A Practical Approach to Career Change

As promised, I’m going to try to crystallize some of the advice I’ve shared with my various readers and correspondence seeking to answer this question:

“I have X experience and I’m trying to pursue a career in Y field. How do I go about getting the job I want?”

Identify what you really want

I think it’s important to do a little self-evaluation and determine what about your current situation/career is or is not working for you. Do you love your work but hate your leader, or vice versa? Will a change of manager, company, or job fix what’s bothering you? If the way you approach a job or react to people creates problems for you, a change of scenery will result in the same problems with merely a different cast of characters.

Also, I have to admit that I’m one of those emotional types who wants or needs to feel personally invested in the work I’m doing…one of the luxuries of working in a nebulous, philosophical career like writing. Take some time to identify what you specifically want to do and why. Changing your career/lifestyle isn’t always a great idea just because you’re temporarily bored or burned out. If the boredom or burnout have been long-running, take the time to identify what it is that is causing those responses to your work. This way, you have a combination of positives and negatives pulling and pushing you along the path you want to pursue.

No job is going to be without static or downsides, but you can usually identify potential deal-killers during the interview process by asking about specific content, organizational, or cultural practices (without saying something ugly like, “I hate that about my last job”).

Determine if you’ve got relevant experience

There’s a slight gap sometimes between what’s possible and what’s realistic when it comes to career change. Much of what it boils down to is past experience.

  • Have you ever done anything related to the industry you’re interested in doing?
  • Have you ever done anything similar to the work you’re interested in doing–for pay or as a volunteer?
  • Are you blogging about the topic/industry that interests you in your free time?
  • Have ever done any reading/research about the work you’re interested in doing in your free time?

Some of this goes to your experience, some of it goes to your real level of interest. True story: as I was close to graduating from my B.A., one of the things I considered was teaching English in Japan. This, despite taking no teaching classes or bothering to learn Japanese in any remedial fashion. I’d read Shogun a couple times. You can’t make up stories that stupid.

On the flip side, I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating: I wanted to write for the space industry fresh out of that B.A. When I started dropping resumes on the big aerospace contractors in Central Florida, I was informed that I lacked the appropriate experience or background. Fast forward a dozen years, and by that time I’d worked as a space advocate, written policy papers, held a job in a technical field, and had a bunch of strong references from acquaintances in the industry.

Study the pay scale

One of the standard things I do when looking at various job prospects is visit Salary.com. They have a few tools worth investigating, including:

You might also take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook to see if the type of work you’re wanting to do is on the rise or the decline. Another good thing to look for if you consider moving is a cost of living comparison calculator

Check your network

I’ve addressed networking before, but it bears repeating in this specific context. The people you meet through face-to-face events or experiences (always the best) can help you by answering specific questions you might have about an industry, ideally before you’ve applied for a job. It’s also good to let your network know–without being so tactless as to let your employer know–what specific sort of work you’re looking to do. There’s a lot less pressure on the other person if you’re just seeking information rather than trying to get help getting hired. These would be questions such as:

  • What sorts of skills/background/experience/knowledge are necessary to get a job doing X?
  • Is Company X hiring? If so, what types of positions?
  • What would I need to do/have/be to have an advantage over other candidates?

Of course you could take an alternate approach and explain to your current manager that you are looking for a change. I would only do this in a large, diverse company with more opportunities than you’d find elsewhere. An understanding leader might be able to suggest a new/different area of the same company where you might find what you’re seeking.

Take action on your own behalf

I really can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re gung-ho to change your career, you need to do the legwork and figure out the practical realities of the new position or career you want. This means diving into the research: knowing not just what type of work you want to do, but what industries are hiring people with your skill sets and where. Once you’ve drunk from the data fire hose a bit, you’ll be able to narrow down your search to specific locations, specific companies, and specific jobs and from there customize your resume to best reflect your ability to meet employer or customer needs. Someone else won’t do this for you. You’re the one who’s most invested in your own success. Taking those constructive steps will put you in a positive frame of mind to make the changes you want.

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First Minute-itis

Some of us pick up the habit in college: we have two or three months to write a term paper and figure, “Oh, I’ll have plenty of time for that.” Then we get to a point a week or two before the due date before we realize, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got a 20-page paper to write!” We then spend the next 7-10 days racing around the library, freaking out.

