Should I get a graduate degree in technical writing? Interviews with those who have

It’s no secret that I have a masters degree in technical and scientific communication from Miami University. With all the hype about Web 2.0, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, and social media like wikis, an interesting question that I get asked occasionally is, “should I get a graduate degree in technical writing?”

I’ve had quite a few interesting online discussions while seeking interviewees, and I’ll post two interviews this week, and then try to discuss all the complexities in answering this question in a third post.

I emailed questions to two current technical writers in the Austin area who have masters degrees in technical writing. This first post is an interview with Diane Fleming, a Senior Technical Writer at NetQoS. The second interview is with Melissa Burpo, a not-quite-graduated degree candidate who’s working as the only technical writer at DoveTail Software.

Diane Fleming’s Interview

Anne: Could you give me a little bit of a bio – who is your employer, how long you’ve been there, what you do there?
Diane: I currently work as a Senior Technical Writer at NetQoS. I provide all documentation for SuperAgent, an end-to-end performance monitoring tool. Because the Training and Technical Writing departments are combined at NetQoS, I provide product docs (pdfs and online Help) and curriculum for customer training.

Anne: First of all, tell me what your undergrad degree was in?
Diane: It’s a BA in English from SUNY Buffalo.

Anne: What led you to a graduate degree in tech comm?
Diane: I had never heard of technical writing as a profession (this was in the late seventies), but a graduate of RPI’s technical communications department offered a one-night seminar at a local college entitled, “A Career in Technical Writing.” After taking the seminar, I discovered that a high school friend of mine had also graduated from RPI, so I started exploring their degree program. At the time, I was working at the Poughkeepsie Journal and they had a very open tuition reimbursement program. They agreed to pay for my degree at RPI, though it required that I work full-time and commute to Albany to complete the degree (a two-hour commute in each direction). But I couldn’t pass up the free tuition.

Anne: What other degree programs did you consider?
Diane: None, though later I began work on an M.S. in computer science (which I never completed).

Anne: What did you learn in the degree program?
Diane: I don’t remember the exact titles of the classes, but we learned writing and editing, project management, and computer programming. One of the classes required that we work as a team to produce a piece of documentation, which unfortunately required an extra weekly commute to Albany for me. We also took a communications class, which entailed a general review of communication theory.

Anne: What do you wish others had told you about technical writing
before you got a job in it?
Diane: I’m not sure anyone could have told me, but I always regretted not pursuing computer programming in lieu of writing because of the greater respect programmers garner – tech writers have to constantly remind others of their value. Sometimes it seems like a losing battle. With offshoring, the message seems to be, if you can speak English, even minimally, then you can be a tech writer!

Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree — in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
Diane: My degree opened a lot of doors for jobs I’d otherwise be overlooked for. I’ve managed to stay employed as a tech writer since 1988, and I’ve been paid well.

Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
Diane: Absolutely! Especially since my employer paid for the degree. Even if I had paid for it, the degree was worth its cost. It’s enabled me to put two sons through college and to support my family.

Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
Diane: The skills that have aged well are writing, editing, and project management. But as technology changes, my skills degrade. New programming languages, wikis, agile development, blogging, browser-based interfaces, so on and so forth – all these innovations require that I keep learning new things to stay current.

Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
Diane: Probably. When I got my M.S. degree, lots of teachers were retraining to become technical writers. In fact, the original program at RPI was geared toward teachers. RPI ran summertime institutes so that teachers could retrain during their time off. The masters degree enabled people in other professions to retrain in a couple of years. But for someone coming right out of high school, an undergraduate degree should suffice.

Anne: If you hadn’t gotten the master’s in technical and scientific communication, speculate about what might be different for your career path and job prospects.

Diane: I doubt I would’ve become a tech writer – I’d tried to “break into” IBM for many years – it was the major employer where I lived. But at the time, I was told that women were secretaries and that was that. I had worked as a temp secretary at IBM, even with an English degree. It wasn’t until I received my masters degree that someone would interview me for a tech writing job at IBM. I might’ve eventually pursued a computer science masters degree in order to become a programmer. But if I hadn’t done that, maybe I’d still be at the Poughkeepsie Journal doing graphic design for retail ads.

