Thursday, September 01, 2011


As many of you know, I'm looking for a new job. While the Doomsday Clock ticks inexorably down on the current one, I've begun to desperately expand my range of options, and I ask, not for the first time, what if there were a way to somehow merge my expensively utilized labor and my time-wasting hobbies into one single well-regarded career? How awesome would that be? Well...

I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that, so far as careers go, writing is a lot like cooking. It's one of those things that lots of people think they can do well, whether or not they actually can, and it tends to garner some kind of amped-up mystique as a countercultural endeavor, you know, along the lines of, "yeah, I'm going to get the hell out of this place and live my dream of" (a) "opening a restaurant," or (b) "finally writing that novel." It's something that looks easy when you are not actually doing it. In reality, of course, things go differently, and the notoriously low success rate of new restuarants is re-learned in the usual hard way (or if making the food's your goal, then welcome to the factory version of prep, and also to an established career ladder that's got to look pretty vertiginous from down there by the dishwasher), or agents or editors give you an unwelcome bit of honesty about your great American epic, and even if you do manage to get in, then welcome to a world of unappealing effort-to-reward ratios and inadequate credit. As a career, professional writing is probably even more swamped with dreamers and hacks, given that there's no tradition in chefdom, so far as I know, of getting in the door by sending in unsolicitated of samples food. Although on the other hand, chefs appear to sometimes get laid, which has to be something of a draw.

[Oh hell, I've been here before, haven't I? The chef analogy is the product of my upcoming book review, and I'm only going to take it a little bit further here. Last time, it was a comparison to musicians. I think if we're going by nookie potential, then the order goes something like, rock star > live musician > chef > session artist > concert musician > line cook > novelist > journalist > ghost writer > scientist > blogger > bottle polisher > vagrant > me. Not that I'm bitter.]

Anyway, what's different about those posts and this one is that several years later, I'm looking at the idea a lot more seriously. The AAAS (publishers of Science magazine) has a series of blog posts on science writing and editorial careers, as do a few other sites, most of them garnered from gentler economic times, which is alarming enough it its own right. It might take different sorts of people to throw themselves into science writing than onto the fiction slushpile, but the tone of the advice sure sounds damn familiar, including the old nostrum of "if you can stop doing this, then you probably should." These posts paint a picture of a similar writing field, this one teeming with (other) hopeful refugees from the business and academic worlds, either unemployed or unfulfilled, and just as disrespected by the working writers. Much as I instinctively loathe the condescension of career advice columns, and much as I recognize the tendency of other narratively-inclined people to write things as their own personal Odyssey, reading those blog posts has been helpful, as it has given me some of the required language to put in my cover letter. [Adaptability to jargon may well be the most important science writing skill there is, and you know, you'd think that with ten years of doing this very thing, I would gone through this exercise a little more carefully before I started dashing off formal inquiries into the high-level positions.] Even among the current job listings I've trolled, a "science career off the bench" is reduced to something of a buzzword. Working scientists and engineers often need to be reassured that an alternate career is still an intellectually valid one (we have lots tied up in this conception of ourselves as the few truly indispensible members of society), but fuck it, I'm over that part. Writing about the good stuff still beats performing research on the uninspired stuff, and even though the confluence of science and English skills is less rare than popular prejudices suggest, doing both does at least access my fuller skill set.

I am merely competent at manipulating the physical elements. Usually, my bigger strength has been in manipulating the story about those things. Putting together a plausible narrative around what information I can gather at the last minute, or, better, to make a convincing argument in a field I just learned, is where I have occasionally shined. I say on my cover letter that I write maybe ten research proposals in a year, and on the order of twenty technical reports, which account for all of my real deadlines. Sometimes I mention blog posts and papers and patents too, and for some reason I fail to disclose the endless presentation slides. I think it's because I'm ashamed of all the time I spend with PowerPoint. So far as time management, seriousness, and meeting deadlines goes, that's the area where it's natural, and I don't worry a hell of a lot about that part of a potential job. If I do offer an advantage over all the other people who do this, it's that, unlike them, I'm a top-notch generalist and a congenital rationalizer. For your benefit, I'll leave off the play-by-play of how important it ends up being to understand and evaluate research in almost any field (I like to tell the editorial people that, and needed a little nudge that I should), but when you get down to it, verisimilitude is what I do.

I'm slowly gathering that one should be choosy about which sort of writing/editorial position to chase. A substantial pay cut looms for just about all of them, and if it provides other benefits, such as not being miserable, I may be okay with that. Here in Massachusetts, as usual, I'm set back by competition from the young college recruits facing a terrible job market, and the the biomedical industry that has taken over the local publishing sphere as well. The more legitimate writing jobs include, in approximately increasing order of appeal, writing manuals and regulations, ghostwriting your way through the terrible papers and reports of your more stereotypical technician, summarizing content for the for higher-ups or writing literature reviews the "real" scientists, and various flavors of journalism. A few of the advertisements seem to be data-entry sweatshops, and one place called an internal summarizer position a "research scientist" which really did manage to offend me. I'm really angling for a full-time university position where I can write or edit content (and maybe take the opportunity for some classes to improve my technical skill set too). There are a few of these out there, and they're my best hope just now.

