Do you need a PhD to work in scholarly publishing?

Why should you consider scholarly publishing as a career?  It’s just long beards, dusty tomes and heavy textbooks, right? 


Scholarly publishing is one of the most dynamic sectors for recruitment in the entire industry.  Publishers are innovators, forward thinkers and facilitators, at the forefront of the shift to digital publishing.  Why not give us a closer look?

At The London Book Fair earlier this year, David Thew, of David Thew & Company Ltd, chaired a session on ‘Do you need a PhD to work in scholarly publishing?’.  A panel of contributors, including Kerry-Anne Hopkins (IOP Publishing), Jackie Staunton (BMJ) and Martyn Lawrence (Emerald) took up the challenge of convincing an audience to look outside the usual routes to fiction publishing, and consider an area that is equally rewarding and (dare we say it?) even more dynamic.  The session was organised by the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers.

How do I get into scholarly publishing? 

“By accident”, seemed to be the consistent answer. Scholarly publishing is rarely a career choice! People fall into it, either through seeking experience for trade publishing, or because they have a particular skills set that suits the sector. 

Relationship-building? Tick. Marketing? Tick. Graphics? Tick. Digital innovation? Tick. The chance to publish work that makes an immediate impact? Tick. Front-line legal wrangling? You bet. Negotiation skills? Sales skills? Business development skills? Tick, tick, tick. OK, we don’t have J.K. Rowling and Harper Lee, but we do have Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee.

Crucially, scholarly publishers are increasingly looking outside the industry for talent.  If you have a professional background in technology, law or retail, you have transferrable skills we can use.

Does an MA in publishing offer an advantage? 

Yes: it shows passion and is a big green tick on an application form.  But scholarly publishers – just like trade publishers – want to know the impact of your degree.  What was the result?  What did you discover, what did you achieve?  Why does this qualification make you a better employee?  Candidates at interview need to demonstrate their effectiveness, not just paper qualifications.

What advice have you got for applicants?

Target the company you want to work in, and design your application around that company in particular. And if you do have a higher academic qualification, be prepared to take a step down at first to get ahead long term. The best publishers will be hiring not just for the advertised job but for the next two or three jobs as well, so candidates with the foresight to develop their careers in advance (through online activity or face-to-face networking) will stand the best chance of success.

Be prepared to take a risk in job applications.  Women in particular seem to apply for jobs only if they meet 90% of the criteria, whilst men are prepared to take more of a chance.  Be confident in yourself, and don’t be afraid to get outside your comfort zone.

What impact has digital publishing had on recruitment?

A massive impact.  Many publishers have targets for recruitment through social media and LinkedIn, and expect to be able to attract people through these channels.  More widely, this points to a crucial need to extend your online personality. If an employer searches for you online, what do they find? No one want to find embarrassing photos. But no one wants silence, either.  Being active online - in a way that links you to the publishing industry - is a great indicator that you are already thinking like a publisher

Would you rather employ a subject specialist or a publishing specialist?

Both! But it's very rare that journal publishers will recruit a subject specialist to work on the publishing side. Books work differently: commissioning editors will often remain with a list for decades. Arguably, the best lists – regardless of product type – are built by the people most effectively immersed in their respective subject community.  Publishing is about people. If you can build relationships over the long term, you can work in scholarly publishing.

So … do you need a PhD to work in scholarly publishing?

For the most part, no!  The only circumstances are if you apply for a very specific editorial role, usually within STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publishing. But because of the interconnections between scholarly publishing and higher education, it’s undeniable that additional time spent in a university environment will mean more exposure to academic thinking and teaching, and enable you to better understand why scholars do what they do. 

Finally, the session held a competition for the best question: a free employability consultation from Suzanne Collier at We awarded this to the first person brave enough to ask a question. And it underlined a wider issue. Speak up. To kick-start your career, scholarly publishing needs to hear you.

Oh, and beards are welcome.