How to Pursue the Career You Want

Generally, the questions I’ve heard over the years fall into a couple of categories:

  1. I want to get a job doing X/in Y industry. What do I need to do/learn/know to get there?
  2. I’m unhappy doing X, but I don’t know what to do next.

I’ll take these one at a time and see if I can provide some more generalized advice (realizing that not all of you want to be writers in the space business).

I want to get a job doing X/in Y industry. What do I need to do/learn/know to get there?

The people asking question 1 are usually asking how to get my job or something similar, but not always. Say you have no interest in working in aerospace. You want to work in the automotive industry, or biotech/medical, or (Deus protect you) banking regulations. The approach, I would argue, is similar regardless. Your first step, of course, is to learn about the job.

Research: Before you dive into a new field, you might want to get a better look at what the job actually entails and how healthy the market is. The Occupational Outlook Handbook assembled yearly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great starting point. The OOH might or might not have your specific title in mind, but you might find something similar.

Check the want ads: Indeed.com, Monster.com, whatever suits you. The job descriptions, experience qualifications, and other background are usually all right there.

Talk to people: There are a few ways you can go about this, from face-to-face interviews to email to going to conferences and speaking with people there.

Your next step in the process is to determine your best angle for getting where you want to be. Is your gap degree-focused (i.e., do you need a specific type of degree to get the job)?

See what you can do/learn to minimize transition costs: Given the ridiculous cost of colleges and universities these days, it’s better to seek the path that requires the least time, effort, and money so you can get into your chosen field as quickly as possible. If you have a comparable degree, for instance, you might be able to get smart on the subject through online research, reading, or short (free) classes.

Do volunteer work related to your chosen path: In my case, I did a lot of writing for the citizen space advocacy community, doing letter-writing campaigns, running conferences, and writing policy papers related to space exploration. Yes, I did this in my free time, and no, I didn’t get paid. However, I did get that marvelous addition for the resume: “experience.” As a bonus, that experience demonstrated my interest in and commitment to the industry.

Get smart about the industry: Again, regardless of your chosen path, you can find any number of resources online or in your local public library to help you learn what’s going on and what the big issues are in your preferred industry or line of work. Take the time to read what’s being said in trade publications, traditional news outlets, and blogs so you can be up to speed.

Swing for the fences: If you’re passionate about working in a particular industry and your resume doesn’t quite match the requirements (yet), you might try writing a really snappy cover letter sharing your enthusiasm for the work. You might get an interview anyway.

I’m unhappy doing X, but I don’t know what to do next

This will delve a little bit into personal analysis (a subject, again, in which I am not a licensed professional), but experience still counts for something, so people ask my opinion. Often, you have to start with the basics, which includes healthy doses of honesty and introspection.

Figure out why you are unhappy: Ask yourself what is making you unhappy. Are there other problems in your life outside work that are causing you stress/frustration? Is the problem your work environment? Problems at home? Your chair? Your boss? Your office culture? Your work content? Your working hours? Your lack of promotion or career development opportunities? Your benefits? Your work-life balance? Your location? Your pay? Your commute? Because we spend so much of our time at work, it engages many parts of our lives. You might try listing out each of the items above and rating them 1-10 and see if you can identify your “pain points.”

Take action where you can: You might find that, overall, your job is pretty good, but the two-hour commute every day is kicking you in the rear and draining your energy. Maybe you just need to ask your boss if you can telecommute or work in a location closer to home. The point is, if there are little or big things in your job that would greatly increase your quality of life, take those steps first before throwing your life into upheaval.

Find help: If the problems you’re facing are moral or ethical, you might need to speak with a mentor, spiritual advisor, or even a lawyer. If they are cultural, you might talk with friends inside or outside of work. If they are management-related, well, given our litigious society, you might want to think through any formal complaints very carefully…again, perhaps by consulting a lawyer. If the problems are related to violence or illegal activity, you need to talk to law enforcement…lawyers…and maybe a counselor for yourself and anyone involved. Your level of assistance should reflect the realistic nature of your problem.

Identify what bugs you: Let’s say you’ve taken what steps you can to improve your work situation. You got a new chair for the office, your computer got upgraded, you’ve been given permission to telecommute, and the office culture is on the whole friendly and supportive…and you’re still unhappy with what you’re doing. In other words, let’s say you’ve got a good thing going and you just don’t like your job. Now what? It’s at this stage that you need to start looking at the specifics of your work rather than the circumstances surrounding your work, as noted above. Is it the level of detail you’re asked to handle? Do you dislike working in large groups of boisterous people who might be typical of your industry? Does the content bore you? Do you seek more autonomy? 

