In my previous post, I interviewed Diane Fleming who had completed a graduate degree in technical writing later in her career. Today’s interview is with Melissa Burpo, who has completed the coursework and internship portions of the graduate program but still needs to write up her internship report (an equivalent assignment to a master’s thesis) before graduating. I was especially interested in the most current graduate’s perspective and Melissa graciously agreed to answer all these questions.
Melissa Burpo’s Interview
Anne: Could you give me a little bit of a bio – your employer, how long you’ve been there, what you do there?
Melissa: I work for Dovetail Software (www.dovetailsoftware.com), a CRM software vendor. Before I was hired as an intern in October 2006, Dovetail had never employed a writer of any sort, and I had never been employed as a fulltime technical writer. Because both the company and I are new to this whole “technical writer” thing, my job duties can be somewhat nebulous. Common tasks include rewriting, reorganizing, and redesigning legacy documents; writing end-user documentation for new functionality alongside a small agile development team; and lately, moving all of our scattered documents into AuthorIT, a single source content management system. I also occasionally handle marketing tasks, such as writing, designing, and voicing product demonstrations; designing product and company brochures; and producing graphics as needed for other marketing purposes.
Anne: First of all, tell me what your undergrad degree was in?
Melissa: Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Oglethorpe University, with a minor in Sociology
Anne: What led you to a graduate degree in tech comm?
Melissa: An undergraduate professor suggested that I look into tech comm after I finished my bachelor’s degree, but it took me three years to find my way to the MTSC program at Miami University. At first, I was turned off by the idea – I thought tech comm meant writing instruction manuals all day. Eventually I figured out that there was a very cool side to it as well – tech writers are constantly learning new things, exploring new technologies, and then figuring out how best to communicate that information to a user base. It seemed like a fun and innovative space to work in, so I decided to get the degree.
Anne: What other degree programs did you consider?
Melissa: I briefly looked at degrees in Professional Writing and Literary Nonfiction, but tech comm won out in the end.
Anne: What did you learn in the degree program?
Melissa: I learned how to practically apply technical writing theory to real-world problem solving contexts. Almost all of my school projects were for real clients in a variety of industries. For example, I collaboratively put together a website for a waste water group, wrote and designed a procedural reference card for nurses at a local hospital, and wrote a white paper about a local environmental issue for the university.
Anne: What do you wish others had told you about technical writing before you got a job in it?
Melissa: I wish someone had warned me that being a technical writer is just as much about building successful interpersonal relationships as it is about writing and designing good documents. Forging a good relationship with your SMEs is vital, because they are your information resource. Everything works a lot better if he or she is happily willing to share information.
Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree – in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
Melissa: I don’t see the value as the degree itself, but instead, I see the value as the experience I gained while in the program. The experience translates into a full portfolio, a well-rounded resume, and the ability to find and secure a good job.
Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
Melissa: Yes, absolutely.
Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
Melissa: So far, so good – of course, I’ve only been out of the program for a year : )
I do want to mention one thing, though. The technology I studied has already been replaced by new versions and new innovations. But that’s okay, because one of the greatest lessons I took away from my program is the ability to quickly learn new technology as needed.
Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
Melissa: Yes. If the undergrad degree has a practically-based curriculum that prepares students for a professional career, then there shouldn’t be much of a difference. I needed the graduate program because my undergraduate degree was unfocused. It didn’t prepare me for a career.
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.
Melissa: In the one year since leaving the program, I’ve already completed two contract jobs and an internship, and I now work in a regular full time position. I don’t think any of this would have been as easy or possible without the experience I gained in my graduate program. If I hadn’t gotten my MTSC degree, I would probably still be struggling to establish myself as an employable, valuable professional.
Anne: What would you advise others who are thinking about pursuing graduate work in technical communication?
Melissa: When looking for a program, find one that gives you practical experience in the field. This will not only start you off with a great portfolio, but it will also give you the knowledge and confidence to move into a real job. Also, keep in mind that studying a specialty area is important. For example, if you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry, you’ll probably need to know something about human biology, drug chemistry, regulatory issues, etc. This should be reflected in your studies, whether it’s before, during, or after you enter the tech comm program.