How to Get My Job

This entry is being written in response to a reader comment/question re: my recent post “For Love or Money.” The title is ripped off from Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction writer whose works I admire. The rest of it is mine.

The specific comment/question Shen wrote was:

I have an interest in space writing as well…Do you have any recommendations of breaking into the business?

I’m going to assume you mean writing in or about the aerospace business professionally. Either way, it’s a bit of a niche market because aerospace is becoming an endangered industry. But I’ll think optimistically and assume that NASA, Boeing/Lockheed, SpaceX, Space.com, or other organizations will continue to need content writers for some time to come. How does one break into this line of work?

First, the good news: if you can write well and are willing to learn the language of aerospace engineering, you stand a good chance of obtaining some job security. What follows next is not a long list of bad news, but just some food for thought.

My path to aerospace writing was not direct, by any wild stretch. If you’re serious and are young enough to still be in school, get a technical writing degree. I got an English literature degree, thereby assuring myself a long detour from want to have. Just for grins, take a look at the “About Bart Leahy” tab, above. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Okay, so you’ve read that and perhaps asked yourself, “Do I have to go through all THAT before I get a job writing about space for pay?” Again, the good news is, no, you don’t. If you start with a technical degree and still have a knack/taste for writing, you’ll jump to the head of the pack. If I’d been smarter, I’d have taken that route because most tech writing job postings are seeking engineers who can write, not English majors who are interested in technology.

But let’s say you’re more of a literary sort than that rare engineer who can write and do so with pleasure (a small minority, for which I’m duly grateful). Your volunteer(?) work writing for AIAA is a good start because it shows your willingness to do the work for free. That sort of volunteer effort looks good on the resume, and it helps you build up a portfolio of space-related works you can show prospective employers. You do have a portfolio, correct? If not, start assembling one. I’ll write a different blog about that some other time.

My initial space-writing forays were letters to the editor of (at the time) the Orlando Sentinel. I’m certain I gave the NASA Public Affairs Office fits, because I was very much in favor of the sorts of things that are going on now–extreme privatization, downsizing the workforce, closing down the Shuttle, what have you. As I recall, when an interview finally came up my mother asked me, “Given your views, are you sure you can work for them?” I was a little more concerned that they’d be willing to hire me. The point, anyway, was that in addition to adding more items to the portfolio, I also was developing a distinctive literary “voice,” a set of opinions about space, and a willingness to express those opinions in a public forum. By the time I left Orlando, the Sentinel editor was calling me for op-ed submissions and was sorry to see me go.

Another thing that helps–which you’re doing–is writing a blog, preferably about one topic. I learned that lesson the hard way as well. My personal blog is all over the place content-wise, ranging from politics to technology to space to culture to my vacations to the Science Cheerleaders to the occasional book review or interview. The style is consistent, but the topics vary so greatly that people who like my space stuff will tune out if I start talking about books, or people who like my Science Cheerleader stuff go to sleep when I start talking politics. This blog, which is relatively new, is just about technical communication, and so is likely to develop a specific, dependably sized audience.

Speaking of blogs, it probably couldn’t hurt to stay current on what the most widely read space web sites and blogs are saying. These would include:

Space.com

SpaceNews.com

Aviation Week & Space Technology

NASAWatch.com

ParabolicArc.com

SpacePolitics.com

The Space Review

Transterrestrial Musings

The Once and Future Moon

NASASpaceflight.com

Those are the blogs I sift through on a regular basis to keep up on what’s happening in the world of human spaceflight. Undoubtedly there are others, and I’m certain if any of my fellow space writers are following this blog and find that I’ve neglected to mention their site, I’ll be so informed. But that’ll do for a start. These blogs cover the broad and diverse waterfront of the human space community.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention joining a pro-space organization that fits your philosophy. The largest ones are The Planetary Society, the National Space Society (NSS), the Mars Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). These groups all have websites, but also magazines (print, electronic, or otherwise), conventions, and local chapters, which encourage grass-roots participation in public outreach. The National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC), which I just chaired this past May, is probably the largest, most diverse gathering of citizen space advocates and professionals in the world. Face-to-face networking still matters.

