Liz Hanson received her PhD in English from Loyola in 2013. She is a technical writer for Applied Systems, an insurance software provider in University Park, IL. Dr. Hanson spoke with history PhD candidate Katie Macica about how she embarked on this career path.
Describe your current position.
As a technical writer for Applied Systems, I edit and publish release notes, help file content, installation and configuration documents, and other miscellaneous product documentation for several of our insurance software solutions. The content specialists on my team and my colleagues in Product Development often provide rough drafts of these materials, and we engage in additional dialogue to clarify and fill in the details. I also participate in weekly product launch readiness meetings with representatives from teams across the organization and take an active role in evaluating and implementing improvements to my team’s internal processes.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
While the collaborative nature of my role can mean playing a frustrating amount of email tag at times, it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Getting a software release out the door is a cross-functional team effort that allows me to cooperate with and learn from colleagues with backgrounds in other disciplines and vast industry expertise. And I’m fortunate to work for a company that’s committed to helping employees learn and grow. Applied provides numerous continuing education opportunities internally, which have allowed me to deepen my understanding of the insurance industry—and by extension, the audience I’m writing for.
How did your graduate education at Loyola prepare you for your position?
To name just a few examples, it conditioned me to think critically and creatively about how readers might engage with a text, be it a novel or a help file article. Writing a primarily theoretical dissertation, I had to exercise precision in explaining others’ concepts and articulating my own, not to mention organizing complex documents for clarity and flow. At its root, my job is to make specialized information accessible to a general audience: a skill that any PhD student who has given a conference paper, applied for dissertation funding, or taught a class has already honed. Above all, a passion for learning—which is what brought us all here in the first place—is essential for a technical writer, because the products you document, the tools you use, your audience’s expectations, and your own role will never stop changing.
How did you envision your career trajectory as a graduate student?
I realized rather early on that teaching wasn’t the right fit for me. I had a knack for the editorial work I did during my semesters as a research assistant, but not a clear plan for turning it into a career path after graduation. I was very narrowly focused on completing my degree, probably to my detriment. After I defended, I spent about a year and a half freelancing and working an unrelated part-time job while I searched for something more permanent. Had I started thinking in more concrete terms about my career trajectory as a graduate student and preparing for it more proactively, I very likely could have shortened that search.
What led you to this career?
After I met with an advisor and participated in a self-assessment workshop at Loyola’s Career Development Center, technical writing emerged as a good match for my skills and my working style. I didn’t pursue it immediately: the lack of entry-level positions available scared me off for a while, until I stumbled across the posting for the position at Applied. It’s been an excellent fit and a natural extension of many of the same kinds of challenges that excited me as a graduate student.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students about career exploration and navigating the job market?
Even if you can't check off every requirement on a job posting, have confidence in the experience you have gained in your graduate program (just be ready to relate it directly to a potential employer’s needs). If you’re interested in a career in technical writing in particular, seek out freelance writing opportunities, ideally while you’re still in the program. Writing in a range of genres for different audiences will give you a varied portfolio to draw on when a potential employer requests writing samples. Many open source projects need someone to write their documentation—this won’t be paid work, but it can acquaint you with the field and help you gain more specific experience. Consider joining the Society for Technical Communication, and check out technical writing groups on LinkedIn to learn about trends in the field and begin networking.