially difficult. Many agencies that provide editing services specialize in helping multilingual researchers write and edit so that they can publish their work. Working for these agencies provides experience and opportunities to perform many levels of editing. The hardest part has been directly finding clients for my freelancing business. Here, I’ve reached out to my network for leads, made new contacts with “cold” emails, and advertised my business—much like a job seeker. I’ve been blessed with finding a few repeat clients.
I have been working as a part-time editor for three years. As a freelancer, I have control over my schedule and workload, which is exactly what I need as a mom of three kids. I’m encountering new research fields (e.g., materials science), new levels of editing and skills (e.g., macros), and how to be independently employed. It took a long time and some introspection to determine what my goals are and how to meet them. I may not always be a freelance editor, but currently this is the best fit for me.
For those considering an alternative career in science, discovering your interests is key. Research programs where you can be trained in the required skills; reach out to your network for opportunities and leads; and freelance in the field if possible. Take the time to ascertain your strengths and weaknesses, determine your interests and passions, and be realistic about your material, social, and familial needs.