"What do you actually do?'" "Do you have a scientific background?" "Why did you leave science?" These are all questions that come up quite regularly when I tell people that I am a scientific editor. At first I was almost insulted--how could anyone think I did not have scientific training, or that I was no longer involved with science? However, I now realize that the questions arise largely from general mystery about what scientific editors do, and the role that scientific training plays in that.
In the 6 years since I jumped from being a postdoc to being an editor, I have worked on two quite different journals - Trends in Cell Biology  (TCB) and now Cell  (and Developmental Cell  ). There are clear distinctions between Cell and TCB in terms of the day-to-day job and the skills required. However, there are also a lot of similarities. I will discuss both here, in the hope that this will be helpful for anyone thinking about what type of editorial position might suit them best.
Any journal editorial job involves reading and thinking about a very wide range of scientific topics, far broader than for most researchers. In many ways, becoming an editor is like becoming a student again - you go back to reading, learning and thinking about many different areas, and have to change topic several times throughout the course of a day. This is a job for people who enjoy learning, and who enjoy thinking analytically about a wide range of subjects. A big difference, of course, is that we use our analysis to make publication decisions. In both jobs, I have found it valuable to have a background in different subject areas and experimental systems, as it really helps to have a broader understanding and underlying knowledge than working in one area alone could provide. An editor on a review journal, like the Trends series, spends less time thinking about experimental data, and this aspect of research training therefore plays less of a role. However, a good grounding in widely differing subject areas is useful for any editorial job, and a broad range of experience is a definite plus for us when looking at candidates. Although it would probably be quite difficult for a student or postdoc to go to conferences outside their field of study, attending seminars is very useful for keeping up with broader developments in research, and I would encourage any aspiring editors to take advantage of whatever opportunities are available at their institute.
At Cell, I am part of a large team of editors involved in a wide range of activities related to assessment, review and publication of papers, as well as reviews and mini-reviews. It is a collaborative effort, and we spend a lot of time discussing papers and decisions. The job is constantly challenging, intellectually and practically, and most people who move into editing find it considerably more intense and exhausting than lab work, especially at first.
As a Deputy Editor, I put my experience to (hopefully!) good use by spending a significant portion of my time advising and training colleagues. This operates at all levels of the editorial process: initial assessment of papers, choice of reviewers, decisions after review, appeals, and anything else about which they feel in need of advice. I spend more time than others on issues that have more of a general, or planning focus, such as content and balance of individual journal issues, making sure we meet deadlines, consistency of standards, and interaction with people from different departments (e.g. subscriptions, marketing) to give scientific and editorial input when necessary. Much of this work draws on skills that I have acquired since moving into publishing and it's hard to draw a direct relationship to my scientific training. I suspect that most of it is more akin to being a PI or a manager in a biotech company than to anything I experienced as a student or postdoc.
The Trends journals are run by much smaller editorial teams. When I was the TCB editor I was largely responsible for making sure we had sufficient content for each month's journal. This required commissioning articles, getting them reviewed, overseeing the editing processes and coordinating the articles so they arrived to meet deadlines. The editor had essentially free rein in terms of shaping the overall balance, content, and 'personality' of the journal. This is fun, if somewhat daunting at first, and gives a strong sense of ownership and pride in the content of the journal. This level of control and flexibility also gives more opportunity for exercising creativity than there is at a journal such as Cell. However, the work is far removed from skills learned at the bench for assessing research papers. The initial learning curve was steeper than it would be if transferring from research to a primary journal, because I immediately was involved in many aspects of publishing with which I had little or no experience. I learned it was also necessary to plan my daily workload in a completely different way to working at the bench. The adjustment took some time before it felt comfortable.
One of their reasons many editors cite for moving into publishing is an interest in reading and writing about science. It is important to realize that being an editor is very different from being a writer, and although editors do sometimes get opportunities to write, these opportunities do not usually form a core part of the job. An editor of a review journal such as TCB spends a significant proportion of time editing articles to try to make them clear and accessible, and enjoyable to read. An aptitude, and even fondness, for doing this is a clear advantage, and this skill is something that can be developed quite easily while working in a lab. Before applying for my first editorial job, I made efforts to get information about working as an editor by visiting editorial offices and writing short and longer pieces whenever I got an opportunity to do so. I also voluntarily helped colleagues with writing papers, reviews and grant proposals. An editor on a primary journal doesn't absolutely need a masterful command of English, but a good grasp is very helpful for editing reviews and for ensuring that research papers are presented in a clear and accessible way. Another good preparation, particularly for working on a primary journal, is to be involved in peer reviewing papers; this is valuable experience for almost any job in science, not just publishing.
Overall, I think one of the biggest shocks when moving from bench to printed page is something that it is very difficult to prepare for beforehand, and that is the change of pace. The timescales shift from months or even years to weeks and days, and there are very few slow days. Something that doesn't change, and that most bench scientists are all too familiar with, is working long hours. Morning coffee is just as much of a ritual as it ever was.