Podcast Episode #6

Alison Mero
Executive Managing Editor at Clemson University Press

Anthony LaLena, Interviewer

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Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the Working PhDs podcast.

Anthony LaLena: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Working PhDs podcast. My name is Anthony LaLena. I’m a PhD student at Eastman in musicology, and I’m here with Alison Mero, who is Executive Managing Editor at Clemson University Press. And I’m really glad to have you here. I’d like to begin by asking you what you got your PhD in and what your research was about.

Dr. Alison Mero: Yeah. So I got my PhD in musicology from Indiana University. I graduated December of 2014. My dissertation was on English-language opera in London, in the 1830s and 40s, specifically the periodical press coverage of that opera and this huge discourse that went around what English offers should be, what they wanted versus what it was.

And it was very angsty. It was really interesting. I liked it a lot. So I played around with a lot of periodical databases, got my hands dirty in the archives, quite literally dirty because 19th century British things are covered in coal dust quite often. And I really liked my project.

AL: That’s all really amazing. I would like to talk to you about how you got to your current position or really more specifically what exactly your job entails.

AM: So as the executive managing editor, I handled production of all of our books– books specifically. We do handle the and journals, but I’m kind of in charge of all the books. So the entire process from when a manuscript is submitted until the book is printed and in somebody’s hands.

 I think of myself as sort of the hub of the wheel. So the manuscript comes into me and I send it off in one direction, then to the copy editors, and then it comes back to me and I review it, and I send it back to the author and they check things out, and it comes back to me. I also do some acquisitions in music.

When I came to Clemson, we were a very small press and a big part of why I was hired– we can talk about the main reason why I was wearing just a second– but a big part of why I was hired is because I had a PhD in musicology. The press director has a D Phil in English from Oxford and the press’s focus is literature and the arts. He’s comfortable with literature, he’s comfortable with visual arts, he is not comfortable with music. And so to hire somebody to have who was not just comfortable, but has a PhD, is well versed in it. And then I was essentially given free rein to start whatever I wanted in terms of a music list. So because of my interest in British music, we have a series of studies in British musical culture series.

 Publishing as an industry cares a whole lot more about, do you have publishing experience than are you a good scholar. And that’s too bad, I think on some fronts, because I think there are some people out there who’d be wonderful in the field. And I don’t think it’s like that hard to learn. But the way I got in is because I was first an editorial assistant and then the managing editor of the Journal of Musicology.

And it’s because Dan Melamed at Indiana University was one of the editors of Journal of Musicology for a long time. And he had an ongoing, like every year it was a new student who would be the editorial assistant, who would run through it, and I was good at it. Then he wanted to step down from being an editor and in the process decided to restructure the entire journal editorial process and made me managing editor.

So I was not making any content decisions cause I was at that point still a doctoral student. And that would have been not cool, but I was basically making sure the entire journal ran. So processing submissions, contacting readers, sending things out for peer review, just the whole process, which was actually more than what I do right now.

So it was from initial submissions and queries through to the published journal. And I didn’t do the editing of the articles. They had editors who did that, and they were meticulous. It was nice being able to watch them be that meticulous. I think I learned a lot just from reviewing their edits and copy edits and cleaning files and seeing how careful they were all the way through.

So that gave me, though, significant experience of being a managing editor for a top tier journal. That’s what got me this job, to be honest.

AL: That makes me think, I mean, if you don’t mind me jumping in for a minute, for those listeners who don’t have experience like you had, you know, working for a top tier journal, do you have any advice, possibly about how one might begin to learn that process on their own or possibly advocate for themselves applying for a position like this?

AM: I would say poke around because there’s tons of journals out there. I’m a big advocate for paid work and thankfully my work with the Journal of Musicology was a paid gig. But there are journals out there that need somebody to run the stuff.

