Meet the Editor: Michael White

“Decide what the big questions are and then develop the tools or – critically – collaborations that are needed to answer them.”

Tell us about your career before publishing

Before becoming an editor at Nature, I had attained what I thought was the endpoint of my career: a tenured position at a research university. I was at Utah State University, and conducted research on various aspects of large-area ecology and biogeochemistry, as well as anything else that caught my fancy. I ran a moderately successful lab, and never had major problems publishing papers or obtaining grants. Still, it was clear to me (and my wife) that the job wasn’t a good fit. I often felt exhausted, stressed, uninspired, and overwhelmed.

What do you think your research experience brings to your publishing career?

My career path to editing is a bit weird, in that many editors come to publishing relatively soon after completing their PhDs. I spent several years as an academic. Doing so, I think, probably gave me a good insight into what it’s like to be on the other end of editorial decisions and suggestions. I know what it means to ask an academic for a massive revision on a paper!

What’s your perception of academic research right now, in your capacity as an editor?

Relative to when I was in grad school, Earth system science has a wildly higher appetite for understanding uncertainty. In the past, it might have been OK to almost guess at critical parameter values. Now, reviewers will demand a rigorous uncertainty analysis. This is doubtless good, but it also means that for many questions, uncertainties are going up over time, not down. Also, at least in my field, there is a growing tension between the desire to understand processes, through mechanistic work, and the desire to get the right answer, through artificial intelligence.

What do you miss most about your academic research/pre-publishing career?

I don’t miss the meetings, class preparation, grading, recruiting, grant-writing, committees, in-fighting over meaningless topics, or report-writing. I miss the research, the opportunity to think up a crazy idea and pursue it as long as you want to -- with people you like and respect. Editing does not provide the same long-term sense of satisfaction and completion. Or failure, for that matter, but the potential for failure makes things exciting.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their research career?

Don’t pursue every opportunity that comes across your desk. Think strategically. What are the major unanswered questions in whatever broadly-defined topic interests you? How can you address them? Don’t let your current technical abilities define what you research. Decide what the big questions are and then develop the tools or – critically – collaborations that are needed to answer them.

Michael is a Senior Editor for Nature based in San Francisco

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