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.