How do you feel about writing?
Don’t answer that. If you’re like most academics and PhDs, your relationship with the writing process can best be described as “complicated.”
At the worst of times, writing can feel like pulling teeth. You stare at the screen, zombie-like, struggling to wrench ideas from your head and drop them down on the page.
But, at the best of times, writing can be inspiring. You’re ‘in the zone.’ Words flow from mind to hand to page.
Like the apocryphal quote from Michelangelo, who believed that each block of marble had a sculpture divinely embedded within, great writing feels almost like chipping away the excess. Your dissertation isn’t ‘written’ at all. It’s discovered.
Have you ever felt that way? If so, we’re here to tell you that there are all kinds of ways to deploy your writing skills in post-academic career paths.
In this article, we’ll look at 3 professional (and profitable!) writing careers for PhDs:
- Technical writing
- Content writing
- Grant writing
Each of these will put your hard-earned research and writing skills to use in different and often quite surprising ways.
But first, a word of caution: many of the writing careers described below, such as content writer and technical writer, mean wildly different things in different contexts.
One “content writer” may produce blog and social media posts, effectively acting as the resident social media manager. Another may work primarily on business scripts and stories.
Likewise, some companies hire “technical writers” to produce manuals and IFUs (instructions for use) for devices and software products. But at other companies, “labeling specialists” work on manuals and “technical writers” do something completely different!
(How can you find out what a job actually does at a particular organization? Informational interviews, of course!)
Hence, you should treat the descriptions of writing careers in this article as general guidelines, not immutable facts.
1. Technical Writing Careers
Technical writing is one of the best professional and profitable writing careers for both STEM and humanities/social sciences PhDs to consider.
Technical writers primarily write and edit technical documents such as instruction manuals, product labels, network design drawings, bills of materials, and more.
That, uh, doesn’t sound too exciting, huh?
Luckily, technical writers do a whole lot more than write technical documents. In fact, a common refrain we’ve heard among tech writers we interview is that writing forms a surprisingly small part of their day-to-day job responsibilities.
The best way to describe technical writing is as a combination of research, writing, editing, and long-term project management.
You research government rules and regulations, write manuals detailing how the company’s products comply with those regulations, edit manuals and labels for accuracy and clarity, all while managing the project over the course of several months or years.
So, in other words, exactly like completing a dissertation!
Now, as noted above, technical writers do all sorts of different things. If you’re interested in entry-level technical writing careers at a specific organization or company, it is imperative to do the proper networking and figure out what tech writers there actually do. LinkedIn is a great place to start.
But, if you can get your foot in the door, technical writing can be a great and rewarding writing career that pays well, puts your academic skills to use, and allows plenty of room for career advancement.
Want to learn more about launching a technical writing career? Check out these resources:
2. Content Writing Careers
Like technical writing, content writing careers can entail all kinds of different things.
At the most basic level, content writers produce blog posts, website copy, social media content, video transcriptions, etc. This kind of work is also known as content marketing. For example, this article you’re reading right now (hi there!) is a piece of content writing.
After all, every organization needs a website, and websites need content. In this digital age, any business or organization without creative, substantial, and well-written web content may as well not exist.
A common skill content writers learn is search engine optimization or SEO. This is the art of calibrating web content to appear prominently in Google (and Bing, we guess) search results.
Good SEO involves equal parts research, writing, and editing. You study keyword trends, analyze your website’s current rankings, identify keyword gaps, and write your web content accordingly. When you think about it, it’s the perfect fit for academically trained writers like us!
Beyond web copy, content writers may work on other creative writing deliverables such as social media content, mass emails, presentation slides, storyboards, scripts for videos/podcasts, and much more.
Basically, whenever the organization needs something written, content writers get it done. At big corporations, content writers enjoy excellent, highly profitable writing careers.
If you’re interested in pursuing professional content writing careers in your area, make a list of deliverables you can produce. Examples include:
- White papers
- Web copy
- Blog posts
- Knowledge bases
- Presentation slides
- Video transcriptions
You’ve probably written at least some of these things over the course of your graduate studies. If not, Freelancing sites like Upwork and Contently are quick (albeit not very profitable) ways to acquire some non-academic writing experience.
Next, as with tech writing and other professional writing careers, do your networking and figure out what a “content writer” at the organization you’re targeting actually does.
Finally, be aware that creative content writing jobs often go by different names: marketing copywriter, marketing communications specialist, copyeditor, proofreader, web writer, etc.
Cast a wide net in your job search and look for any role with “writing” or “editing” in the description.
3. Grant Writing Careers
Chances are, you wrote tons of grant and fellowship proposals both during and after graduate school. If so, you are qualified to work as a grant writer or proposal writer.
However, it’s important to understand that academic and non-academic grant writing are two very different things.
Academic grant proposals are extremely formulaic.
They’re typically 2–3 pages long. They include a brief, for-the-layman description of your research, your research plan, methodologies, list of funding needs, and so forth. They’re written by the researcher (you) for other researchers (the funding committee).
(Looking for advice on grant writing? Check out our recent post on grant-writing tips for grad students.)
But beyond the academy, grant writing is a much more complex process.
As a grant writer, you will be asked to research and submit proposals to federal and state agencies as well as private foundations. You may be asked to manage the funds after they’ve been awarded.
Nonprofit grant writing hews fairly close to the academic model. But for-profit grant proposals, such as those submitted to the NIH, can be dozens of dense, jargony pages long. They are often written by teams, each person handling a different section.
If you’re interested in full-time grant writing careers that pay well, think about strategies for managing a proposal development process. Common interview questions for grant writers include:
- How do you capture all the relevant details within a request for proposal (RFP)? Explain your process of review.
- If you were informed that a grant would be approved if you could cut the budget by 20%, what steps would you take to ensure the grant was funded?
- How would you manage a proposal that requires longer than normal hours to meet the submission deadline?
Here too, freelancing (if you can make the time) is a great way to build some non-academic grant-writing experience.
We don’t need to tell you that writing can be incredibly rewarding.
A well-written book or article can change the hearts and minds of thousands. A single, well-chosen word can ricochet around the world.
To all those academics and PhDs who believe in the power of the written word, we hope this overview of professional writing careers for PhDs has been helpful.
There are careers in writing that pay well. There are plenty of opportunities beyond the academy to leverage your writing skills towards positive social ends.
It may take some time to figure out what kind of writing you want to do, and then to find a job in that area. But know that opportunities do exist. You will find one.
Writing is all well and good, but how do you feel about teaching careers? If so, please check out this post on careers for PhDs who love teaching.
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