Identify what you want: This is sometimes trickier for people than identifying what they dislike about their work. It’s like you’re hard-wired to complain but speechless when it comes to stating your desires. One quick way to identify the type of work that you do want is to invert your complaints: if you dislike micromanagement, you probably prefer more autonomy; if you dislike loud environments, you might want to consider a quieter industry; if you dislike detail work, perhaps you’d be happier working with management-level material, which can be more “big-picture” and abstracted.

Finally, as I’ve written on this blog before, you need to be able to find a line of work that interests you and maybe even combines your hobby interests with your talents. It’s been said elsewhere that if you love what you do, you’ll never “work” a day in your life. That phrase is somewhat incomplete. It’s not that you won’t ever work; you will, but it won’t feel like work because you enjoy what you do.

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So You Want My Job…?

As more thoughts come to me about advice for English majors who want to work as a space writer, I realized that a lot of effort is just getting smart about the space business–the technology, business, and politics of it all. Below is a list of the various resources I’ve absorbed over the years to “get smart” about writing for the space biz. It’s a mix of books on writing, space fiction, space opinion, science, and other bits. One last sub-list comprises the journalistic/blog resources I consult to keep up on current news. This set of resources should not be considered comprehensive, but a good introduction to some of the primary issues, political points of view, and even paradigms space people use as part of their shared cultural shorthand. Other things no doubt will come to me. I still need to find a good NASA acronym guide.

Anyhow, I hope this information is useful to you. The bottom line, as I discovered through a long and slow learning process, is that if you want to work in any line of work, you have to demonstrate that you’re passionate about it and that you have taken the time to learn about it. It’s probably wrong that I enjoy my job as much as I do, but hey, there are worse things I could be writing, right?

Stuff to Read

On Writing

Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Robert Williams
How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card
On Writing by Stephen King
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
World-Building by Stephen L. Gillett

The next three are still on my to-read list…

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Analog and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
Time Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel by Paul Nahin
Aliens and Alien Societies by Stanley Schmidt and Ben Bova

On Space (Nonfiction)

The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin
Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization by Robert Zubrin
The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O’Neill
Blogging the Moon by Paul Spudis
Mining the Sky by John L. Lewis
Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger Bilstein
The Lunar Base Handbook Ed. by Peter Eckart
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story by David Hitt, Owen Garriott, and Joe Kerwin
The Starflight Handbook: A Pioneer’s Guide to Interstellar Travel by Eugene Mallove and Gregory Matloff
Paradise Regained by Gregory Matloff, C Bangs, and Les Johnson
Architecture for Astronauts: An Activity-Based Approach by Sandra Hauplik-Meusberger
Space Politics and Policy: An Evolutionary Perspective by Eligar Sadeh

On Space (Fiction)

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
The Man Who Sold the Moon/Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Welcome to Moonbase by Ben Bova
How to Live on Mars: A Trusty Guidebook to Surviving and Thriving on the Red Planet by Robert Zubrin
Medea: Harlan’s World Ed. by Harlan Ellison
Going Interstellar, Ed. by Les Johnson and Jack McDevitt

On Science/Technology

Books:

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension by Michio Kaku
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler
N-Space by Larry Niven
Playgrounds of the Mind by Larry Niven
Cosmos by Carl Sagan
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil
Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture Ed. by A. Scott Howe and Brent Sherwood
The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin

Videos/CDs/Classes:

Engineering an Empire: The Complete Series
Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity
Joy of Science

Current Periodicals/Blogs

Space.com
Space News
Aviation Week and Space Technology
The Space Review
Spaceflight Insider
NASASpaceflight.com
TMRO.tv
NASAWatch

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More Thoughts for English Majors Who Want to Work at NASA

It’s surprising and gratifying to see how many people have emailed me to ask for advice on getting a writing job at NASA. It’s come up again now and then; maybe I should write a book on how to get my job. Anyhow, my most recent correspondent is more of a creative/fiction writer, but she wanted to know if it was still possible to get a job working at NASA. My thoughts are below.

***

You’ve read some of my background on how and why I got into writing for the space business, so I won’t repeat all of that. I’m not currently a NASA contractor (that contract ended in 2012), but I still support a small space-related business that works with NASA, Virgin Galactic, and other organizations doing cool things.