And there are different levels of editorial there’s student journals, where there are editorial decisions being made. I’m not advocating that somebody start a journal, because Lord knows that’s just a huge job that no one should want to do, unless they’re tenured and you’re looking for a project. But get some publishing experience somewhere and there are ways to do it.

And there are so many jobs now that are a hundred percent remote. Worst case scenario, you learn that it’s a field that you don’t like. Best case scenario you might make a little money, and you’re going to get a line on the CV that says you know how to do it.

There’s also, publishing, I mean, there’s so many different parts of it. I handled production, but there’s the editorial phase where you do edit. There’s the copy edit phase, and there’s certifications you can go get for copy editing, type setting those sorts of skills. There’s marketing. I’m a terrible marketer, really, really bad at it. When I have to write marketing copy, and I do sometimes, it’s just, I don’t know why, I love the books I’m publishing. I should be able to sell them and say something enthusiastic about them, but I’m really bad at writing marketing copy. But other people are great at it.

Which leads me to part of your question. What did I learn? In my degree that helps me now will in particular acquisitions, what really helped is that, I mean, you read a lot, right? That’s what we do, a lot. And you learn what a good book looks like. You learn what a good argument is. Man, that’s what I got beat into me at IU. Like, you don’t write a, “I found a cool thing” paper. If you don’t have an argument to make, you’re like, “Nope, go do it again.” So I was taught how to write, and not mechanics. But I was taught how to write in the sense of how to structure the argument, how to make a bigger point. How to take this thing that is seemingly kind of small and insignificant and make people care.

So that helps me when somebody comes and pitches a book to me, and they’re like, this is really this cool thing. And I’m like, “Yeah, but why is this so important? Why are you so excited about this thing? What does it actually mean in the larger sense?” And often people know, they just don’t know how to articulate it. And so the editor part of me, I do more of that than the nuts and bolts, the conceptual stuff. And that’s fun. It’s really. Even if I don’t necessarily know that field, I know what an argument looks like.

I’m not saying that I know the book’s going to be good from a conversation, but I can tell from a conversation that this person has thought about it in the way that will lead to a good book.

AL: What are some of the telltale signs that you can tell they’ve thought enough to possibly produce a good book, that you might be interested in finding out what they’ve written?

AM: When you ask a question and they don’t go on and on and on and on, because that’s often a, “I’m thinking through my ideas while I’m talking to you right now.” And it’s not to say that they have a perfect 30-second elevator pitch. It’s that they can articulate what they want the book to be, that they’ve thought about that, that they can make connections to other relevant things in their field. Those are the big things.

AL: I think about that a lot. I’m particularly bad at elevator pitches, but sometimes I think I know what I’m talking about, but it depends on the day and the material.

AM: Well, and this is a bit of a change of subject, but I also want to throw out there that, like, I finished my dissertation and graduated in 2014. I didn’t get this job offer until January 2017. So that was two years of no real job. I adjuncted.

I also want to, like, I have no ill will towards Indiana University. I think they supported me absolutely as much as they could, and beyond what they had to. They made sure that I had an active CV as long as I wanted it, where I could come in and teach one or two classes. It was a little bit of money, but it was less about the money and more about keeping active. There was one year where I was even designated Visiting Assistant Professor to make the line on the CV look better, even though the work was no different, really. So I really feel like they did what they could to make me look good on the job market.

And as we all know, the job market is awful and our faculty by and large did not understand that. And not because they were willfully ignorant necessarily. It was just that most of them had gone through it when it wasn’t that bad.

But you know, the longer I applied for jobs and didn’t get them. I went on meds and I taught myself how to make macarons in all of my free time. Pretty good at macarons now.

I really love my job now. I want to make that clear. I think that I am happier doing this than I would have been as a professor, especially with the hot mess that academia has become recently. But I don’t want to make it sound like “Huzzah! I graduated and I got this great job.”