Anne: What would you advise others who are thinking about pursuing graduate work in technical communication?
Diane: Check out certificate programs first – RPI offers a HCI certificate (human-computer interaction), which might help you find work as a tech writer. Also look into current technologies – are companies using wikis? What kind of technical information do you want to document? If you’re interesting in writing about programming interfaces, you might get an M.S. in computer science to complement an English degree – this might be of more value in the long-run in terms of pay scale and promotability. Also look into distance learning – schools offer low-residency programs in technical writing, which enable you to keep working and pursue your degree at the same time. Also look for a program that’s tied into a particular industry. RPI was associated with IBM, which really enhanced their program. I think more academic programs are less useful. If the program seems to focus on a lot of theory, it’s probably not going to help you be a good tech writer, though it might help you teach. Also, see if you can talk to a tech writing manager at a local company and ask them what they recommend to become a tech writer.

17 Comments

  • Mary Nordgulen
    August 21, 2007 - 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Really interesting interview. I think talent and opportunity opens many doors and certainly Diane has the first and took advantage of the latter. Great advice on how to pursue this career in the current employment environment.

  • August 21, 2007 - 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I’m glad to see you tackling this. I’m guessing programs are very different from place to place.

    I finished my MS several years ago in technical journalism. Like Diane, I find the writing and editing universally useful. But over the years, the social science research skills have proven to be a unique skill in my company and helped my team from keep from being “blown about” by every wind.

  • Beth McAfee
    August 22, 2007 - 8:29 am | Permalink

    Nice interview! I really appreciate all of the practical advice and alternate recommendations. Another opportunity for those who are just starting out is an internship. I got into tech writing out of college, but took a low-paid internship to get the initial experience employers were looking for.

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  • Suzanne
    May 13, 2009 - 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Great information! Did I miss the explanation of what RPI is?

  • May 16, 2009 - 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, RPI stands for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, located in Troy, New York in the USA.

  • radhika
    May 19, 2009 - 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Good insights, and I agree with Diane’s point of view that the trend is moving away from being a technical writer to technical communicator role where you need to be able to incorporate, editing, multimedia, project management, and a whole host of skills and probably getting a degree in computer science has more roi than a technical writing degree if you want to work in the computer industry.

  • August 10, 2010 - 10:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for such a wonderful share, this interview will sure help many, i agree with Diane, preference should go to certified programs, again thanks a lot for this interview log, i will bookmark and share with my friends.

  • February 21, 2011 - 9:32 am | Permalink

    If you are looking for me also search along with my school Wentworth Institute of technology and my resident state of massachusetts. I’m currently looking into aquiring a degree in technical communication. The challenge is I desire a masters degree that would complement my Technology Bachelors degree. Most masters of technical writing degree programs seem to be more about how to apply tools of technology for general writing or english writing. I fear such a masters degree would do little to increase my oppurtunities in the technology engineering field. I’ve found the masters degree for computer science specialization at Northeastern is a degree that offers a ciriculum that will complement my technology exeperience and education. In preparation to apply to this program I’ve written a statment of purpose and will link it to my facebook.

  • September 15, 2011 - 8:11 am | Permalink

    I would love to see a follow-up on this topic. So much has changed in the field of technical communication over the past four years–graduate programs are having to evolve quickly (not something that all academic institutions can do so easily I might add!)

  • September 23, 2011 - 11:05 pm | Permalink

    I would like to find a student who has graduated in the last few years – Melissa Burpo was the most recent grad I knew at the time, so she was my contrasting comparison. The economy is so different now too that there may be interesting outlying but lasting differences for the results from getting an advanced degree. Thanks for commenting!

  • January 16, 2012 - 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a Masters degree in Technical Communication myself. The problem I have with Penelope’s article is that it seems to assume that everyone looking to get a graduate degree is a 20-something with no real work experience. What about those of us who are already working adults? I’ve been in the workforce for about 12 years (I’m 32), and a tech writer for the last three years. Any additional degrees that I seek would be earned while continuing to work fulltime. Those two facts alone render all of Penelope’s arguments irrelevant.

    I would agree that an MFA in English is useless, unless you intend to become a college professor. However, there are an increasing number of universities that offer advanced degrees in Technical Communication (or some variation). Specifically, I’ve looked at Texas State’s tech comm program. My bachelors degree is in English, but it didn’t give me much preparation for a career in technical writing. I never even took the one undergrad course offered for technical writing – I became a tech writer by accident, after I’d finished most of my degree requirements. I learned how to be a tech writer on the job, and by reading various industry articles and blogs. My hope is that an MA in tech comm would close those gaps in knowledge, but my fear is that it wouldn’t teach me anything I hadn’t already figured out on my own.