Journalism, a lot like cooking, has taken a weird trip in this country from a trade into a profession, with arguable results. They like to peddle college degrees for what used to be job skills. The official outlets speak to credentialism, because after all, most of these folks have been credentialled themselves, and it counters other advice I've had about the skills needed in the field. Still, there are several science writing programs in the country (two of the best ones are in Massachusetts), which appear to provide an excellent sorting function. (The MIT one is run by one of the better Balloon Juice contributors, still blogrolled here.) I mean, I don't doubt that I'd learn better skills going into the program, and I'm mulling over the idea as a means to network, practice, and actually get a job, but again, I've already been doing this sort of thing professionally, if you accept my job description, for a decade or more now. Can I get in with my present resume? I guess I'll keep passing it around.


MichaelRyerson said...

Don't use semicolons. best I can do for you, sorry it ain't more.

Keifus said...

Yeah that's fine. It's all kind of a sham anyway, as I don't actually have such a job. I'm doing nothing but blowing smoke.

Archaeopteryx said...

I may have told this story before--when I finally (finally!) got the first draft of my disseration written and to my committee, after a seemingly interminable wait, one committee member returned it to me with a single comment: "You are in love with semicolons."

Cindy said...

Gratuitous Opinion Alert.

I think looking into one of the Science Writing Programs (particularly at MIT) could be beneficial for a number of reasons.

I speak from the place of one who harbors smart young recent graduates in her home.

Good graduate programs want really, really good people. And they have some money. And it updates resumes and apparent skill sets.

And for anyone over 30 it strips you of all illusion that you are hip before you go, while conferring cache' upon you as you graduate.

If you can, do it.

On the other hand, I know a guy who runs a resort in Aruba and would totally talk to you about a guest chef position between October and April.


Keifus said...

Stil balancing things, Cindy (you deserve a longer reply, but I'm out of time), if the worst cases evolve in the next couple months, as is increasingly likely. Classes of some sort is a fallback, but I might want to chase a postdoc in roughly my field (which are paid, after a fashion) or even a "researcher" position, instead of taking loans for a writing program. I'm not 100% sure of the options.

Or maybe my wife would let me go to Aruba for six months to do something I have no experience for.

Arch: there should be some biological joke about colons and semicolons that we can go to here.

Cindy said...

Keifus - on another (maybe related) note... are you familiar with this new paper/pen thing my daughter showed me yesterday?

She can touch the pen to a "record" icon printed at the bottom of a page in this regular-looking spiral notebook, and then as she writes notes, the pen records the voice, and later it can play back when she touches the word or diagram on the paper.


It is like a cross between James Bond, Jules Vern and Back To The Future.

Also, we have a Mag Lab in Tallahassee, and I know some people. Is that anything that attracts? I could get you some emails to send resumes to.

And, yes, well you might have to take the wife to Aruba so perhaps if you cook and practice for the next few years then when your baby is gone you could BOTH go to Aruba for 6 months?

Keifus said...

Here's the story. As of this afternoon, I'm demoted to a consultant. By removing all my overhead they can keep me paid for a little while longer than otherwise. I've got till December to rake in some miracle funding and if I can, all will revert to usual. Even with the spectre of unemployment, I haven't been finding the situation super motivating.

I've been here ten years, and have been ready to move on for the last six of them. I'm very concerned about staying financially afloat, but I'm seeing a lot of blessings here too, only thinly disguised. But of course that'll depend heavily on how things actually work out.

I've been looking for jobs for nine months now, and that'd be the preferred save, but it's been pretty hard to land one. I resist moving, but it sure can't hurt to throw one down that way. Have some interest in magnetic materials (and "artificial magnetic" materials), but like everything else I do, it's an inch deep.

Alternatives to a new job include paying for classes (with loans, but I think there's some govt retraining incentives), which is what a writing program would entail, but that'd be just a year. (That job would almost certainly be a pay cut too, but well worth it if it makes me happier.) It might screw the kids a bit as their college costs get closer. Other options include a postdoc or a "researcher" position at a university, which is better than no income, but not much, but I would at least not have to pay to retrain. I'm starting to talk to the few professors I know well enough to ask about that.

I like the idea of actually learning something (that is, in a non-half-assed way--I do some heavy extemporizing in these technical fields, and it's wearying). I also wouldn't mind the chance to actually get good at some more focused area. I like the idea of changing it all up too.

Aruba? I'd have taken six months off of grad school for that, come what may. Now, as with the past 15 years, however, it's the obligations of parenthood, which of course you know all about.

Cindy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.