Not going to lie: I had those moments. However, I started learning a few things about that approach when I got to the business world and was forced to juggle multiple projects at once:

  • You will always have less time than you think.
  • Priorities will shift.
  • The requirements for the task could change, and if you haven’t done anything yet, you might find yourself playing catch-up sooner than you thought.
  • Other work will come in that will affect your ability to devote time to the big project with the later deadline.
  • I don’t enjoy the stress that comes with doing things at the last minute.
  • Last-minute work usually is cranked out in a slapdash fashion due to rushing or sheer panic. In short, you’ll make more mistakes.

Those points stated, I was probably in my 30s before I learned to discipline myself to dive into a project as soon as possible. Part of this was simply because my work started interesting me more. Part of it was that engineering data doesn’t have a long half-life in my brain. As a result, I learned to start processing my notes for a new assignment as soon as I got back to my desk. There are several advantages to this approach:

  • The information is still fresh in my mind.
  • While I’m processing my notes, I can also make notes on my approach, format, and timeline.
  • Again, while the information is fresh, I can start drafting some text to prime the pump and save myself from having to recall information or go back to the subject matter expert/manager to repeat.

Now I know there are probably folks who thrive on being “miracle workers” who can crank out last-minute prose by the volume in record time. But I’ve got to ask: how good is that work? How high is your blood pressure? What do your managers, peers, or customers say about your work?

Some of you might love the creativity that the stress of the last minute brings to your work. My creativity doesn’t work that way. Panic is a great way to make my brain freeze up or, as I noted earlier, make mistakes. I like striking while the iron is hot.

This is not to say you can or will never do last-minute work. That’s what “emergencies” are all about. Still, there is no reason that all of your work needs to be delivered in that fashion unnecessarily. So pick your metaphor, but give some thought to taking action on assignments when you first get them rather than waiting until near the deadline before starting work. Your peers and your body will thank you.

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How to Cope with Writer’s Block

I’ve been quite fortunate in my writing career in that I’ve never had writer’s block on a paying assignment. Usually, the worst problem I’ve had while collecting a paycheck has been getting stuck on a sentence, and then I get back to it in an hour or so. Writing for myself (say, a novel or a work of nonfiction) is another matter.

When in doubt, ask

On those rare occasions where I needed help getting started, such as when I’m doing a blog or journalism, I suck it up, go back to my customer or manager, and ask, “What do you want me to do with this?” It’s not fun to admit I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m paid to write, and if I can’t come up with anything useful, I at least need a starting point.

Do some reading

I like the fact that reading is part of what I get paid to do, whether it’s a book or a website. Reading is one of my primary avocations when I’m not working anyway, so getting paid is sort of a bonus. Anyhow, if I’m scouting around for ideas about what to say about my topic, the easiest thing to do is pick up a book or go to a website and start reading about it.

What usually happens as I read is that I get a general notion about what’s happening, and then I start asking questions: Why does the process work that way? What happens if occurs? In short, my writing is formed by what interests me about the topic. I ask my questions, and then I go digging around to see what the answers are. That becomes my “angle” if I’m writing a story.

What do you really think?

Sometimes I have very strong opinions about a topic. That provides the energy to get the ball rolling. However, if I realize I have a bias, I force myself to work extra hard at writing factually and also to include a factual, honest interpretation of any opposing viewpoints. The fact that I subtly stack the deck on one side or the other is an issue for my editor–sometimes they let it slide, sometimes they ask, “Have you considered X?” or “You forgot to include Y.” Then I go back and add the appropriate level of detail.

Get a second opinion

I might not give a hill of beans about a topic. However, I might know someone who does, and I can ask them. “Why is this interesting?” “Why does this matter?” Or even, “What do you think about this?” Once I have an angle, even if it’s someone else’s angle, I can get rolling. Again, I might not care one way or the other, but it’s easier to frame a story with a viewpoint behind it than to share a bland recitation of the facts.

