The Non-Ac Career: Bringing Interpretive Skills to Technical Writing
Kate Krieg (PhD 2018) manages a group of technical writers at Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical device companies. “Part of my role is to keep on top of new laws, regulations, and standards that impact the content of our manuals,” Krieg says. “I develop strategies for meeting the requirements in a streamlined way.” At the U, Krieg focused on British literature, defending the dissertation "The Victorian Mind's Eye: Perception as Form in Literature and Science." As in her graduate studies, in her current role she enjoys problem solving creatively within set boundaries. “I love that I learn something new every day,” she notes, “and that my interpretive skills are key to my success in this role.” Krieg graciously answered our emailed questions.
Please describe your career path.
My career path is more like a sharp left turn. I started the PhD program at the U straight out of undergrad. Academic life was always what I wanted to pursue, and I was on track for that. I decided to start applying for academic jobs in the fall of 2017, before I defended. I got no bites, even though I cast a wide net. As a diabetic, a lot of my life decision making has been shaped by the cost of insulin and supplies, and adjuncting would not have been a realistic option for me. After applying for academic, alt-ac, and non-ac jobs and coming up empty, I leaned on my network. I started talking with other folks who had been advisees of my advisor. I reached out to recent grads of the program. I met with friends of friends and cold-called people for informational interviews. I probably talked to close to 30 people. I handed my resume to a friend who had defended six months before me and was working at Medtronic in technical writing, and the rest is history.
What skills honed during your graduate studies have been helpful in your job?
I've been surprised by how often I rely on the critical skills I developed as a graduate student. I spend a lot of time reading and interpreting the laws and standards that regulate what we call "medical device labeling," which includes the insert or manual that comes with a medical device or even a prescription. In the US, for example, the FDA has strict rules about what information needs to be in those documents, but there can be room for interpretation about how and where that information is presented. And there are constraints for the manuals: what can we accomplish with our current design capabilities? Do we need to write in such a way that the same paragraph can be used across many manuals for different devices? Is the audience a patient or healthcare professional? I'm always asking questions about meaning, audience, genre, and style in my day-to-day work.
My dissertation research was interdisciplinary and involved me teaching myself the basics of other fields (statistics, physics, evolutionary biology, history and philosophy of science); it taught me how to get comfortable with being in a space where I wasn't the expert, while remaining curious and open to learning. I learned how to absorb and synthesize large volumes of information outside of my own field and distill it for a non-expert audience—a major element of the everyday work of technical writing.
Teaching is fantastic preparation for leading meetings. Typically we have a room full of experts from different fields (R&D, regulatory, quality engineers, label designers, and others), each with their own point of view on key questions that impact what we put in a manual. We need to help the group drive to conclusions and make decisions, rather than making decisions ourselves. The kind of Socratic discussions I led as an instructor prepared me well for these tasks.
Similarly, teaching and conferencing taught me how to build rapport quickly, which pays dividends in a large organization like Medtronic. Sometimes we never meet our colleagues face-to-face, even after years of working together, because they're located in other countries. Building rapport over the phone is tough! But relationship building matters: folks keep an eye out in conversations to see if you're included. They consult you for your point of view on key decisions. They review your work with care because they want you to succeed. I can't stress enough how smart, talented, and kind my colleagues are; I feel extremely lucky to work with them.
What do you wish you had known as a graduate student?
I wish I had known how truly decimated the tenure track job market has become for folks outside of a small set of criteria (e.g. coming from a certain caliber institution, doing certain types of research that happen to be in demand, etc.). The job I wanted wasn't a realistic outcome for me, but it took me a long time to grapple with the fact that this didn't have anything to do with how smart I was, how good my work was, or how hard I worked at it. There's also a lot of compounding factors: sometimes, to attain a TT position, you're having to place that above everything else in your life (starting a family, choosing where you want to live, etc.).
On the one hand, understanding and accepting this set of facts earlier would have made transitioning out of academia easier psychologically (less self-blame and frustration), but on the other hand, I don't know that I would have had the wherewithal to finish. If I had been more real with myself, I could have spent more time imagining realistic alternative futures. I used to joke that my plan B was opening a classic rock-themed ice cream shop (my two great loves in life), which was funny, but also hid the fact that I had no plan B and, frankly, no idea about how to develop one!
What advice would you give current students embarking on their postdoctoral careers?
Be real with yourself about what you want: not just in terms of what a successful career looks like, but what you as a whole person want for your life. And then ask yourself what you need to do to achieve that. Is it realistic? Do you have the capacity or even the desire to do it? What factors lie outside of your locus of control? Maybe you do pursue an academic position, and that's wonderful. It's equally wonderful to find work in alt-ac and non-ac positions. It's okay to have a false start. It's okay to explore. It's okay to take a job and not have a five-, 10-, or 15-year plan for your career. You can learn a lot by researching, but sometimes the only way to learn is by doing.
The other best piece of advice I can give, particularly to folks who are looking to pursue employment outside of academia, is to talk to as many people as you can, and ask people for help. Plenty of us have been where you are now. We are here to help you, to mentor you, and to cheer you on.