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Careering off course: Henry Gee (Science Journalist)

Note: this article featured on the previous Palaeontological Association website but was not part of the Careering off Course! Newsletter series; however it is now included within the series for consistency.

Henry Gee earned his BSc at the University of Leeds and completed his PhD at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He joined Nature as a reporter in 1987 and is now Senior Editor, Biological Sciences. He has published a number of books, including Before the Backbone: Views on the Origin of the Vertebrates (1996), In Search of Deep Time (1999), A Field Guide to Dinosaurs (2003) and Jacob's Ladder (2004). 


My job.

Senior Editor, Biological Sciences, Nature. When you send a manuscript to Nature about palaeontology, or indeed many other aspects of comparative biology, it will hit my desk. My job is to provide an initial evaluation, judging whether your manuscript would, in principle, be of interest to a broad swathe of scientists, over and above the narrow field in which you, the author, specializes. I reject more than 50 per cent of manuscripts after this first reading, often after consulting with colleagues. This doesn't mean that the manuscripts are bad science, just not sufficiently interesting for Nature. The rest I send to review: my job is to steer manuscripts through that review process. Nature receives around 180-200 new manuscripts each week, around a tithe of which eventually get published. At any time I have a caseload of 20-30 manuscripts at various stages of evaluation. Much of the job is routine desk work but it is relieved by attending meetings at home and abroad, learning about the cutting edge of science from AIDS to exploding galaxies, and occasional writing for Nature's Web site and elsewhere.

How I got there.

An early interest in fossils combined with a broader interest in science as a whole led to a joint honours degree in zoology and genetics at the University of Leeds. A vacation studentship in the Palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum was invaluable for contacts (I do not believe that the NHM does these any more. If that is true, it should reconsider.) I went on to do a PhD in zoology at Cambridge. By the end I had become disillusioned with research because of poor career opportunities (most of the people in the cohort above me were either unemployed or doing really lousy jobs) but did not know what else to do. My adviser pointed out an editorial vacancy at Nature. I was hired - but not for the job advertised. Instead, I was offered the job of a features writer left open as the intended candidate backed out at the last minute. It was really a case of being at the right place at the right time. I was hired, with no experience - something that would never happen nowadays - as a writer, on a three-month contract. Fourteen years later I'm still there. Manuscript work came later.

The most obvious route?

Absolutely not. These days, intending science journalists might do the M.Sc. in science communication at Imperial, or take a postgraduate course in journalism. Despite the fact that I am an exception to almost every rule, there really is no substitute for learning traditional journalism skills. The very best science journalists have usually covered other areas as well as science. I rate Tim Radford, Science editor of the Guardian, who has covered everything from crime to the arts, and his experience shows in his peerless style and richness of allusion. If you already have a Ph.D. you should aim, as I did, straight for a job without any further qualification, as a PhD in any subject - especially science - tells any employer that you have the capacity for patient research, careful thought and self-motivation. If you wish to pursue a career in writing, it is a good idea to research and pitch stories to science editors at newspapers, magazines and Web sites during your time as a research student. This will gain you a valuable portfolio of work to show a prospective employer. For scientists already up the career ladder and looking for a summer break, the British Association offers a Media Fellowship scheme in which scientists can work at newspapers, broadcast media - even the science writing section of Nature. It is worth knowing that there are as many wannabe writers in labs as there are wannabe actresses waiting tables in Hollywood. Journalism, and publishing in general, is a many-faceted career, involving a wide variety of skills. That aside, there are many good writers who started out as palaeontologists, pursuing writing and palaeontology side by side. Palaeontologists tend to be better writers than most other scientists, thanks to the discursive nature of palaeontological writing.

My area of research?

I did my PhD at Cambridge, concentrating on population-level studies of ice-age bison. This combined my interest in vertebrate palaeontology with quantitative techniques learned through population genetics. I had really intended to do something with fossil fishes, but bison are basically fishes with legs, so I was tolerably happy for a while.

If I were to start over

I don't think the area matters as much as interaction with lots of interesting people from diverse backgrounds. The best scientists are those who do a broad range of studies and collaborate with many people, each of whom has something unique to offer. On reflection I should perhaps have gone to study in the USA, where the potential for interaction exists, simply because there are more people who are into the same things. In a small community such as UK palaeontology you can end up talking to yourself. This saps motivation, is depressing, and rather defeats the object of furthering one's education through research, However, if I could pick a research area for palaeontologists, it would be evolutionary developmental biology, in which palaeontologists contribute to the general aim of elucidating the origins of morphological novelty - working alongside molecular developmental biologists and geneticists. But if I were really honest I'd have got out of science entirely and gone into merchant banking - an area where science degrees and Ph.D.s are valued, and you get a decent wage to show for it!

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