Career options for former journalist / writer / fiction MFA?
July 21, 2017 11:25 AM   Subscribe

All-around smart person and good writer with varied employment history (magazine editorial, freelance journalism, nonfiction author, adjunct writing teaching, fiction MFA) seeks to understand the career options from here.

Hey. So, late-thirtysomething here with a somewhat unusual/spotty background is trying to figure out what's next, or what could be next. Help me think of paths I might not have considered before. Feel free to be specific. I largely don't know what's out there, besides what I've already done.

Here's me: graduated from a pretty good liberal arts college with an English degree. I also have an MA in English from a good university, and by next year, an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from a different good university. In terms of employment, I did the New York City publishing thing for a while, working as an editor at two different magazines that have since folded. My title was "online editor," but this was a handful of years ago and I feel that my online skills are no longer cutting-edge. I do think I'm an excellent editor of text, though. About six years ago, I left my last full-time job to write a nonfiction book. It was published by a major press and reasonably well reviewed, though it wasn't a big commercial success. Since that time, I've done a little freelancing (my book was on a medical theme, and I've packaged myself in the past as a science/medical journalist, though I feel like a generalist at heart, and I've also written about food, travel, design...). I also taught writing for several years as an adjunct at a well-regarded university extension program, as well as been paid as a copy editor. Now I'm fulfilling a longtime dream of getting an MFA in fiction writing. I'm working on a novel. I'd love to get that novel published and be in a position to apply for tenure-track creative writing teaching jobs at colleges. Landing a job like that would be a dream come true. But I'm also trying to understand what I could do instead, since there are many, many people competing for those jobs.

-I'll be almost 40 by the time I'm done with this program, and I don't really want to earn another degree at this point, but I wouldn't rule it out 100 percent.

-I'm a mom now, my husband works freelance, and I like the idea of a "real" job that provides health insurance and benefits. The endless hustle of freelancing doesn't appeal much anymore.

-I do love to teach, and I've looked into teaching at a private high school, which seems like an option. An academic schedule would go so nicely with being a parent and a writer. On the downside, these jobs don't pay much and they're pretty low-prestige.

-Journalism itself feels like a sinking ship. It's hard for me to imagine moving back to New York and trying to get back on that train. Though I could imagine putting my journo skills to work at a nonprofit or government agency or something, if I could understand how that's done.

-Our family can move anywhere.

-INFJ, so my need to do something I can feel good about is pretty high, though I like to think I am getting more pragmatic as I get older.

-I've always been intelligent and a quick learner, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college, yadda yadda, but I never developed a particular marketable skill besides writing and all-around critical thinking. All my jobs have been in the greater writing/journalism/arts/education world, but I have hopped around a lot, and gone in and out of self-employment phases, rather than going super deep in any one corner of that. All that leaves me wondering how to package or present myself, and how I will look to potential employers, now that I'm looking at looking for a real job again, one that I can keep and grow in this time.

Thank you!
posted by toomuchkatherine to Work & Money (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Communications Manager/Director/Coordinator for a university and/or college and English tutoring on the side - maybe an adjunct appointment? My university currently has several open positions in that realm, and after glancing through some of competing institutions' websites, it *appears* this is currently a fairly hot position. (Truth be told, I only sourced a California and a New Jersey university, so YMMV.) MeMail me if you'd like any details about what we have open.

And packaging yourself to a university shouldn't be a problem as long as you are clear and concise to the interview panel regarding your employment history. I'll leave it to other MeFites to explain to you how to deftly discuss that topic.
posted by Tardis_Spin at 12:00 PM on July 21, 2017

Though I could imagine putting my journo skills to work at a nonprofit or government agency or something, if I could understand how that's done.

That's what I did, more or less! Although my background is different from yours - I went to a well-regarded journalism school and decided not to pursue it, but graduated with a journalism degree. I wound up getting an entry-level job in a nonprofit's fundraising department, worked my way up mostly on the strength of my writing skills, and now five and a half years later I just got hired as a grant manager at what will be my third nonprofit. (I will say that decently-paying in-house jobs of this kind are definitely concentrated in big cities (I'm in NYC)).

I think you would be able to transition into this field without any re-training if you pitch yourself right, and if you're fine with possibly coming in at a low-ish level. You have the required skills, I think: writing ability, sure, but also research, editing, interviewing, and possibly most importantly, knowing how to identify the information you need and then organize that information in a way that makes sense and fits a set of given requirements. And having worked in publishing, you likely also are able to deal with juggling a bunch of deadlines.