The work I’ve done has come in many flavors:

  • Proposal writing for companies pursuing government (i.e. NASA) contracts.
  • Technical papers for engineers/managers to present at conferences (some of the bigger ones are the National Space Symposium in Denver, CO, and the annual AIAA Space conference & exhibition, and the AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference).
  • White papers for new products or programs–the primary target of these documents is usually members of Congress or their staffers, as the primary source of money for space activities is the U.S. Government.
  • Technical program documents: this can include things like a Safety & Mission Assurance Plan, a Concept of Operation (CONOPS) Plan, or a Systems Engineering Management Plan (SEMP). These are guidance documents NASA or a commercial company uses to define how a particular mission or vehicle such as the Space Launch System will conduct its operations and under what conditions.
  • Public outreach content: this has included mission blogs, journalism, media releases, flyers/fact sheets that are given out to the public, and even the text on the back of mission decals, explaining the symbolism or significance of a particular vehicle or mission.

In all of these documents, I get the opportunity to work with technical folks doing or leading the actual work. Engineers, as a general rule, are not fond or writing–and it shows! A lot of what I do amounts to taking Engineerish and translating it into plain but hopefully engaging English.

So yes, it is entirely possible for a writer to get a job at NASA or in the space business in general. The trick is, what kind of writing do you want to do, and where do your interests lie? My passion happens to be human spaceflight, which is how I got into the National Space Society (and from there into the Mars Foundation and Space Frontier Foundation) as a citizen space advocate. But that wasn’t enough for me–I wanted to know how things actually worked–so I slowly worked my way into space journalism and then finally NASA technical writing as described above. I’m somewhat interested in science (“How does X work?”), but I like engineering (“How can we make X useful?”) better. A peer of mine, Dauna Coulter, loves the science side of things and her writing is just gorgeous. She’s great at science storytelling, which might be a good niche for your interests. It all depends on what you want to do. But really, if you’re passionate about it and are willing to learn the lingo, NASA can find a use for your skills. Some folks in the organization–not all, but some–are coming to realize that HOW they communicate is as important as WHAT they communicate. They’ve got plenty of engineers, they NEED communicators.

Different types of space writing require different skill sets; if you know what you want to focus on, I can offer some more practical advice, but I hope you find this useful.

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Continuous Learning Online

My apologies for not posting in a while. Good news is, I’m working–a nine-month instructional design contract and technical and proposal writing for an aerospace small business. I’m certain I’ll have more to share about topics dealing both jobs when I have the time and inclination. Today’s entry is prompted by my aerospace work.

I am prone to fret about the possibility of job insecurity, which equates to financial insecurity. My solutions to these problems are twofold: find work and/or pick up additional learning.

My employer at Zero Point Frontiers Corp. is convinced that I’m really an engineer at heart, I just have a “mathematical deficiency,” as he calls it. Well, yeah. And math tends to be important when you’re building things that go into space. So if I have challenges or educational gaps in my mathematical skills, that’s probably a good clue that I shouldn’t be helping design rockets.

However, this is the 21st century, and knowledge gaps are no longer fatal to one’s career, nor are they prohibitively expensive to overcome. While I am toying with pursing a M.S. in Systems Engineering, I still need to get over that mathematical “hump.”  The one prerequisite listed on the Embry-Riddle site, for instance, is Math 412, which is a combination of calculus and statistics, neither of which I converse in clearly–or, let’s face it, at all. That means one of two things: going back to community college and retaking “dummy” algebra and trigonometry or getting myself smart on my own.

Fortunately, there is another alternative. Several educational institutions now have full classes online, covering everything from algebra and calculus to art history and chemistry. The service I’ve been using this past month is Khan Academy, an online “school” that’s helping me get smart on my math. Khan Academy appears to have been started for kids, but the subject matter lends itself to anyone who wants to learn. The instructors–at least the guy who’s teaching the math content–are clear-spoken and not condescending. Plus, I can go at my own pace.

Another place offering free online content is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I’ve listened to one or two of their courses as well, though the professors tend to be a lot more high-blown in their language and they assume that you’ve had education in their subject before you sit down to listen to Course X.

The biggest problem with Khan or MIT’s free courseware is that, while it might get you up to speed on something, that doesn’t mean you have credentials in the field. I suspect this will change in the next 5-10 years, as more and more kids get home-schooled and more and more adults find Big Education had to afford.

