A Day in the Life of Ashley Smart

Ashley Smart is the associate director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a senior editor at Undark magazine. He joined KSJ in 2018, after eight years as an editor at Physics Today. He is a member of the advisory board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a co-chair of the National Association of Science Writers diversity committee. Ashley was a 2015–16 Knight Science Journalism fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ashleythesmart.

 

Courtesy of Ashley Smart

Ashley Smart

What I’m working on:

A little of this, a little of that. KSJ does a ton of different things, and as associate director, I have at least a small hand in most of them. The centerpiece is the fellowship program. Each year we bring ten mid-career science journalists to Cambridge to spend 10 months taking classes, exploring new areas of interest, and basically becoming smarter journalists. A lot of my job is making sure the fellows get the most out of their year. This year we’re also rolling out a new science journalism award—the Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional reporting. Starting an award from scratch is demanding, and Victor was the program’s founding director, so we want to do him proud. I also edit for Undark, a digital magazine that’s published out of KSJ. So I spend a lot of time reading pitches and working with freelancers.

Where I work:

KSJ’s offices are on MIT’s east campus, near Kendall Square, right across the river from downtown Boston. We’re on the sixth floor, which gives us a decent view, but my office window is interior-facing. I share my office with Pete—a two-foot-tall ceramic penguin. I think my coworkers left him here as a joke, but the joke’s on them: Pete’s quiet, well mannered, and basically an all-around awesome officemate.

Daily routine:

I share my morning commute with my four-year-old son. We leave the house at seven, walk to Harvard Square, and take a bus to his elementary school, where he’s a junior kindergartener. After I drop him off, it’s a 10-minute walk to the KSJ offices to start my day.

It’s usually pretty quiet in the office when I get in, and I try to take advantage of that. If I have a piece to edit, I’ll work on that first, even before I check email. Otherwise, I’d waste my most productive hours in an email vortex. After a couple hours of editing, I come up for air, check email, catch up on the day’s news, and try to take care of administrative tasks.

My afternoons are a crapshoot. Sometimes I dive back into editing. Sometimes I read pitches. Sometimes I’m just batting emails around: My job involves a lot of program planning and coordinating, so I’m constantly sending and getting emails.

Ashley Smart

Pete the penguin, at Smart’s desk.

Fellows often drop by the KSJ offices in the afternoons, and it’s always a welcome break to shoot the breeze with them and learn about what they’re doing. They are a brilliant bunch, and they never fail to impress me with something they’ve learned in class or with the progress they’ve made on the various projects they’re working on.

One of the perks of the job is that every Tuesday and Thursday evening we bring in a scientist or science journalist to talk to the fellows as part of our KSJ seminar series. I usually try to sit in on these, and they never disappoint. Back when I was a fellow myself, I got a ton of story ideas from them. The only downside is that it makes for a late night at work.

Most productive part of my day:

The morning, hands down. If I could work from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. instead of 8:00 to 5:00, I would.

Most essential ritual or habit:

My four-year-old and I always arrive about 15 minutes early to his school, and for those 15 minutes I hang out with him on the playground along with his schoolmates and a few other parents. That’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. It helps me clear my mind before I start the work day.

Don't miss a thing. Sign up for our newsletter.

Sign Up

Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:

I take notes by hand, and I’m partial to Moleskines. Don’t judge.

How I keep track of my to-do list:

I write out my to-do list by hand in a notebook, putting an asterisk by the things that absolutely must get done that day. I rarely ever finish everything, so I always start each day’s list by copying over the undone to-dos from the day before.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

We use Slack in our office, so there’s that. And I rely pretty heavily on Google Calendar. I have one calendar for personal appointments, one for Undark stuff, and two for KSJ stuff. I also use the RSS reader Feedly, which, outside of Twitter, is how I get most of my news.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Ashley Smart

The KSJ offices. Smart’s office is the one with the empty shelves at far right.

I’m a parent of three- and four-year-old boys. They don’t leave much time for wasting. The closest I come is my train ride home, where I’ll often zone out by listening to a podcast. I’m currently listening to the third seasons of Serial and More Perfect. Because my commute is about 30 minutes door-to-door, however, it takes me two days to finish an episode.

My reading habits:

Sadly, it’s been ages since I finished a book. On my nightstand right now is a partially read copy of James McBride’s Five-Carat Soul, leaned against a partially read copy of my boss’s new book, The Poison Squad. Because I have so little spare time, I’ve become a magazine person. I love to meditate with a good longread to end the day.

Sleep schedule:

I usually go to bed between 11:00 and 12:00, and I wake up at 6:00 on the dot. I’ve discovered it takes exactly 75 minutes to get myself showered and dressed, get my four-year-old dressed and fed, pack his snacks for school, and walk with him to the bus stop. As long as I roll out of bed by 6:00, we can get there with a minute to spare.

 

Please Support The Open Notebook

The Open Notebook is committed to paying all our contributors competitive professional rates. Producing TON costs more than $2,500 per week, and we depend on contributions from our community of readers. If The Open Notebook has helped you, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution or a recurring donation. And thank you!

GIVE NOW

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *