Who Really Needs an MA in Professional/Technical Writing?

The big question most people have around pursuing graduate degrees goes something like this: Why spend thousands of dollars on graduate courses when there are so many other ways to improve your tech writing skills or break into the tech writing field?  Ways such as:

  • Certification from the Society for Technical Communication (STC)
  • Lynda.com
  • On-the-job training
  • Free webinars from companies serving the technical communications field, and on Webinar host sites such as BrightTALK

As someone who teaches in such a graduate program, I need to have a valid answer. So I began to formulation an answer to this question, by first asking what technical communicators need.

My first internet search on this question produced two interesting answers:  the first is a guest post by Dr. Laura Palmer on the I’d Rather be Writing blog.  Dr. Palmer teaches technical communication at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Her post answers the question, “What do you need to be a technical communicator?”  I recommend reading her entire, excellent post.

Make a Personal Inventory

Dr. Palmer writes that the answer to this question is very personal, and advises that  you do a personal inventory to determine what you need to become a technical communicator. We actually do a personal inventory like this in one of the classes I teach.  The assignment calls for reviewing job ads and investigate how to obtain the skills required for jobs that students want.

You can use this simple template to complete this personal inventory.

dream-job-skills-templateCopy and paste the job titles and requirements. When you get to the “how do I get these qualifications” column, google!

You’ll find that you can get many qualifications by attending training outside the university setting or via STC. But a university-based certificate program or a masters’ program such as ours provides some unique advantages that can be worth the higher dollar investment.

Job Ad Example

Here’s a fairly typical job advertisement I recently found for a “technical communicator.”  Even though this position does not require a master’s degree, our degree can help you to gain all of the highlighted skills below.

Required Skills:

  • Two year degree or four years of experience in technical writing and/or communicating
  • 3+ years of technical writing experience in software systems
  • Experience with technical publications tools
  • Experience interviewing technical subject matter experts and researching complex systems and software
  • Ability to assess content for usability and a drive to enhance user experience
  • Experience working independently
  • Must provide documentation examples
  • Experience leading cross-team best practice discussions

Preferred Skills:

  • Bi-lingual in English and Spanish or French
  • Experience creating layouts for online help and print documents
  • Experience creating technical documentation for hardware systems
  • Experience working in an Agile environment
  • Experience in Trucking Industry
  • Understanding of HTML and XML

Is an MA Worth the Money?

The second interesting  answer I found was on the Ask MetaFilter website:  a site where you can post questions for experts to answer. The poster asked, “Is a masters’ [sic] degree in professional writing worth it?”

The answers were overwhelmingly, “No, a master’s degree is not worth it.”  Instead, the responders recommended alternatives such as:

  • Get a mentor
  • Volunteer to write grants if you want to be a grant writer
  • Get a paid internship
  • Start writing now on the side
  • Spend the money on specialized classes and membership in the Society for Technical Communication
  • Take courses in medical, computer science, finance—specialize in a field that pays tech writers
  • Network

My favorite answer to the MetaFilter question came from “mochapickle,” who wrote that you don’t need a graduate degree. In fact, mochapickle said that success as a writer has very little to do with higher education, and offered a list of the qualities and skills of a successful writer:

The most successful writers I know:
+ Don’t have a ton of ego
+ Are practical and self-reliant and helpful and have a sense of humor
+ Turn in clean, consistent, polished copy that doesn’t need a ton of edits
+ Adapt to editor preferences without bickering
+ Have good instincts as critical thinkers but know when to push and when to relax
+ Have good recall for dates and information
+ Have a good sense of logic and process & identifying parallels
+ Quickly grasp technical tools and processes
+ Are good at building & engaging relationships
+ Are good listeners and ask good questions
+ Can memorize style guides and conventions specific to the industry, client, or project
+ Understand the difference between passive voice and active voice & the purposes for using each

See how this has VERY LITTLE to do with actual writing? Like, hilariously little. But you’d be surprised how far the above will take you.

My internet search for the answer left me feeling so depressed. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing teaching graduate professional writing courses if they aren’t helpful?”

naulogoIn order to dispel my depression, I decided to see if our MA program does anything to help people to obtain or improve these qualities.  So, I interviewed “Norma,” a pseudonym for one of our Professional/Technical Writing master’s degree alumna.  I asked Norma how our MA program helped her with the above qualities/skills.  Here’s what she had to say,

Q:    Is a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing worth it?

Norma:  Absolutely! My classes included several individuals who are already in the technical writing field. They learned a lot! Some of us used our capstone projects in our respective jobs, and the results were more professional than similar projects we had done before we enrolled in the master’s program.

Q:  How did our MA program help you to develop the “successful writer” qualities mochapickle outlines?

