Technical writing for a physicist?
October 24, 2012 5:42 AM   Subscribe

I might be hired as a technical writer soon. I'm not sure this would be the right job for me. I need some advice.

Hello MeFis!

In the following day I might be offered a job as a technical writer from a big high-tech company. However, I'm not entirely sure that I'm going to accept it. There are several reasons for that:

1) I have a Master's degree in theoretical physics. I've read on several websites that only a minority of technical writers have a technical background like mine. Coming from such a background, I'm not sure the job would be intellectually satisfying.

2) I don't really know what the job is. It's really hard to determine if I'm going to appreciate the job before I actually start doing it every day.

3) It's a long-term commitment. They are looking for someone who would be willing to stay 4 or 5 years at least, because the training period is quite long. Of course, this is not the army and I could always quit whenever I feel like it, but ethically it just wouldn't be right to accept the job and plan in advance to leave after two years.

4) What kind of career can I expect? I have the impression that technical writers stay technical writers. Furthermore, I'm not an English native speaker and this might put me at a disadvantage in the job market, even with a good experience in technical writing.

So, as you can see I'm a bit hesitant. If someone could give me some advice, I would very much appreciate it.

Thanks a lot! :-)

(Don't hesitate to correct my mistakes!)
posted by Fillus to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Technical writing can be an entry-level job to all sorts of career paths, from marketing to product management to information architecture design to programming. So you don't necessarily have to worry about your future, as the job may open new career paths where native English language ability is not a big deal.

Where I'm from, technical writing, as it is an entry-level job, does not pay well. It's also one of the last things people think about when doing budgets, so the 5-year commitment is pretty interesting, and totally impractical.

Five years is a significant, significant commitment in terms of your career. What are the career opportunities within the organization? What is the technology or product?

It's one thing to be writing technical documentation for a small software company. However, if you are writing documentation for NASA that is different.

In terms of how much you will like the job, it *can be* an interesting job if you like to talk to people. I have worked as a technical writer in the past, and I got to talk to all sorts of interesting people, mainly information architects and network security experts. It was actually quite a social job.

The writing, though, was pretty boring.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:54 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Something that stuck out to me in your question was that you're at a point where you think you're going to be offered a job, yet you don't know what the job is.

That tells me you're not interviewing your interviewer. But, it's not too late to start. If/When they offer you the position, prior to making your decision, ask to speak with the hiring manager. "I know that you want a five year commitment, and given that, I'd like an opportunity to meet with the hiring manager to discuss expectations." Then go meet with that person and grill them like a cheeseburger. Here are some good questions to ask:

1. Tell me what a typical day looks like.
2. What issues in your department keep you up at night? (This should reveal where any stress may come from.)
3. What is the career path for someone in this position?
4. How do you see my skill set being used in this position?
5. You mention that you want a long-term commitment from me, explain to me how committed you'll be in protecting my position for that time-frame.
6. I know that "fit" is important, how do you see me fitting into your department.

That should cover most of your concerns. Also, really review the benefits you're being offered. Health insurance is super tricky, and it can account for a significant portion of your compensation package. Make sure it's not some garbage-plan.

In the future, you shouldn't be auditioning for a job. You need to view each job interview as an opportunity not only to show prospective employers how awesome you are, but for them to sell you on working for them. Ask any question you have, voice concerns, come away understanding as much about the actual work, the folks in the work group and the manager's style so you have as many data points as you need to make an informed decision.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on October 24, 2012 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answer. It's a pretty big company (around 2000 employees). Their main product are proton therapy rooms, but they also have all sort of other products related to cancer treatment.

Since the company is pretty big and it hires physicists, I could probably have other opportunities in the company in the future, but I'm not sure I would be in the best position to apply even though I'd have an extended knowledge of their product.
posted by Fillus at 6:11 AM on October 24, 2012

Ruthless Bunny has just helped me out on an interview I have today!

If you don't feel any innate interest in technical writing, it's probably not going to be there if you take the job. I went into it with innate interest (and ability), did it for five years, and was ready to move on by that time. It can be pretty dry stuff. However, keep in mind that some people do it for decades and love it.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:12 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Ruthless Bunny: Thanks! I've already had two interviews, and yes, I should've asked more questions... It's just a bit difficult to gauge these things since I didn't want to come off as too "unsure" about my motivation.
posted by Fillus at 6:20 AM on October 24, 2012

Best answer: I have the impression that technical writers stay technical writers.
I'm not sure the job would be intellectually satisfying.

Sometimes, sure. I started out as a technical writer (in probably the most boring technical writing job ever) and I've discovered that it's afforded me tremendous flexibility to do other work that is more interesting to me.

Technical writers usually have solid transferable skills and versatility. We can analyze material and translate it to different audiences; we understand systems and processes; we can work well with a variety of people (technical, software, marketing, legal, customers, etc.). It doesn't sound very difficult, but you'd be amazed by the sheer number of subject matter experts out there who simply cannot translate their work to paper because they're too close to it. It can be very satisfying to bridge that gap.

Those skills helped me find work as a project manager, account manager, and business analyst -- all work that I do enjoy more than straight technical writing. I've been able find interesting, engaging work in software, finance, government, and healthcare.
posted by mochapickle at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

They want a five year commitment; are you signing a five year contract? That would at least protect you if they decide to change directions.

If it were me, as a native english speaker if you consider New Yawkese as native, I would say to them when they talk about a 5 year commitment, "Sure, just show me a copy of the contract we are signing to formalize that commitment." This would only be the case if as you noted, you felt a moral obligation to honor that commitment.
posted by AugustWest at 7:02 AM on October 24, 2012

ethically it just wouldn't be right to accept the job and plan in advance to leave after two years.

They won't hesitate to fire you or lay you off after two years if need be. Don't feel guilty if you need to leave.
posted by kindall at 8:38 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I should also mention that I've been a technical writer since, oh, let's say 1989 (the first time I was paid for my writing on a technical topic). I have never found a lack of intellectual stimulation in the field.

As for technical writers staying technical writers, maybe not. Technical writers often make good user experience designers because they are already in a user advocacy position, and good written communication skills will serve you well in many managerial positions.

Personally, I'm still a technical writer after 23 years in the field, but I also have reasonable programming skills. This has landed me numerous SDK/API developer documentation gigs, which tend to be both more interesting and higher-paid than end-user documentation work. At my current job I'm also in charge of maintaining and improving our documentation build system. Just last week I coded up a JavaScript spelling corrector for our HTML help search function.

My former colleague at this job was a physicist (the company makes data visualization software for aerospace engineers). I imagine you could find a similar niche explaining scientific software and other products to scientists and engineers which would be both intellectually stimulating and lucrative.
posted by kindall at 10:32 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

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