Know Your Path

My career path would probably be considerably easier if I wanted to be in management. My father, more of a traditionalist than I am, does not understand why I don’t want to “work my way up the food chain” and become the big boss. No, I explained (more than once), I want to be an independent contributor and remain low(ish) on the food chain. Some people are wired to supervise and lead others. I’m not of that mind set.

Part of the difference between my father’s idea of a career path and mine is that he was in travel and hospitality sales. As you move from sales associate to sales manager to VP, there is still a certain amount of sales involved. There are still management duties, to be sure, but you still have the opportunity to interact with the customers. In the writing and communication worlds, however, it’s been my experience and observation that leadership and personnel activities erode the time you have to write. I love to write. I hate doing paperwork, performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, “counseling,” and all the rest. It’s a limitation I recognized after being in a couple of different supervisory positions. If getting away from writing is a great concern to you and you would prefer to stick with your writing, your career path will be restricted to some degree. If you enjoy leading and developing people too, by all means, go for it! This essay is for those folks who are blessed enough to write for a living and self-aware enough to know that they don’t want to do much else.

So does that mean that if you don’t want to be promoted you can’t move ahead?* Hardly.

(* Here’s a trick: when someone asks you if you want to “move ahead,” you should ask what they mean by that. Your measure of what “moving ahead” means might be quite different from theirs.)

If you wish to grow as a professional communicator, you have two primary methods of making your career more interesting and fulfilling over time without climbing the corporate ladder: broadening your skills or deepening your knowledge.

Broadening Your Skills

This is especially easy in small or medium-size companies, where the staff is more limited and the potential for specialization isn’t as likely. For instance, if you’re a proposal writer in a medium-sized company and your work slacks off, you can walk down the hall and find out if someone outside your area needs writing help. That’s how I ended up working on website content and engineering specifications. I’d never done those before, but templates and formats are easy to find and learn. And the advantages go both ways: another department gets writing help and you get to add another skill set to your resume, with the potential of doing more of that type of work should it be necessary.

Deepening Your  Knowledge

Hang around a particular industry long enough and eventually you learn how things work, not just on a content level, but also how the bureaucratic and political processes operate. My last title at NASA was not “Technical Writer,” but “Subject Matter Expert.” You don’t want me designing a rocket or bending metal, but if you want a clear understanding of how a particular architecture, system, or subsystem works in human spaceflight, odds are that I can provide that. This is the side of me that makes my current employer tell me that I’m really an engineer at heart. Yeah, right, but I don’t like math and statistics, which are other limitations of mine, which is why I write for a living.

Taking the Next Step

So let’s say you’ve reached a plateau in your current role: you’ve learned as much technical stuff as you can without getting another degree or getting promoted to manage others. What are your options? It really goes back to deepening your knowledge or broadening your skills.

Deepening your knowledge could mean working for a different subset of your current industry. If you’ve been looking at things from a high-level view (writing for executives or program managers), you might decide to delve deeper and work on the front line, writing documentation for the end product or developing product brochures that go directly to the end user. Likewise, if you’ve been down in the trenches, it might be time to visit the generals’ tent to see what projects they might have for someone with detailed knowledge of the products and what makes them tick.

Broadening your skills might mean doing a different type of writing–say, moving from technical documentation and reports to proposals or from conference papers to policy documents–same industry, different contribution. Or you might take a leap out of your current industry and apply your current skills to a completely new topic while also learning new skills. You lose some of that connection to the industry you’ve known, but if your choices are up, down, or out, perhaps it’s time to choose “out.”

In the end, you have to make career decisions that make sense to you. Some of your decisions might be constrained by your current financial obligations, the status of your spouse or family, or the general state of the economy. However, given a healthy economy and a good understanding of what makes you tick, you can usually identify and then find the type of job you want–one that allows you to move up or move on and keep writing.

And if a family member expresses concern about your career path, you can always inform them that your choices are making you more marketable and a better employee. If you’re continuing to do what you love, odds are you will be.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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