Popular Science editor tells students to 'find your own way'

Although Joe Brown ’02, editor in chief of Popular Science, is happy with his meandering academic and career journey, he is careful to tell students not to follow in his footsteps.

“You’re going to find your own way and that is going to be the exact right way for you,” said Brown, an English major, during a Nov. 1 talk on campus. He told students that his journey through Cornell included taking a couple of years away, time he spent taking stream flow measurements, attending auto tech school and working in Ithaca restaurants. 

The reassuring message he had for students? Cornell always welcomed him back.

“At Cornell, you can study pretty much anything. You can take Latin, you can take dendrochronology, you can take a six-credit course on Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ “ he said. “And sometimes you wander off the path, but (advisors and professors) will say ‘look at this delicious garden you’ve discovered’ and I think that is the arc of a university: making sure students can wander off one path and discover another.”

Brown spoke as this year’s Munschauer Speaker hosted by the College of Arts & Sciences’ Career Development Center. The Munschauer Career Series was endowed by the former director of the Cornell University Career Center, John Munschauer, to provide funds for Arts & Sciences alumni to return to campus to benefit current A&S students' career education. 

During his time at Cornell, Brown said he didn’t write for the Daily Sun and didn’t have any internships, but he was a waiter at Banfi’s, which was a formative experience for him. “I was a great waiter,” he said, adding that staff there still remember him. “Before that time, I didn’t have experience being really good at stuff and that gave me a lot of confidence.”

Another thing he was good at, though, was writing, and he also loved “gadgets” and technology, so he headed to the city after graduation, where his restaurant experience came in handy while he “applied for every job in New York City,” in the media industry.

He landed a night shift job at “Us Weekly,” (where he said his boss called him Alan because that was the name of the guy who had his desk during the daytime), and eventually he got an email from Popular Science, which was looking for an entry-level editor.

“Once I got there, I was on a mission to get as many bylines as possible,” he said, adding that he had his first cover story one year later. “I thought I had fooled somebody into hiring me and I was not going to lose that opportunity.”

 Joe Brown speaking with students
Every month, one of his main objectives was to scoop Wired Magazine, a main competitor. As the person in charge of Popular Science’s auto and gadget sections, he told companies with new technologies to come to him first rather than Wired if they wanted to be covered. When editors at Wired starting losing stories to Brown, they hired him away to job in San Francisco.

“I learned so much about being a journalist at Wired – I learned about ethics, trade craft, sentence structure,” he said. Plus, he started a blog about cars, “so I could get car companies to let me drive cool cars.”

Attracted to the online world, he went to work for Gizmodo with a mission to bring more highly-polished journalism to the digital world, he said. He eventually returned to Wired and then to Popular Science in 2016, even though the magazine was struggling at the time, he said. 

“This seemed like a terrific opportunity to pick up a brand that has an amazing history,” he said, plus Popular Science readers were a more diverse bunch than those at either Wired or Gizmodo, and he found that prospect challenging.

Brown shared a few career tips with students:

  • Although networking may be painful, it’s worth the effort.
  • Don’t sacrifice your ethics to get ahead, that’s the most important thing you can protect.
  • Keep your resume to one page – your cover letter is more important.
  • A car antennae can be handy in a fight.
  • Working late doesn’t always mean you’re committed, sometimes it means you have time management issues.
  • Ask people you admire to buy you coffee. 
  • Always negotiate. Don’t think you’re too junior to negotiate.
  • Remember that we’re all faking it.

Perhaps the most important message, though, is to follow your own path.

“We’ve all got this tiny voice in us that says, ‘maybe you should go this way and not that way’,” he said. “I am a big fan of listening to that voice.”

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