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“Alt-Ac” Careerist Profile: Audra J. Wolfe July 4, 2016

Posted by emmiemiller in Uncategorized.

Describe your current work or job. How does it compare to your academic experience either as a graduate student or lecturer? What do you like? What’s challenging?


Courtesy of Clinton C. Wolfe Photography

I simultaneously wear two hats. Most of my income comes from The Outside Reader, my editorial and publishing consulting company. In that role, I work with nonfiction authors who are struggling with some aspect of the publishing process. Perhaps they’re having trouble finding a publisher, or maybe their book is under contract, but something isn’t working. I both provide advice that the authors can apply themselves (consulting) and implement that advice (editing). I specialize in “developmental editing,” which can mean lots of different things depending on the manuscript but usually involves big-picture thinking. For instance, I help my authors clarify their arguments, work out the relationship between evidence and the argument (the “warrant”), identify a narrative through-line, etc.

I like this work very much. Helping smart, talented people find their potential is something I definitely enjoy, and there’s no question that the work is intellectually challenging. It’s so challenging, in fact, that that’s my biggest struggle with it. Aside from my editorial work, I also maintain my own writing projects, which usually generate about 10 to 20 percent of my income. When you’re spending all your time working out other people’s arguments, it can be difficult to find the mental space to focus on your own.

What skills did you acquire from your PhD training that have or are helping you in your current occupation?

Skimming. A developmental editor has to wade through vast amounts of material and identify the argument, the audience, the warrant, and the relation between these in very short order.AudraWolfeInset

A note of caution here: Graduate training in the humanities tends to better equip students for criticism than for creation. Anyone can diagnose what’s wrong with a book or manuscript. My job is to identify its potential. Editorial work, in general, requires that you set aside a certain amount of judgment to embrace what a book could be. In my experience mentoring aspiring developmental editors, some recent Ph.D.s struggle with this.

How did you end up in your position or job? What steps did you take to get there? What decisions were you required to make in regards to taking your job? For instance, what did you sacrifice in leaving academia? What did you gain? Were you surveying a variety of career or job options?

Having never gone on the academic job market, I can’t really comment as to “sacrifice.”

Editing and publishing are apprentice-based fields. I interned at the University of Pennsylvania Press during the last year of my dissertation. I loved the work enough that I gave up the last year of a National Science Foundation dissertation fellowship to accept a position as an editorial assistant at that press. The next part required some luck: After only six months in that position, an editorial position opened up at Rutgers University Press that was nearly a perfect match for my skills. From 2002 to 2006, I was the acquiring editor for the sciences at RUP, gradually moving up the ladder from associate editor to editor to senior editor (editors, like professors, have a specific career trajectory).

The mid-2000s were an extremely difficult time for university press publishers, and I was looking for new challenges and a shorter commute. That’s how I ended up at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I worked from 2006 to 2009. At CHF, I edited Chemical Heritage Magazine (then a glossy quarterly), started a podcast (Distillations), and launched a book series with the University of Chicago Press (Synthesis).

The problem, though, was that I really missed books. In April 2009 I resigned my position to launch my own business, back in books. This of course brought a certain amount of financial instability, but I had planned for this. I also prepared an elaborate business plan (and had several different backup plans in case it failed). During the first few years of my business, I occasionally adjuncted/lectured to guarantee some income, but now prefer to focus solely on my consulting.

The main moral of this story, I think, is to be in touch with what you want and what you enjoy, and to make active choices to align your life with those desires. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve repeatedly found myself leaving good situations (a NSF, a good job at CHF) to try new things that might or might not have worked out. Some of these decisions were better than others, but I always took great comfort in the fact that—contrary to what you hear in the academy—most people change jobs many times over the course of their lifetime.

Retrospectively, is there anything you would have done to prepare for your current position or job?

The only way to learn editing is by editing. More generally, though, I’d encourage graduate students to take advantage of opportunities to develop a wide range of skill sets. You may or may not find these opportunities within your department. I know this is an area of controversy, but—in my opinion—it is not a humanities department’s responsibility to teach these skills. Professors aren’t publishers or museum professionals, and they may or may not have accurate knowledge of what kinds of skills are needed in those fields, or what kind of training is appropriate. If you want to learn more about these fields, look to professionals in these fields.

I’d also encourage you to take chances. I’ve been self-employed now for more than 7 years. Self-employment isn’t for everyone and certainly carries risks, but if you find yourself in the third year of adjuncting, you don’t have much to lose by trying something new. The key, though, is to have amassed enough experience doing something to be able to command a livable wage. The sooner you start acquiring that experience, the better.

How can PhD students in History or History of Science/Tech/Med sell themselves off of the academic job market?

People ask me this all the time, but it’s the wrong question. You can’t sell skills that you don’t have. Tough love time: Please understand that if you’re applying for, say, an acquisitions editor position, you’re competing with people who’ve been working in publishing (as assistants or interns) for one to three years. They may not have Ph.D.s, but they have experience. The most important thing you can do is develop skills related to whatever other field it is you want to pursue. Not only does this make you more competitive as a candidate, but it also adds credibility. Employers are not naive; they don’t want to hire someone who’s already halfway out the door. Anything you can do to demonstrate that you are actually interested in a job as a potential career is greatly appreciated.

What questions should graduate students and early careerists be asking that we (GECC) aren’t asking you here?

How to network outside your field! As above: Despite some well-meaning advice, I don’t think it’s really possible for (or the responsibility of) scholars to train their students for work outside the academy (unless that scholar has also worked in that other field). You need to meet actual practitioners. Check out their meetings, read their blogs and career advice posts, follow them on Twitter, ask for informational interviews.

Informational interviews are great. Reach out to successful people you admire and ask for a short (<30 minutes) phone call about what they do, how they got there, what they like and dislike, etc. Do not ask for a job in this call, and don’t forget to send a thank-you email when you’re done. It’s meant to be low-pressure for both parties, and maybe even fun.


Audra J. Wolfe is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian.  Her first book, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), was awarded the Forum for the History of Science in America’s Philip J. Pauly Book Prize. Her articles have appeared in both scholarly and more popular venues, including Slate, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.com. Her current book-in-progress, “Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science,” explores the history of science as cultural diplomacy in the Cold War. Wolfe’s editorial and publishing consulting company, The Outside Reader, helps scholars navigate the publishing process.



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