PNAS: Hamish Johnston, Physicsworld.com Editor

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

The tenth profile of this round features the editor of PhysicsWorld.com, which is probably the best physics magazine web site out there.

1) What is your non-academic job? I am editor of physicsworld.com, which is a website aimed at working physicists and people with a background in physics. It falls under the umbrella of Physics World, which is the membership magazine of the UK's Institute of Physics. The website publishes a wide range of written, audio and video content for the physics community.

2) What is your science background? I did a PhD in experimental condensed-matter physics at McMaster University in Canada. For my thesis I studied the structural and magnetic properties of magnetic films just a few atoms thick. I also built an electron-optics system. Before that I did a BSc in theoretical physics at the University of Guelph and a MSc in nuclear physics at the University of Manitoba.

3) What led you to this job? When I was at Guelph and Manitoba I was involved in student newspapers and that's when I realized that a career in science journalism is something that I should consider. As part of my PhD at McMaster I had to study for an oral "comprehensive exam", which covered all aspects of physics. I thoroughly enjoyed preparing for the exam and that's when I realized that I was more interested in developing a broad understanding of physics, rather than concentrating on a specific niche in the lab.

At the end of my PhD my wife (who is Irish) and me decided to live on this side of the Atlantic and I got a job at Institute of Physics Publishing in Bristol, England -- where I have been since 1997. I started-out working on "trade and technical" magazines such as Scientific Computing World and Vacuum Solutions. In 2000, I helped launched a new magazine called Wireless Europe, which was a great experience in learning the ropes of publishing.

While these magazines were technical in nature, there really wasn't much physics involved. That's why I was really pleased to become editor of physicsworld.com in 2006 -- which brought me back into the physics fold!

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I work in a brand new office building in the centre of Bristol alongside my Physics World colleagues, who are an extremely talented bunch. I also work with people who edit and produce IOP Publishing's many physics journals, books and websites as well as graphic designers, sales, marketing and customer services people, IT folks who keep our many websites running and so on. It's a great environment and there is a wealth and diversity of expertise to draw on.

Perhaps the best thing about my job is that my "greater working environment" encompasses the entire physics community. I will normally speak to one or two physicists on the phone every week and correspond with as many by email. It's always a pleasure to speak to people about their research and I can honestly say that I learn something new about physics nearly every day.

5) What do you do in a typical day? The main focus of my job is to produce news for the website. I normally begin the day by scanning several dozen websites to see what's new in physics. These sites are a mix of blogs (like this one), journals and press-release services such as Eurekalert. At 10 am we have a news meeting that's usually attended by four reporters and editors who have all done similar scans and have brought potential news stories. We argue over the merits of what people have brought to the table and decide what we are going to cover and who is going to write the article. I will normally write one or two news articles per week, as does my colleague on physicsworld.com. We also farm-out work to freelance journalists who specialize in physics and I will normally edit their articles once they have been submitted.

On a "non-typical" day I might be recording a podcast or video for the website, blogging from a physics conference, or visiting a facility such as CERN. I consider the latter a real perk of the job -- I am extremely lucky to have been down in the LHC tunnel several times, for example.

6) How does your science background help you in your job? Having worked in physics departments for several years I have a basic understanding of how physics research works. This very useful when writing about things like the pressure to publish, science funding, scientific career progression etc. Because I have studied a broad range of physics, I like to think that I have gained decent overview of what is important in physics -- which is crucial for running a physics news service. Although there are huge gaps in my academic knowledge (dark energy didn't exist when I was a student and quantum computers weren't on the curriculum), my physics background allows me to become up-to-date quickly.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
Write about physics (and anything else that catches your fancy) and publish it regularly online. It doesn't matter if no-one is reading it, a potential employer will be impressed by your commitment to communicating science. And of course these days, making your own science videos and podcasts won't hurt.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? There is nothing more dangerous than good old common sense.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
Try to work-out exactly what it is you like about science and what you are good at. This might not necessarily be "doing science in a lab", but doing research for a few years will open many doors.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? I would rather not give a figure.

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This naughtyish grin and, now, I understand as to how he ended where he is these days!. Good new year to him and his Irish wife.

By M. Asghar (not verified) on 05 Dec 2014 #permalink