Reader Response: Career Changing Advice

Today’s discussion is another entry born out of a discussion with a reader, Lisa. I’ve edited things a bit for content and clarity so everyone isn’t reading message thread, but I wanted to try to take on some of Lisa’s questions in a more organized fashion and sometimes I need time to think things over before I give a well-thought-out reply. I hope others find it useful as well.

Hello Bart,

While searching for NASA contractors, I luckily stumbled upon your website. I am interested in writing about NASA missions for a lay audience. The information you offer is very reassuring, as I don’t have a degree in aeronautical engineering, physics, astronomy or related fields.

Unlike the other folks who have written to your site, I’m not a college student majoring in English. I have a biomedical background and have been an editor in that field for the past 13 years. I am considering whether to transition into writing in the space sciences. Like you, I’ve gotten space science experience through volunteer work. I’ve been the newsletter editor for a space advocacy group since 2005, and for the local chapter of a professional engineering society since 2010. As such, I have written about various space events. But how can I use that writing experience to work for NASA if my writing is not peer reviewed and professionally published? For all the hiring managers know, I could be putting my name on someone else’s work. I would be surprised if anyone accepts my writing samples.

I could share what I’ve written in a portfolio. I can also add more to what’s on my LinkedIn profile but I need to learn to assemble a proper portfolio. I take it I should create a website to do so? The subject matter isn’t confidential and a security clearance isn’t required for viewing it. I haven’t blogged but should do so, although would I need to think of something new to write every day? I can post to the OASIS website, which I help to maintain.

You wrote about how you began in the aerospace industry as a proposal writer for a defense company. How would I become a proposal writer if the subject matter is highly technical? I see postings for proposal writers where I would need to write about all sorts of aviation specs, prepare diagrams, etc. How would I proceed if I don’t understand, for example, a particular plane’s avionics or the calculations of a rocket’s thrust given a particular fuel or rocket structure? How were you able to understand enough of the subject matter to write proposals?

Thanks so much!


First, thank you for contacting me (and reading my blog)!

In response to your questions, I don’t think you need another degree. Technical writing experience–which you have–is valuable. While the stuff you’ve written might not be peer reviewed, is it proprietary? Can it be shared in a portfolio? You want to be able to show capacity/ability above all, and having a good variety of work pieces should help. Do you blog about science? That’s a good way to show your interests/style as well.

Try this for advice on building your portfolio:

Re: proving that work is yours

When you’re assembling your portfolio during the interview process, you can explain that your work doesn’t always include a byline. Assuming your relationships are good with those employers, the people you’re interviewing with will be able to go back and verify your work when they do a reference check.

Re: blogging

I write twice a week on a set schedule; if I had to write daily, my head would explode. 🙂

Re: proposal writing and learning

I like the comment I got from my first proposal manager: “I’ve got plenty of engineers, what I need is a writer.” While you might get hired on to write proposals, it’s not unusual in smaller organizations for you to get called upon to write other things as well, from technical specifications to website copy. In essence, you’ll be writing about the same content (your organization’s ideas, activities, products, or services) in different formats.

When it comes to learning new subjects, it’s best to start with the assumption that you can learn. Next, expect that learning will become a regular part of your career as a tech writer. Assume that you’ll have subject matter experts to interview or printed/online materials in the organization you’d be working for so you can call upon those sources as needed. Also, if you cannot find materials immediately available in your workplace, you can usually get a basic grounding in any topic online. In fact, it’s a good habit to do background reading on your subject matter. This keeps you in touch with what’s happening in your particular field and it allows you to ask better questions of your subject matter experts. And if you prefer to think in words rather than equations–as I do–you can always try the English major’s approach to learning rocket science.

The important thing is that you demonstrate a willingness and ability to absorb new subjects and write about them well for whatever audience or writing format you encounter. Again, you’ll have texts or experts around you to make sure everything is technically correct. The place you add value is in making sure that audiences want to read about it.

Let me know if you have further questions. Best of luck in your search!



About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in careers, job hunting, proposal writing, reader response, research, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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