    I’ve also considered getting a second bachelors degree, in petroleum engineering this time. I work in oil and gas, and I’ve struggled with understanding the industry-specific topics I’ve had to write about. I live in Houston, where oil and gas tech writers are always in demand. The hours required for that undertaking (90+) are a bit daunting, though.

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  • January 17, 2012 - 8:32 am | Permalink

    My work is very much on the technical side. I’ve been an electronics tech for about 3 yrs and have two technical degrees in that field. I started a Tech communications degree program at Northeastern and found most employers I interviewed with thought writing was something only English majors could be good at. I’ve actually found depending on the writing style and research understanding required for a position this is contrary to the fact. I read much about this field before deciding to invest money in it, and found the best source of accurate information to be the society of technical commmunication . I gathered my understanding of the field meeting with professionjals in the field, my past experience as an assembly instructions writer, and having found several tech writing positions that require an engineering degree. I’ve found sometimes an english major wouldn’t be the best person for a technical communications position. Being I’m a recent grad and haven’t been employed fulltime in a long time, I spent so much time seeking employment I didn’t pass the courses with the above the B average required so I had to drop it. I think something requring graphics exprtise as well as writing maybe something I’m more interested in. I’d agree with you on the ideal of geting a technical BS and a tech Comm MS. Good luck on your pursuits. I’m sure your work experience will also be helpful. Both these degrees are easy to find online. I found the schedual offered by this style is good to fit in to a workinjg schedual but it’s hard to find a degree that is highly regarded. If you want to go that route I’d advice NJIT, and Northeastern for the technical comm degrees online. As for a technical degree in the partrolium indutry I notice most postions have to do with mechanical technology or mechatronics. An online BS in Mechatronics is avalible at ecpi http://www.ecpi.edu/technology/program/electronics-engineering-bachelor-degree/. But I adivce you that such a degree program can be rigorius so you may need help getting into the programming, math, and technoilogy understanding required.

  • January 17, 2012 - 8:59 am | Permalink

    I also wanted to add a few of my professors and professional freinds in the technical field do have two BS or two MS. But No finanacial aid is normally awarded in the seond time around for these degrees so you’l mhave to have an employer pay for it.

  • Lea
    September 5, 2013 - 10:04 am | Permalink

    I know this interview and its corresponding thread are a few years old but the topic of conversation is still very much current. This interview was very interesting. I have been working as a Technical Writer for years now. I am looking at this from the standpoint: Will this additional education help further or increase what I already have and open more/new doors. I have a BSIT and from what I have read or looked into prior to my current position, most of the “writing” jobs, no matter where located on the spectrum all seem to encourage a “Writing” degree. (*Note: Journalist, Technical Writer, Ad-Copy, Editor, Proofreader, long list only mentioning a few, apologies for any not stated.) Is there a good, fully reputable, accredited, online school that offers a Master’s Program that would encompass or preferably direct link to a Masters in Technical Writing? (Be it classified under the header of Science, Communications, English, or otherwise) Is it best to stay in the IT disregarding the signs pointing to the need for the Writing degree over the Technical Degree for the position/role of Technical Writer.

  • September 11, 2013 - 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Lea, I’ll try answer your questions separately:

    Will this additional education help further or increase what I already have and open more/new doors?
    I have found more doors open with direct experience, such as volunteering for open source projects, but that is my experience. Networking or volunteering with a specific new experience in mind might help more than additional education, which also has an associated cost.

    Is there a good, fully reputable, accredited, online school that offers a Master’s Program that would encompass or preferably direct link to a Masters in Technical Writing? (Be it classified under the header of Science, Communications, English, or otherwise)

    I constantly get asked to post guest posts for a site that touts online degrees, but I think they are for undergraduate work. Master’s work usually indicates a tendency towards teaching others and fully integrating your work with the academic community. Masters degrees also lean towards research goals which may be best suited for at least some residency requirement. Still, do a google search with site:.edu to find degree programs such as Texas State and Texas Tech that are low residency.

    Is it best to stay in the IT disregarding the signs pointing to the need for the Writing degree over the Technical Degree for the position/role of Technical Writer?
    Currently I’m seeing that the most difficult to fill jobs are developer writer, programming writer, and API writer, technical writers who specialize in API documentation are certainly valued for their technical skills as much or more than their writing skills.

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