“I earned my PhD in drug discovery in 2011, and now I work as a curriculum writer.” When I introduce myself this way, especially to other trainees who are interested in transitioning away from the bench, I always get asked, “How did you do that?” I usually say that I wrote a lot, and that’s how I got the experience.
I have been in my current job (starting as a freelancer) for a year now. I publish about 8,-10,000 words a week. I have written more in the last year than perhaps throughout my entire training. Part of me wonders how I talked my way into this transition too.
On the day I defended my PhD, I would have said that I had written a LOT in graduate school. This is probably an exaggeration. I wrote more than some of my peers, but I certainly did not write more than I did bench work. Just to give you an idea of how much writing I did:
- I wrote and drafted one of my first author publications completely
- I co-wrote a second first author publication
- I wrote short segments (methods, results and figures legends) of the other publications where I am a middle author
- I wrote my comprehensive exam (15 pages)
- I wrote a rubric for grading lab notebooks as a TA
- I wrote a 1 credit discussion course in Bioethics
- I wrote my dissertation (<100 pages without references)
- I entered in a couple very brief writing competitions.
Even though people often suggest these things if you want to be a writer, I didn’t write a book. I didn’t have a job with the school newspaper. I wasn’t an ad hoc editor for any journal. I never wrote a grant or a fellowship (thanks to my boss’s ability to fund the lab). I wasn’t generally involved in the literary community. I think I wrote slightly more than average students in my program, but certainly not the most.
(And I should also probably mention that my previous teachers seemed to think I was able to work hard enough to write ok, but I still think they would laugh to know that I’m a WRITER now.)
When I was looking for a job, the constant mantra was “the first job is the hardest.” It’s true. I had a hard time convincing anyone of my skills until I had something objective to point to. Just like how in research, no one trusts your results until they have been peer reviewed, in the job market people seem wary of trusting someone who has a lot of training they’ve never used. For me, it was really important to find what I could objectively use to highlight my skills.
When I was applying for positions as a technical writer, I would site my publications (which I wrote) and my dissertation (which I also wrote). When I was applying for jobs as a curriculum writer, I would mention the classes I had taught, especially the class that I developed myself, and the demos that I had developed at the Carnegie Science Center. This was enough for some very short freelance gigs: write up this 45 minute lesson for high school students (1-2 days work), write a news summary piece for this scientific publication (30-60 minutes).
What I learned as a freelancer was much more about how to write in a business setting. Specifically, I had to break the habit of hand polishing every word in a piece (which my dissertation had started to break me of) and put together pieces that were good enough in the right amount of time. My contracts were paid per task, not per hour, so a $30 contract should not take all day to complete. I wrote previously about how managing my freelance as a business made me especially sensitive to how I was spending my time and how much I was being paid.
But this same attention to deadlines is essential in my current job. To keep my project on schedule, I spend between 7-10 hours on any given draft before it goes to my editor. Sometimes I send my editor really great stuff; sometimes I send my editor drafts that need a lot of help. My editors (who are among the best I’ve ever worked with) are much faster at identifying how to fix problems in a draft than I am. It helps to have confidence in the fact that it takes WAY more time for me to get a piece just right, than it takes for me to write something decent, get feedback from my editor, and make revisions to get it just right. Learning how to write in a business setting seemed like the final piece I needed to make my transition.
My hiring manager told me that what struck him about my resume was that I had worked for a vendor that they had contracted with before. This means that one of my clients, a large-ish developer of educational materials that creates content for clients like him by contracting out the writing to people like me, was someone that they had previously hired to find writers and get writing done. Fortunately, in educational publishing, most people know most of those companies, and if they hadn’t worked with my client, they would have gotten bids from my client from previous jobs.
The point is, I was not hired because I had already written the type of educational materials I write in my current job, or because I had any more than intermittent part-time experience working in this industry.
The point is, in my one year in this position, I have probably written and published nearly half a million words. I have written more than I did throughout most of my training. Product cycles and deadlines are universal constants of professional writing. For me, it was much more important to learn how to write for clients and product cycles than to demonstrate that I had specifically written the exact type of documents that I product now.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently works as a curriculum writer at Edgenuity, writing career education materials for high school students. She is the Executive Director of Education at HiveBio, a community lab opening this summer in Seattle.