As it stands right now, I plan to get as smart as I can on a variety of engineering-related curricula before I put down money for another master’s degree. First, it will give me a leg up on the content, and second, it will make the actual degree work pass more quickly and smoothly. The degree, while relatively expensive, can be done in ~3 years, which is how long the M.A. in tech writing took.

The good news about pursuing accredited academic work online is that it does get you the credentials, and HR departments and hiring managers check boxes much more easily. Online work, regardless of whether it gives you college credit or not, has one distinct advantage over in-class work: you can do it pretty much when you please, as long as you turn in your work on time. However, online classes don’t tie you to inconvenient classroom times or require you to drive on campus, pay for parking, or fight for a parking spot, all of which are common inconveniences for “non-traditional students,” as they call those of us who are not still in our teens or twenties.

In any case, if you are looking to change careers, online sources provide a great way to get your feet wet without spending any money. You might learn to love your new subject matter, or you might realize that the subject matter is not for you. I’m learning that I can do algebra (I did get an A the last time I took it), but I have to slow down, think math-logically, and take my time to get it right. Whatever journey you take, I wish you well.

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On the Road Again

  On travel again, so for your #TBT (Throwback Thursday, if you aren’t a Facebooker), here’s a link to my post on business travel: https://heroictechwriting.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/business-travel-tips-for-the-technical-writer/

Safe travels, all!

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Drinking from the Fire Hose

Drinking-From-The-Fire-Hose-dan-skognes-leadership-development-trainer-coach-motivation-blogger

Image source: DanSkognes.com

This week my days will be spent “drinking from the fire hose,” a colorful turn of phrase that usually hits when a technical communicator is about to dive into a new job or project and has to assimilate a lot of information in a short amount of time.

Reading the information is one thing. Organizing it is something else. Fortunately, certain types of information lend themselves to specific organizational strategies. Another way to cope with a large volume of information is to focus on the task at hand. The application for your information–status report, marketing material, training session–will help you sort the wheat from the chaff and allow you to concentrate on what’s most important.

However, all that organizing comes later, after you’ve drunk from the fire hose. The important thing when you’re in meetings taking notes or reading a pile of paper is to get it all in your head first. Collect, then sort. If you’re in meetings with subject matter experts (SMEs), you have an opportunity to do some preliminary sorting by asking leading questions:

  • What’s most important about X?
  • How does X relate to Y?
  • Is (your audience) going to know that or want to know that?

Your audience, situation, and intended outcome will help you bring the flood of information down to a manageable size. In the meantime, my best advice for surviving fire-hose mode includes:

  • Listen carefully
  • Take good notes–use your own mental shorthand if you have to, and then translate the information back to proper form later
  • Try to absorb and understand as you go along and ask if you have a question, but don’t stress yourself out trying to understand everything right in the moment–drinking from the fire hose is about absorbing information; making sense out of it is a subsequent activity
  • Record a SME session if you’re concerned about missing something, but ask their permission first
  • If you’re a pen-and-paper person, as I often am, make certain you have plenty of paper and backup pens

Best of luck…and drink up!

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Things To Do When You Start a New Job

I’ll be starting a new contract position today. The position comes with more responsibility than I’ve had in a while, but my approach on the first day won’t be much different from how I act on the first day of any other job.

Listening

Yes, I am being brought aboard as a consultant, but the customer’s needs come first. Before I can contribute, I need to know what I’m getting into and what they need from me. I could go in guns blazing, but that would strike some as arrogant. For the first week or more, I will listen more than speak. That also helps with…

Learning

For the next few weeks (or months), I will be in “sponge mode,” trying to absorb all the information around me from subject matter experts and printed materials. In my experience, there are three primary fields of study for any job: people, process, and product. People include, subject matter experts, managers, their personalities, and how they interact (“politics” would be another “P”). Processes include both how the content affects the customer as well how I am expected to function in the workplace. Product is simply the content itself, which is perhaps one third of what needs to be learned in the process of technical writing.

Assimilating

This “quiet” approach going into a new workplace isn’t just a professional attitude, but it’s more or less a function of my introverted personality. For instance, I’ve got a bit of a quirky sense of humor, so I try to tone that down until I understand what sorts of humor are acceptable in a workplace and when it seems appropriate to let one of my quips fly. I don’t clam up completely–I do try to be friendly with everyone, from the bosses to the administrative assistants at the front office. I consider friendliness to be essential to how I do my work. It reduces friction and is more likely to result in a good first impression.

These seem pretty basic, don’t they? Now I just need to practice what I preach and get down to business.

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