Applying for a Publishing Position: Deconstructing a Job Ad

Emily Joan Elliott's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.


Guest post by Bethany Wasik, acquisitions editor at Cornell University Press.

For about a decade after graduating college, I pursued an academic career in the sciences. However, as I progressed along the tenure-track faculty path, I found that my interests were more aligned with scholarly communication. As a result, I pursued opportunities to develop these skills and my publishing experience, which ultimately included applying for an entry-level position at Cornell University Press. Spoiler alert: I got a job as an assistant in 2015, started acquiring as an assistant editor after two years, and last year began acquiring as a full-time editor in several history subject areas.

The change from a decade-long science career to an entry-level publishing position and then to a humanities editor can seem big and a little ridiculous, but the transition was relatively smooth, because I crafted a narrative, took advantage of resources, discovered my toolbox of transferable skills, and established a network. To do this, I deconstructed publishing job advertisements in such a way that I could amplify these elements, which I note in the following sections. Overall, I have learned, both in my own career path adventures and in speaking to others interested in the academia-to-publishing path, that we all have an immense set of important narratives, transferable skills, and valuable experiences. The key is to uncover them and describe how they will help you succeed with new opportunities.

Deconstructing the Job Ad

Early career or entry-level scholarly publishing job ads have a fairly consistent structure, divided into three parts: (1) the Job Summary, (2) the Position Requirements, and (3) Required or Recommended Qualifications. While some components of these parts must be met, there is room for flexibility and even creativity to meet others. My interpretations of how to do that, from both my experience as an applicant and as a member of search committees, are outlined below. These suggestions are geared toward acquisitions positions, simply because that is my main experience, but I have examined editorial, design, and production (EDP) and marketing entry-level positions as well. There are excellent opportunities to implement transferable skills and a solid narrative in all areas.

1) The Job Summary – A definition of the position, the responsibilities, the management and department where they will be performed, the terms of the position (remote, full-time, etc.), and whether professional development opportunities exist. For example, a typical description could be “the Acquisitions/Project/Marketing Assistant will work with editors/marketing/EDP staff to perform a range of tasks in a variety of stages from proposal to publication.”

  • Be sure to understand who you’ll be working with at the press and look closely at its structure on the website. Be clear on what subject areas, imprints, or initiatives are important to the press. Do you have any experience that you can relate to them? Have you read any of the press’s books in these areas?
  • If subject areas are listed in the job summary, articulate how your background is relevant. In my case, I have a solid liberal arts background, with an anthropology minor and archaeology emphasis. I also volunteered at the local county history museum and interned at the Field Museum of Natural History during college, which is now relevant as I build some of our history and archaeology lists. These types of experiences are important to share in your cover letter and resume, especially when you’re moving between different academic fields.

The Job Summary will also list responsibilities, which can vary among departments and presses. Examine the job summary for each department carefully. Here are a few typical examples for Acquisitions: 

Act as a liaison with authors and peer reviewers, as well as with other Press departments and the university community, maintain a database of proposals and projects under review and/or contract, transmit manuscripts to EDP, submit subsidy grant applications, evaluate illustration and permission material, and present projects at Press editorial and launch meetings in editors’ absence. 

  • When I applied for my job, I noted my academic background, as it related to publishing as well as to the responsibilities included in the job summary. For example, I provided a list of my published journal articles, highlighted my experience submitting grant applications, noted that I peer-reviewed my colleagues’ publications, and described how I frequently presented my research at conferences, workshops, or outreach events and in smaller lab settings. All of these experiences contribute to my understanding of the publishing process from an academic author and reviewer standpoint, and they also allowed me to work with different departments along the way, from submission to publication.
  • As I realized that publishing was the area into which I wanted to venture, I sought out more short-term opportunities like peer-reviewing for academic journals, helping coordinate department and conference events, volunteering for grant panels, and so on. Think broadly about opportunities for transferable skills – the university library and postdoctoral or graduate student affairs centers are a good place to start.

2) The Position Requirements – This part is exciting! Here is where we get creative with academic background, transferable skills, and your network. Most positions require the following skills:

A passion or curiosity for books and familiarity with the scholarly publishing environment, excellent and versatile verbal and written communication skills, and organizational skills.

  • If you published anything during your academic career, here is a great place to note it. Also, mention if you used any of the press books in/for your research. Then list any instances where you communicated your research to a broad audience for a news article, at a conference, or in an invited seminar. These are effective examples of your communication skills, regardless of subject area.

Capacity for problem solving and ability to manage stressful situations, interpersonal and advocacy skills, ability to work as part of a team while also working independently with initiative and attention to deadlines and detail.

  • Highlighting your experience in a variety of settings and perhaps even the results of these collaborations is a good idea to illustrate how you would approach problem solving and meeting deadlines in a publishing setting, regardless of your subject area expertise. For example, I worked independently on some of my research projects, but I also collaborated with other researchers/labs, trained undergraduate and graduate students, taught several courses (lecture and laboratory), and volunteered with a group to teach evolutionary biology modules at local schools. These are all worth noting in this portion of the job ad.

3) Required or Recommended Qualifications – This is an important component of the job ad and usually has very specific requirements to which you should pay close attention.

A degree from a four-year college or university is usually preferred but not required. Then, experience in publishing of two years is usually desired.

  • First, I noted my extensive education experience from college to Ph.D. Then, even though I did not have press publishing experience when I applied to be an acquisitions assistant, I indicated my publishing experience as an author and in academia as a peer-reviewer.

Computer proficiency, including databases and Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and in some cases, Box, InDesign, InCopy, Scribe, or other XML-first workflows.

  • In my academic experience, I compiled a lot of empirical quantitative data, wrote articles and reports, and generated presentations using Microsoft Office. I also produced print-ready images and constructed figures using Adobe software. Combined, these experiences are relevant and worth detailing for the digital requirements of a publishing position. It also would help to be familiar with the house style of the press, such as the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition).

Willingness to travel to scholarly meetings or conferences, participate or coordinate book events, assist with book exhibits, ability to work a hybrid, remote, or in-person schedule.

  • Sometimes, travel can be required for publishing positions, though this is changing. I had traveled quite a bit for academic conferences to both present my research and meet with collaborators, so I noted this as relevant experiences.

Transitioning from academia into publishing can be overwhelming, but it is achievable. In addition to the resources at your university, tap into your network of colleagues, reach out for informational interviews, and take advantage of publishing career expertise via webinars and publishing mentorship initiatives like Paths in Publishing.

Bethany Wasik acquires classics, archaeology, modern European history, and military history at Cornell University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and evolutionary biology and you can follow her on Twitter @BethanyWasik.


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