Think about the structure of what’s going on

Sometimes the very nature of a topic–what’s happening, how it happens, what it’s describing–will determine the type of story or document I need to write. Am I writing about a process? Start with the beginning and move toward the end. Am I describing an object or place? Describe the parts, from largest to smallest (or smallest to largest) or from most to least important, or vice versa. Again, the nature of the thing to be discussed often shapes how I think about it and thus how I write about it.

Read the news

There are times when I’m at a loss for what to write about. That happens on this blog occasionally, though you probably didn’t know it because I’ve managed to hold forth so many opinions and bits of advice over the years. Still, there are days when inspiration doesn’t strike. In cases like that, I need to look outside myself and out into the world beyond. Depressing as the news has been lately, if I’m at a loss for things to write about, I can usually sift through the events of the day and find a technical writing angle to it.

Don’t be afraid to play with ideas

I love writing first drafts. It’s like being the first person to make a path through an uncharted wilderness or shaping a lump of clay into a form less messy. The first draft–my first impression–might be completely wrong, but that’s okay, I’ll try again until the content makes sense to me. It might require writing down a bunch of different impressions or approaches until I find one that makes sense. Once the content is in an order that makes sense to me, the rest is usually just tweaking.


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I Know What I Want, Now What?

The release of a book on job hunting has caused me to reconsider reviving my stalled book on helping English majors get a job at NASA. I’ve got to confess that the project hasn’t been exciting me. Why not?

A lot of it has to do with the purpose of the book. Yes, there are absolutely practical things that I could teach about the space business to help people get the job they want, but what really animates me is the process of helping people think constructively about their careers. Maybe, like my friend Kate, I’m really a coach at heart.

The advice I offer on this blog

As I noted in my book review, when readers email me for advice, the requests usually fall into one of two categories:

  • “I have X experience and I’m trying to pursue a career in Y field. How do I go about getting the job I want?”
  • “I have X situation in my career/task, how should I approach it?”

I suppose that makes sense. I’m not certain how useful this blog has been for people who don’t know what they want to do with their career/life, but once a decision has been made, I can offer assistance for what to do next.

Why I do what I do

As it happens, I can trace the exact date I started being able to think this way: October 27, 1994. Way back in those wild pre-internet days, I was working front desk at one of the Disney Resorts and, quite frankly, not very happy with my life. I was asking a lot of whiny, 20-something questions, like “Why does my life suck?” or “Why does so-and-so have a better career/apartment/car than I do?” Or the ever-popular, “Why me?”

At the time, I was reading an anthology of alternate history stories called What Might Have Been(Alternate history fiction is a variation of science fiction where human history is dramatically altered because something did or did not happen–say, like the Axis won World War 2 or the Confederacy won the American Civil War.) Inspired, I sat down and wrote an “Alternate Bart” story in which I portrayed what might life might have been like if X hadn’t happened in my past. I was about halfway through the story when I realized that I didn’t believe in that sort of determinism in my life. I was young, I could still make a better future happen for myself instead of sit around whining about my current circumstances.

So I changed the sorts of questions I was asking myself. Instead of asking, “Why me?” I asked myself, “What do I want out of life?” And the simple, ambitious answer, which sent a little shiver up my spine, was, “I want to go into space.”

“Okay,” my self-conscious responded, “Now what are you going to do about it?”

The next five to ten years were an exercise in figuring out what to do to make that dream a reality. What inspires me is helping people think and work through the practicalities of achieving their dreams. That’s a much broader field than the more tactical, more practical question of “How does an English major get a job in the space business?” On the other hand, it might be more useful to more people. The pursuit of a NASA job could serve as an example of how it can be done.

Things to think about.

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Book Review: From Graduation to Career Ready in 21 Days: A Guide for English Majors

A while back, I started toying with a book on how an English major can get a job at NASA. Well, a website/group called Dear English Major has released a book that covers some of the same ground, focusing specifically on the concrete tasks needed to pursue a job out of college. As the title implies, From Graduation to Career Ready in 21 Days: A Guide for English Majors is a time-limited, step-by-step process to help the reader through the process of job hunting. In fact, while it’s addressed to its target audience (many of the same people as who read this blog), the advice could apply to any “fresh-out” college student, and so is useful well beyond that audience.

