As an engineering consultant, I knew I was busy, solving problems, slogging through tedious environmental regulations (CFR Title 40 still gives me the willies), and enduring round after excruciating round of report editing; but I never considered why I was doing these things or what skills I was gaining. I did not appreciate the value of my circumstances. Years later it become obvious that what I was really doing as a consultant was developing amazing technical writing skills; acquiring a keen attention detail; learning to manage projects, teams, and clients; learning how to sell products; and, this is the big one, learning how to take relentless critical feedback and integrate it without any sense of personal attack. If I had realized this at the time, how much more could I have grown? How many opportunities did I waste?
I like to think I learn from my mistakes, and since I prize the efficient use of time, it is now standard practice to reflect on any project and evaluate: 1) what am I learning, 2) what skills am I developing, and 3) how can I gain as much transferable experience as possible?
Over the last two years, I have taken on several technical writing contract projects and love them. Below are my reflections on the “why” and the general criteria they meet:
1) Exercise an existing skill: technical writing skill
Neglected skills atrophy the same as unused muscles, regardless of the number of years invested in developing them. I spent five years learning Italian and how much can I speak now?- nada..or is it niente? Contract writing for multiple companies provides excellent skill reinforcement since each project is different. It hinders recycling a formula from project to project and requires active thought and growth.
2) Expand an existing skill: scientific communication to a broad audience
Scientists talk a great deal about the importance of communicating science to the general population, but most of us never do. A poster or a talk at a general interest conference doesn’t count. The closest I had come was writing due diligence reports to business people with Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR).
When I started writing service descriptions for Science Exchange (SE) I learned what it meant to write for anyone. Describing “science for the people” forced me to distill concepts to the basics and to ask for feedback from naïve audiences. It became clear that examples of when to use a service are most important and reinforced the idea that analogy is usually the best tool for disseminating knowledge to uninformed audiences.
3) Develop new skills: learn novel techniques and fill-in knowledge gaps
Writing service descriptions and especially grants for different companies requires learning about new fields and techniques outside the narrow focus of my research. It forces me to stay up to date on current science and technology trends. Contract writing can bring to light any gaps in knowledge, as well. I have had to fill-in plenty of holes in my areas of expertise.
4) Lead to additional opportunities: other contract projects
Learning the theory behind new fields helps me find opportunities to gain technical experience in areas outside my existing expertise like next-generation sequencing. It also provides conversational knowledge for conferences and networking events. Through engaging people in deeper conversations other opportunities arise that allow me to stay on that exciting slope of the learning curve and keep cycling through the list above.
Perhaps these general criteria will provide something to mull over the next time you evaluate a project and consider stepping a little outside your comfort zone. Always keep asking, “what am I gaining and could I grow more?”