Broadly speaking, here is what my current job involves:

The majority of my time is actually spent reporting on activities performed under our current grants, rather than writing proposals for new grants. I have a calendar of when these reports are due - in my current position it's between one and five per month - and I have to make sure I begin working on them with enough lead time to get all the info and finish them on time. To write these reports, I need to read the contract that we signed with the grant-maker, which outlines the reporting requirements, as well as the original proposal we submitted, which outlines what the activities entail and what our goals/targets for the reporting period are. Some grants are extremely particular and complex - like, there are 15 specific questions you have to answer and they have a certain word limit, they ask for very in-depth analysis of your impact, there are a bunch of very specific targets you have to show that you met, etc - while others are much more 'relaxed' and basically just want you to tell them what you did. In all cases though, the overall purpose of the grant reports is basically to persuade the funder that they made a good choice in deciding to give you money and that they should consider giving you more money in the future.

One I know what the report requires, I figure out how to track down all of this information. I know (having learned it over time) which people in which countries are responsible for which programs and activities, and I will email the relevant people lists of questions about those activities and requests for other types of information I need (such as meeting minutes, writeups of legal cases, quantitative information from the database, photos, quotes from training participants, etc etc). Managing to extract this information in enough detail involves some people skills, since you're often asking for stuff from people who outrank you or who are very busy. In addition to this info, I usually need to include information about the overall program or department, or language about our organization, etc, which might be contained in the grant proposal, some other report, etc. I then combine all this and write up a draft report and look for gaps and issues with the information, and I follow up with the people I need more info from, sometimes via Skype and sometimes through email. (If I worked for an org that did local programs in my native language, I would have more in-person meetings as part of this process.) I also might meet with the people in charge of the Program Department to clarify issues or questions about the project's goals.

After all this, I write my final draft and make sure it's all formatted and pretty and has the graphs and photos in the right places, I check the contract again to make sure that all the required attachments are there (including the stuff prepared by the finance department), and we send the report off to the funder.

Writing proposals for new grants is functionally pretty similar, except the Program staff takes much more of a lead role because they're the ones designing the actual activities we are proposing. But it's my job to make sure they understand exactly what kinds of activities we are allowed to propose to a given donor and what information the potential donor needs from them, to take the info they give me and make it well-written and persuasive for the donor, and to read the proposal requirements carefully and make sure that we provide all the documentation they need in the way that they need it.

Since you wrote a nonfiction book and worked in magazine publishing, I imagine most of this rings a bell! If it sounds at all appealing, I think you would be able to get your foot in the door by just writing a really good cover letter explaining that you have these skills. In addition to your writing skills, play up your ability to identify the information you need, track it down, and make it flow well, as well as anything in your background that shows you'd be able to carefully read and interpret contracts (or other legal documents).

Also mention in your cover letter "the endless hustle of freelancing doesn't appeal much anymore" and "my need to do something I can feel good about is pretty high," since those will help explain why you're trying to move into this field.

You could consider focusing on nonprofits which are somehow related to your background - so, medical or science nonprofits for sure, as well as education and/or creative writing, and journalism/press freedom. But really, although people often wind up specializing, grant writing is pretty mobile. I'm about to move from an international human rights service provider to a local transportation advocacy org.

A larger organization might be more willing to take a chance on someone without specific grant experience, and they also might have more specialized positions in their development departments - like someone who only does reporting and no prospecting, etc. Very small orgs might try to get you to run their individual giving program and communications as well (which is why I no longer have much desire to work for very small orgs).

Oh, and one thing that would add to your competitive edge would be to get really good at Microsoft Word and/or Microsoft Excel, maybe by taking cheap online courses. My ability to format a table of contents in Word or do pivot tables in Excel is a major selling point for me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:43 PM on July 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have a Journalism degree that I earned in 2000. I worked as a reporter for a newspaper, but ended up jobless after moving to the Pacific Northwest.

I couldn't get a journalism job here - even after being personally hooked up with a one-on-one meeting with the managing editor of the Oregonian by a generous attorney - and eventually went the non-profit route. I've been doing communications work for them for the past 10 years and it is consistent, decent-paying, fulfilling work.
posted by tacodave at 4:32 PM on July 21, 2017

On another note, I know a friend who is a former journalist who works for a university newspaper (i.e., the one that is circulated BY the university, not the student newspaper.) It sounds like a pretty good gig -- reporting on interesting topics, good pay, benefits, etc.
posted by heavenknows at 7:04 PM on July 21, 2017

PM if you have any interest in packaging yourself as a freelance/contract medical writer and editor. I don't do that but I know people who do and can give you some more advice. Medical writing and editing is much more lucrative than the freelance business writing and editing I do (fellow former journalist). So if you've got the medical or science chops, that could be a viable career. There are also staff positions.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:13 PM on July 21, 2017

+ 1 for communications jobs. There is a VERY wide variety of roles in the field.
posted by lecorbeau at 8:54 AM on July 26, 2017

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