Norma:

Don’t have a ton of ego: I had a large ego when it came to my professional work. This program showed me that there is always more to learn, especially when one explores other writing fields. Technical writing was a new concept for me. While I still have a large “writing ego,” it is tempered by the knowledge that I still have plenty to fine tune.

Are practical and self-reliant and helpful and have a sense of humor: I have always been self-reliant. I admit that I was somewhat worried that classmates would all have big egos and would tear down my work to build up their own. But that did not happen. This program promotes positive and helpful feedback among classmates that is invaluable. At first, I was intimidated and worried that my comments would be belittled. However, everyone was supportive with helpful suggestions. As for humor, I find that being able to laugh is a valuable asset in most situations.

Turn in clean, consistent, polished copy that doesn’t need a ton of edits: Dr. Konrad was my “conscience.” When she found errors I missed or made, she pointed them out kindly, but effectively. My embarrassment led me to be more cautious before hitting “send.”

Adapt to editor preferences without bickering: As a career journalist, I had plenty of experience in being edited by different folks with different preferences. Working with a variety of professors in the professional writing program helps MA students to professionally deal with conflicting “real world” supervisors.

Have good instincts as critical thinkers but know when to push and when to relax: It augmented my existing skills as a critical thinker, as well as my knowledge of when to push. The concept of “good enough” was difficult for me to accept. But this program deals with reality, and the reality is that employers in the workplace have varying definitions of “excellence” that include “good enough.” We also discussed various work environments and strategies for doing great work. While the word “relax” still has little applicability to my lifestyle, I now understand it as defined in the workplace.

Have good recall for dates and information: In this program, we use the information we learn throughout the entire program, using it in other classes as well. While I did not have to memorize dates and information, I definitely knew where to go if I needed reminders.

Have a good sense of logic and process & identifying parallels: I think the most applicable use of the logic skills I learned was in project management. When I think back about my biggest project as a reporter and how little structure I had established for the project, I now cringe. The logical project management steps I learned are immensely valuable to me.

Quickly grasp technical tools and processes: I still do not quickly grasp technical skills. However, I did learn basic information about technology such as content management skills. My professors piqued my interest in learning more about and using evolving technology. They motivated me to pursue more software skills on my own.

Are good at building & engaging relationships: Interaction among classmates through the discussion board, along with team projects, helped build bonds among classmates. Classmates challenged each other and supported each other as though we were in the same room. Even though we had never met in person during our courses, those of us who attended graduation felt as though we were greeting old friends.

Are good listeners and ask good questions: Although our “listening” consisted of reading online comments, the requirement to participate in discussion helped hone the skills of considering others’ positions and responding professionally and effectively. I thought the questions raised by everyone in the class were excellent and relevant.

Can memorize style guides and conventions specific to the industry, client, or project: We worked with several style guides, including AP, Chicago, and APA. Professors also provided resource lists for these and other guides. We used technical writing and professional writing sites where we interacted with people who are experts in their respective professional/technical writing fields.

Understand the difference between passive voice and active voice & the purposes for using each: Although we strengthened our writing by using the active voice, we learned that in some industries, passive voice is preferred. This is often the case in research documents or in articles where the intent is to refrain from “targeting” anyone.

Q:  How did the NAU MA program help you to develop other professional writer qualities?

Norma:  I hadn’t focused on my audience before because I expected them to follow me and “rise to my level” (there is that ego again). This was one of the more valuable lessons I learned in this program – how to identify my audience and their individual and collective needs.

Q: Networking is one of the most important things we can do to get a job.  How did our NAU program help you to network with other professionals? 

Norma: I learned about TechWhirl, which is a great reference for technical writers, and connected with professional writers in other fields. I would like to see a “newbie advice” column of sorts where people in the field could provide insights into finding and obtaining a job. I am talking about those little bits of information that people inside a field know, but those of us who are applying would not.

Q: Which workplace writing experiences in your NAU Professional Writing courses have been most helpful for you?

Norma: They were all helpful, but I especially liked the ones that provided practical information. Project management was extremely helpful, as were editing and the various writing courses. In my current situation, the most helpful skills I worked on in the program were editing, writing, project management, brochure creation, memos, digital content, search engine optimization, and content management.

Thanks to Norma and mochapickle, for giving me a reason to get up in the morning and help my students achieve those writerly qualities!

If you’re not convinced to take the plunge into a masters’ program, consider that NAU also offers a certificate program, which is half a master’s degree, and covers the fundamentals of graduate-level technical and professional writing knowledge and skills.

Erika Konrad

Erika enjoys teaching technical writing style, research proposal writing, content strategy, writing for the web, and editing to the wonderful students of the Professional Writing program at Northern Arizona University.

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