Covering topics from wardrobe to what you share on social media to tailoring your resume to networking,  Alyssa Christensen succinctly provides practical advice for the process of job-hunting. And when I say succinct, I’m not kidding: this paperback is 64 pages long and can be read in less than an hour if you’re not taking notes. I highly recommend it. While I am <cough> a few years beyond graduating college and have been through the interview process a few times since then, I still found some pieces of advice worth acting on, so like I said, it’s worth reading.

As for whether I’ll get back on track writing my own book, I’d have to say that the sorts of questions I get are very situational and specific:

  • “I have X experience and I’m trying to pursue a career in Y field. How do I go about getting the job I want?”
  • “I have X situation in my career/task, how should I approach it?”

I suppose there’s still room for the types of wisdom this blog can dispense. From Graduation to Career Ready is good for people just starting out, but I seem to get questions about people who are already working and trying to handle or change what they’re doing.  might require a separate posting…and maybe a dusting-off of the book I’ve let languish over the summer. Stay tuned (that means “keep coming back to this site” for those of you who aren’t old enough to have tuned a TV set).

Meanwhile, go buy this book. It’s worth your time.



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Reporting from a Distance

Recently I picked up a side gig doing reporting for SpaceflightInsider.com, a news site specializing in all things space–NASA, Department of Defense, commercial space, what have you. This is one of several ways I keep my toes in the space business and, as an extra bonus, keep up on what’s happening in the industry.

Watching missions “live”

Space activities happen in a lot of different places, from Cape Canaveral to the hall of Congress to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to a few thousand miles from the planets Jupiter or Mars. It’s not like Spaceflight Insider has a huge travel budget (trust me, they’d like to, but they don’t…yet). Nor am I able put on a spacesuit, hop in a rocket and fly out there to interview someone (if only!). Instead, a lot of my reporting now is not handled by researching and observing events through the internet.

For example, while I covered an Atlas V launch that flew out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station 65 miles away from where I live, I didn’t actually drive out to the Space Coast to watch the launch. Instead, I did my preliminary research about the launch and its payload on the internet and then, when launch day came, I watched the proceedings live online (another service Spaceflight Insider provides). Mind you, I could have gone to the launch that day, but I had other commitments. I will be attending the OSIRIS-REx launch in September, and I will probably attend others as the whim suits me. However, my attendance is not always necessary.

Last night, for example, I was live-tweeting the insertion of NASA’s Juno spacecraft into Jupiter orbit while watching Spaceflight Insider’s live video feed. I was one of at least three aerospace writers doing the same thing–our audiences just differ. Anyhow, we were all commenting on the launch in our own ways. Jeff Foust, a friend at Space News and one of the best space reporters in the business, caught something I didn’t and took the time to amend one of my comments after I stated that Juno was going into a 53-day orbit:

53-day orbit is only the initial capture orbit. Moves to 14-day science orbit after maneuver in October.

The magic of live coverage.

Person-on-the-street “interviewing”

One thing that most news reports require is a quotation from one or more mission participants. Some of these can be extracted from existing media releases. Depending on my angle on the story, I can also email people in the industry–one of those times when my years in aerospace come in handy–and ask them to provide me their perspective without having to stick a microphone or recorder under their face.

Capturing imagery

Thanks to some marvelous tremors in my hands, I am not the world’s best photographer. I could capture decent images with my iPhone or the “good camera,” which doesn’t get much activity, but it’s often easier to, again, acquire the images from the internet and attribute them appropriately. Jason Rhian, the founder of Spaceflight Insider, also has a team of outstanding photographers who can get into places I can’t and who can take really gorgeous, high-quality pictures on site.

Bringing things to life–from a distance

The point is that it is possible to do reporting from a distance. Our technologies have allowed that to happen. Would I prefer to see these events live? Most of the time, yes; but like I said, my employer doesn’t have an unlimited travel budget, and the internet has made accurate long-distance reporting feasible. Whether I’m writing on-site or from half a continent (or solar system) away, it is still quite possible to bring a story to life without being there. That’s where the magic of writing comes in, and that’s why I do what I do.

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Taking today off for Independence Day. Note that freelance writers are allowed days off occasionally.

U.S. Flag

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