This post is part of Editing After Academia, a series that spotlights editors who have found fulfilling careers outside academia.
As a first-generation student, Colleen Berry had already adopted an mindset of chasing the value rather than the title. Whether it was sweeping floors or teaching abroad or at a university, early on she developed a flexibility that has allowed her to move through various careers—a teacher in Taiwan, a translator, a professor of Chinese Studies, and now a freelance copyeditor.
“It’s not about the title or the achievement,” she says, “It’s about connecting with work that matters to you.”
Between her degrees, she worked outside academia and gained experience with Chinese and Japanese by living in mainland China and Taiwan, as well as Japan. In 2002, Colleen completed a PhD in Chinese literature; she then taught at universities in Manitoba, North Dakota, and Colorado before deciding to become a freelance editor.
In our interview, Colleen describes her work as an editor with translation skills, the value of work experience outside of academia, and the ways that being first-gen student have given her a valuable perspective on aligning her values with her career path.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Editing for different languages
I speak, read, and write Chinese and Japanese. While I’m editing in English, I’ll often come across terminology that is commonly used in those languages, and so I can edit with those terms in mind. Because of my language abilities, I can often figure out what somebody’s trying to say even though it may not be clear on the page. I’d say about 80% of my clients originally come from an East Asian country or teach in the Asian studies field; most are either graduate students or professors in the United States who have to publish in English.
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who say, “How did you know what I was trying to say?” and “You really got my meaning!” and I always emphasize that I don’t want to change their voice or meaning. The goal of the editor is to bring out the author’s original meaning as clearly as possible.
Editors with PhDs really do bring a lot to the table. It’s not just a degree, which does help with accessing some jobs, but it also really adds to your ability to understand content and how people convey it.
Training after the PhD
My advice to PhD students who want to be editors: take an editing course.
Don’t assume that you know everything because you’ve taken a lot of university classes and you’ve done a lot of writing. We don’t always know what we don’t know until we take classes. Take one class and, if you feel that you’ve learned a lot, you can take more. If you feel like it’s a waste of time, then maybe you don’t need it.
I took the copyediting courses through the University of California San Diego, and I can’t say enough good things about the instructors and the content. I learned so much, and I still return to my notes from those courses.
Note from Letitia: The courses I teach, including “Transitioning into a Career in Editing: A Microcourse for PhDs,” are available here.
On being a first-gen student
I was a first-gen college student and then a first-gen MA and PhD student.
Since nobody in my family went to college, I didn’t have the model of going straight through school for a tenure-track job. I always had to work. When I finished each degree, I’d say, “I’m done with school. I’m going to work.” And I had some very interesting jobs! I didn’t burn out like many of my fellow students who powered through their degrees one after another. Having experience outside of academia was hugely important for me as it gave me a much broader perspective. I had lived in Japan and mainland China and Taiwan for several years, so it made a big difference to my studies in terms of my language ability and my understanding of the cultures.
My message from my family was always that I had to support myself. When I finished college, my goal was to be self-supporting; it wasn’t to have this big career. I also wanted to go back to Taiwan to study Chinese, so the first job I took out of college was sweeping the floors at the Sears department store. I was the janitor, but I had a living—I could support myself and save money to buy a plane ticket.
When changing careers, I never felt like I was starting over. I’ve always brought what I had learned before into each new job. I don’t care if it was sweeping floors—everything I’ve done has been valuable. You’re never starting out at the bottom, because your values and your openness to learning from any situation can take away the fear of failure; it opens you to the idea that if you don’t make it at one job, you can always do something else.
Even if you find yourself tenured at a university, at some point you may realize your passion might be somewhere else!
J. Colleen Berry majored in Asian Studies as an undergraduate, worked as an ESL teacher and then received her MA from the Jackson School at the UW in Seattle, where she focused on modern Chinese history. She spent several years studying and working as a tour leader in mainland China and as a copyeditor in Taiwan and Japan before finishing her Ph.D. in Chinese literature at Indiana University. Her next move was to Canada to teach Chinese Studies at the University of Manitoba, and from there to the University of North Dakota where she was an Associate Professor of Chinese Studies. Before leaving academia, she was the Associate Director of the Center for Asian Studies and Asian Studies instructor at CU Boulder.