Chances are good that if you have considered moving into a communication heavy career, someone has at some point suggested you keep a writing portfolio.
If you are like me, you nodded sagely and left confused. What is a writing portfolio? And what do I put in mine, if I am working as a scientist?
Let’s start with the basics, who needs a portfolio, and why. You might need a writing portfolio if you will be hired based on your ability to write, or to write in a particular style. Science journalists, grant writers, and those of us in instructional/educational publishing might benefit from a portfolio.
Depending on the specifics of the role, you may be asked to submit the portfolio as a well constructed object (via web or file these days), or you might just use your portfolio as a personal reference to pull out a singular writing sample.
Journalists or freelancers are more likely to have and need a portfolio that acts as a stand alone professional document. Basically, the portfolio is going to act as a repository of your best writing in the styles that you want to write in. It provides a succinct version of your body of work that can be easily assessed by potential employers, collaborators and others.
What you should put in your writing portfolio is dependent on how you want to position yourself professionally. If you want to be a journalist, your portfolio should include news stories, essays or commentaries, rather than your Cell paper or dissertation.
Because I want to work in instructional design, mine includes a mix of essays and blog entries, such as those I write for Bio Careers, and educational documents I’ve written or built. I have never been asked to submit a portfolio whole, but I am often asked for a writing sample. My portfolio serves to make it quick and easy for me to identify pieces that I wrote that I am proud of for specific applications. One thing that should be clarified is that these don’t always need to be peer reviewed or published documents.
I have a syllabus I wrote in my portfolio that I feel demonstrates both my writing and instructional style. It obviously has never been “published.” A writing portfolio is more about demonstrating your voice than it is about demonstrating your success. Of course, given the choice between published or unpublished material, consider what will be most impressive to the audience you want to impress. A nonprofit looking for a grant writer would rather see your successfully funded grants, but the communications department of a biotech might prefer someone who understands the science, since they will publish to their own platform regardless.
My portfolio is also not made exclusively of documents where I am the sole author. Frequently, the type of writing I do now relies heavily on source material, and is thoroughly edited. It is also sometimes imbedded into other people’s writing. In my own portfolio, I try to make it clear which parts I wrote, and which aspects were collaboration. For example, I wrote questions and feedback for an interactive STEM game, but I didn’t do much with the interface.
How you format your portfolio may also change depending on how you expect it to be used. When my sister graduated as a communications major, she created a binder with a table of contents and brief commentary about the purpose and audience of each piece it contained. You can imagine the PDF version of this would be a nice stand-alone document.
A good friend put her portfolio up on contently.com, which does a nice job of both organizing and presenting web-based writing, makes it easier for people to stumble into your work, or for your colleagues to share your work. I have other friends who manage their own small websites to host their writing. For a long time, my “portfolio” was just a folder on my computer where my good writing was.
If you suspect people might encounter your portfolio without other context (i.e. you are hosting it on the web), it can be helpful to include summaries of why you wrote these documents or for whom. Who was the intended audience? Were you trying to write persuasively? Was the purpose of the piece to inform? If you collaborated in their writing, what was your role? This can help potential employers assess your writing more fairly. The writing I have done for middle school students looks quite different than the writing I do for faculty or other professionals, and I want to make that clear.
Bear in mind when selecting what you share and how there may be limits on what you are allowed to share. Writing you have done for a corporate setting may be confidential, or publications still in preparation may not be appropriate to share publicly. Ask your boss about documents you are unsure of, like protocols or abstracts.
Unless you are very sure that you need and will use a polished writing portfolio, I would prioritize having a polished CV or resume or LinkedIn profile and a clear picture of where you want your career to go first.
As new platforms for sharing and creating content develop, I suspect the nature of the portfolio will continue to change. I also keep my portfolio on contently.com, in part because I have created eLearning content which is too interactive to print or share in any way that isn’t a URL. The rise of many self authoring tools also increases the chances that the writing you have available to share was a blog post rather than a printed magazine article. The key thing to keep in mind when developing a portfolio is to use the portfolio as a tool to build an impression of your writing that reflects how you want to be seen professionally.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in molecular biology in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently is an eLearning Specialist at Tableau Software. Previously, she has worked as is a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College.