And I don’t get paid nearly what I should, but there are other perks, the jobs extremely flexible. I work with fantastic people. I’m putting out really cool books. Should I get paid a lot more than I do? Yes. Maybe someday I’ll switch to a different press and I will get paid more than I do. But for now in this moment, there are other considerations. I’m married. I have two kids. This is a good place to be for those things right now.

But I was legit depressed because I had spent so long trying to get a job, or getting a degree so then I could get one specific job of being a professor. And so it wasn’t until I really started switching gears and like, I’m going to look for publishing and that’s when I started at least getting nibbles.

AL: Well, thank you for bringing that up and being so honest about it because I think a lot of us in especially late stages PhD, we feel the pressures of the job market being poor. But also, you know, a lot of us just started out of other degrees, and now we’ve been here so long where we want stability, because we want a family and children and things like that, you know? And I think a lot of us just think for that reason, it’s like, maybe I don’t really want to do this.

I think coming to terms with that is very difficult for people who have invested so much time and so much of themselves and, like, their identity in this work. So what you were saying really resonates just because I feel like a lot of us are there, and I feel a lot of us are already feeling like intensely depressed about it already.

AM: I’m also a real believer that it’s not like there is one job out there that’s going to make me happy. If somebody chooses to leave their program without finishing, more power to them. I’m glad I have a PhD. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t need it to do my job. There are things that I brought to the job that I think made me more competitive to be hired, to begin with because I have it, but I don’t need the PhD to do what I do.

AL: It’s just so, so nice to be talking to you about this, just because a lot of the times like university departments will sponsor sort of alt-ac stuff, so much of it is them trying to validate their own existence, the fact that you’re there, right. And the PhD, so much of it is like, “Your PhD is going to get you to this job. It’s so good. It’s going to make you different, better and everything,” you know?

And it’s like, that’s not always the case. Like you said, you didn’t need it and you’re glad you have it. And it helps you in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t necessary, you know? And I think that’s just so, so important.

AM: And I think when you apply for a job that is not in academia we’ve been trained, like here is how you sell yourself as an academic. And that’s not what you do when you’re applying for another job. And I’ve already said how terrible I am at marketing copy. And that’s essentially what you’re trying to write when you are applying for a job. But I mean, the key thing is you need to tell that employer how good you are at the things they need.

Humanities PhDs are amazing at taking really complicated niche information and communicating it to people who don’t know that niche. We’re really good at. One of my colleagues from grad school ended up working for the National Security Administration and her dissertation was on Blue Note Records, but it was because they were looking for humanities PhDs. They were going to train her. She was going to go through like a two or three-year training program on the content. And her job was then to communicate that content that the tech guys did to people who didn’t understand what the tech.

I don’t know the details because it was the NSA and you’re not allowed to know the details of course, but that was the whole, like, that was the reason she was hired. What could she do? She could take huge amounts of information, assimilate it, understand it, pull out the bits that were important and communicate that to other people. We’re good at that.

A lot of us are good at giving presentations. Musicology in particular, we often came from a performance background. We’re typically not super shy about standing up in front of people. So, I mean, there are things that we really do have to offer to other employers. And the key is then like, remembering that they don’t care about Victorian opera at all.

 For me, at least my experience, which is all I can speak to, is that it has to do with having some experience in grad school that isn’t solely teaching and research, having something else that I can market myself with. And if all you’ve got is teaching and researching, then play that hard.

Those two years of being on the job market and not getting any responses and really questioning why I did this, it’s a little easier now on the other side, to be able to say things that sound maybe a little wise. I mean, I feel like I know me better. I know what I want better. I know how to play better. And I think that I am happier as a person in spite of we’re going to mention this again, but in spite of the not getting paid as much as I’d like to be overall happier because of all the other things that play out for me.

AL: Well, it’s been great to have you. Thank you so much for your time and all your information about your current career and the advice you’ve given us. It’s been really enlightening and I really enjoyed our talk today.

AM: No, this is great. Good luck with everything.

AL: Thank you.

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our Working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center, and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.