A friend of a friend was seeking advice about how to move from teaching to becoming a technical writer. Her message and my response are below. If you’re in a similar situation, you might find this exchange useful!
Thanks for messaging me! I’m trying to pull off a career change from science teacher to technical writer, science writer, or science editor. Technical writing seems like a hard field to break into intentionally, although some people seem to happen into it. I’ve taken a few extension courses towards a certificate from UCSC Silicon Valley campus, but I’m kind of at a loss as to how to get started.
I’m not interested in technical writing for software. I’d like to work in areas related to science, if possible. I have a Ph.D. in Biology (plant ecology, I’m afraid), and a lot of teaching experience in several areas of science. Our mutual friend thought I should talk to you to see if you had any tips. I’d also be interested in editing science papers intended for publication, but I guess that’s another thing entirely. Do you have any ideas? What area do you write for? I was wondering whether I should try to set up an internship, but I can’t work for free for more than a few hours a week . . .
You’ve asked a lot of good questions, so I’ll try to take them in order. (Also, if you don’t mind, I might find myself turning this into a blog–I tend to do that when I get advice requests from readers. I won’t include too much personal information.) I’ll also include links to some of my blogs along the way so you can refer to advice I’ve offered up to others. Not trying to be lazy, just trying to make sure I don’t short-change you on advice!
Actually, I’m surprised how many people get tech writing jobs without deliberately trying for it. Don’t let a lack of a dedicated degree inhibit you. I got one because I needed to prove that an English Lit. major could write about aerospace and such. You already speak science, so you’re ahead of me in that respect. You might want to review what sorts of science-related (or process-related) writing you’ve done up to now that you can show as part of a portfolio. Do you blog about science-related topics? That’s another way to start proving that you can be a technical writer–show ’em your stuff. If you can write, have a portfolio, and a science degree in hand, you’re ready to start applying for jobs.
I don’t like doing software documentation, either. Fortunately, there are a lot of other options out there. For instance, I write training materials for Nissan in Tennessee, business proposals for a couple of engineering firms in Huntsville, Alabama, and space-related articles for SpaceflightInsider.com. I’m more of an engineering geek than a science geek so much of my work is on the engineering side. Most of my work has come through the network of people I worked with when I was a corporate guy (Disney, Department of Defense, NASA). A couple of customers have found me on their own, but my bill-paying work has come from people who already know/knew me as a professional technical writer.
As a starting point, you can reach out through your network to see if anyone you know in the science community needs technical writing work done. Note that I didn’t say “a technical writing job.” It’s a little less daunting if you try to get work as a freelancer–you can just do spot jobs to gain experience on the way toward full-time employment.
It looks like you work in the L.A. area, about half an hour from Pasadena, yes? I’m a space geek, so I’d look at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to see if they’re hiring. I did a quick search for full-time “writer” jobs on USAJobs.gov and found a tech writer position at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley (https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/470785100), though that might be a bit far if you’re not looking to move. Still, if you’re seeking federal government (civil service) jobs, that’s a good site to start from. Another place to poke around might be the National Academies (http://www.nasonline.org/about-nas/careers/). A great site for private-sector job searching is Indeed.com.
You might also look into grant writing for science-based organizations and academic institutions. Good grant writers are in short supply and always in demand. If you aren’t familiar with grant writing, I think I get some sort of bonus for referring you to The Grantsmanship Center, which provides a rather good (though not cheap–around $900) five-day class in grant writing. That will give you the basics, and I found the class useful despite being a ten-year business proposal writer.
All of the above would also apply to editor jobs, though for specialized searches, you might try science-related publications (for example, I think The Planetary Society is based out in L.A. and they’ve got a good magazine, The Planetary Report–fair warning, though: I have no idea if they’re hiring or what they pay).
If you’re gung-ho to write for the plant biology field and stick to what you know, you might look for companies that deal with agriculture (your opinion of GMOs might vary) or conservation-related organizations. As far as editing scientific papers, again you might be looking at academic or government science institutions. California’s university system is supposed to have some excellent schools, though the ones I’m thinking of are probably mostly in the Bay Area.
One other area you might try is STEM education. I go to a lot of STEM-related events, and I’m constantly amazed at the number of organizations are out there to try to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. Someone has to write their content–why not let it be you?
The last bit of advice I would give is to try to focus on the jobs that a) fit your background best, b) you really want to do. This will allow you to tailor your resume and portfolio to match their needs.
Technical Note: I accidentally published this article on Saturday, June 3. If the article appeared and then disappeared on you, I apologize for the inconvenience. Apparently I hit the little blue button too early in the process.