So those are some starting points for you to ponder: do you have the skills? Do you have the education/experience? Do you write about space topics often and have a portfolio of your work? Do you have the drive/determination to get into the business? Do you have connections in the space business or space advocacy community who can point you in the right direction? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, you’re well on your way.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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5 Responses to How to Get My Job

  1. Russ Maguire says:

    Bart–
    Thanks so much for your postings. I’ve enjoyed very much reading about your career, and specifically, the track you’ve taken. I have a master’s degree in aviation/aerospace management (Embry-Riddle) and an undergraduate degree in journalism (Univ. of Missouri). I also have worked in the PR end of aviation (newsletters, news releases, speeches, a white paper or two, articles, etc.) and would very much like to return to writing for this industry, perhaps part-time at first, but eventually full-time. I agree with your blog comments re: the need to hustle a bit, and to–if necessary–volunteer one’s writing services, even if these are offered gratis at first. That said, I’m a military veteran with some GI education benefits coming my way. So I’d like to use these toward my ultimate goal of writing again for the aviation/aerospace industry. More specifically, I’m considering three options:

    1) a master’s degree in technical communications
    2) a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications
    3) some combination of the two, i.e., a graduate certificate in technical communications coupled with a graduate certificate in integrated marketing communications

    Your opinion and insight would be highly valued.

    Also, if you were to give the nod to a tech communications program, do you have a preference— UCF, New Jersey Institute of Technology, etc.? Any schooling that I would do would be strictly on-line.

    Thanks so much, Bart. I look forward to your response.

    Russ Maguire

  2. Howdy, Russ!

    Like I said in the blog, you don’t have to take the path I took, and every situation is different. For instance, it sounds like you’ve been in the service for awhile and are looking to get into the civilian workforce now.

    I got an M.A. in tech writing because I had too little “street cred” to be considered by an aerospace company (“You’ve got an English literature degree and you work at Disney…really?”). Because this economy has become so credential-heavy, I got the higher degree to show that, yes, I could actually do this. I think, given your two degrees–aerospace and journalism–you’re probably equipped to get a tech writing job in the aerospace business now.

    The only thing you might lack is some direct experience in the specific type of work you want to do. Did you do any writing while in the service (tech manuals? procedures? orders of the day?)? That always helps. However, again, I know the aerospace/defense industry is eager to pick up people with actual technical knowlege and an active or recent security clearance.

    If you’ve got some benefits coming, far be it for me to tell you not to take ’em, though. If you’ve been fighting for us, you certainly deserve them. You might consider finding a job now and using your G.I. Bill benefit toward a degree that would advance you in the line of work you want, like one of the degrees you mentioned or an MBA.

    As far as tech writing programs, I was pleased overall with my experience at UCF (wasn’t very thrilled with the critical theory/deconstructionism class, but hey, that’s me). I understand they’ve rearranged the program a bit since I was there, but I had some first-rate professors, several of which had literally written the books we were reading in class. I’ve also heard Embry-Riddle has a tech writing program, as does Carnegie-Mellon University (if you want to get seriously fancy). I’m certain there are programs elsewhere, but my experience was limited to UCF. Master’s programs in technical communication are expanding, but still somewhat unusual, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find a good one. Another suggestion, since asked about specific degrees: you might consider just getting a tech writing M.A. and taking some side courses on public relations, strategic communication, or other specific topics that interest you. I took the roundabout way of learning about topics that interested me by incorporating research from those disciplines (marketing, political science, etc.) into the papers or projects I had to write.

    Hope this helps!

    /b

  3. Erin says:

    Mr. Leahy,
    Would you consider offering internships that allows students still in school to become more familiar with Space Writing? Or perhaps know of any internships offered by NASA for English Majors? This is a huge interest of mine, and as I am pursuing my Doctorate, I am looking for options in this field and would like to obtain experience. Any advice offered is greatly appreciated.I look forward to hearing from you.
    Kindest Regards,
    Erin Cone

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Wow! First time I’ve seen that sort of request. Since I am a sole proprietorship (Employee #1 of 1), I’m not even certain I’d have the capacity to set that up for you officially. However, I still might be able to help. Feel free to email me at bart dot d dot leahy at gmail dot com and we can keep the conversation going from there.

      Thanks for reading!

      /b

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