As I enter the penultimate semester of my graduate degree program, I wanted to reflect on whether the program I chose is still the correct option for me. This reflection, coupled with answering questions and watching a coworker embark on a similar graduate school selection process, has prompted me to document the research I performed that helped me to choose a graduate program as a technical communicator.
This is an important distinction to make—I wrote “as a technical communicator” and not “in technical communication.” A lesson I have learned is that one need not have a specific degree in technical writing/communication to be a technical communicator. From my experience, having any educational background combined with a high digital literacy (and of course having the eponymous “writing” literacy) is all the education that is ‘required’ to become a technical communicator.
I know that it is uncouth to talk about oneself in a blog post but I believe that it is important for the purpose of this subject to know about my educational, professional, and personal goals to understand how I considered the different program choices and ultimately picked one. Some of your reasons will be similar and some will not—a program perfect for one person may not align with the goals of another.
UPDATE: Also see my post written a year later, Reflections on Finishing a Technical Communication Graduate Program
UPDATE 2: See my next post written after I was accepted into a PhD program in technical communication, My digital workflow as a Master’s and PhD #Techcomm student
My background and experience
I have a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Maine, Farmington. This humanities degree allowed me to take courses in literature, history, linguistics, physics, and other courses across several disciplines, which is a hallmark of a liberal arts education.
After graduating, I moved to San Diego and worked in the Best Buy computer department/tech bench – soon to become what is known today as Geek Squad. This is where I was introduced to all the various technologies and where I learned about learning new technologies.
Next, I worked at a marketing and direct mail company where I primarily used Microsoft Office programs, particularly Excel, Access, and Word. This is where I began to document processes and procedures for creating scripts, macros, and other esoteric processes relevant to that job. I also worked with customers and our lone copyeditor/copywriter to make sure that the ordering and processing workflow between my department and others was as clear as possible. I didn’t know it then but I was becoming a technical writer.
Where I am today
I am currently a Technical Writer for a security software company. The aspect of my job that I love the most is the opportunity I have to learn new technologies (and different products) and to research technological advances in communication practices, discourse theory, visual rhetoric, as well as technological methods available to help users navigate their products (and the technology required to access those products).
This is the hallmark of a career in technical communication—to be always learning. For this reason, I chose to return to school and obtain a graduate degree. I wanted to study the academic (or theoretical) perspective and felt that this would complement the real-world experience that I get every day at work and through professional programs such as the Society of Technical Communication and Linkedin groups. Places to learn are all around us.
MS or MA?
When I began researching programs, the first thing I noticed was that some programs relating to communications or technical writing were ‘Science’ degrees and others were ‘Arts’ degrees. Did I want a Master of Science or a Master of Arts and what was the difference?
For a blog post about applying to graduate school as well as a different perspective on choosing a graduate program, see Master of What? by Blava_Mac.
For a complete guide to applying to a Master’s or PhD. program, see Applying to Graduate School in Technical Communication by Angela Eaton, PhD.
I won’t go into the debate between the sciences and humanities but suffice it to say that I looked into both ‘fields’ and based on my background and interests, I decided to pursue a Master of Arts degree. Conversely, during this time, a coworker was deciding which degree to pursue and she chose the Master of Science (Information Architecture) route because she already had an undergraduate degree in Technical Communication—so it really does matter what your interests are and what new skills/knowledge you want or need to learn. For example, my coworker has a BS in Technical Communications, so she decided to expand her knowledge into an ancillary field. Those who don’t have an educational background in Technical Communication (or professional writing) might lean more toward one degree or the other depending on which skills you want to supplement or gain.
However, if the 2010 Salary Database from my local STC chapter is any indication, pursuing a technical or science degree may earn you a higher salary in the long term.
Narrowing down the choices
I examined over 20 programs from my original Internet research and was able to narrow it down to 7 possibilities. I will give a brief description of each program along with an explanation about why I considered it but did not choose it.
The STC.org Academic Database is a good place to start a search for the many different programs available in technical communication. However, this list is not exclusive and as I wrote earlier, one need not pursue a specific “technical communications” degree to be a technical communicator.
San Diego State University
- Offers an MA in Rhetoric with a concentration in Professional Writing
- Is close to my location and I would pay resident tuition
- Cannot be completed online
- Requires GRE scores
I was attracted by the location, breadth, and reputation of the program and I would have more thoroughly considered it had it offered an online version. I knew that I wanted to study rhetorical discourse and advanced composition methods and the primary focus of the program is rhetorical theory as well as professional and public discourse. However, I wouldn’t have been able to manage the campus schedule and I know that it wouldn’t have fit with my life then or now.
There are two areas of specialization, Teaching Writing or Professional Writing. I think that the Professional Writing specialization (with the rhetoric core) balances the theory/practice aspects of the program by providing “practical” instruction.
I recommended this program to a young, single coworker of mine (a person at a different ‘stage’ of life, i.e., more freedom in his schedule) and he begins the program this fall.
University of Central Florida
- Offers an MA English, Technical Communication track degree
- The entire program can be completed online
- Requires GRE scores
- Must pay out-of-state tuition and is expensive
The application requirements coupled with the high tuition ruled this program out for me very early. Additionally, a graph is displayed of how unlikely it is that you will be admitted.
The program also seems very small and didn’t appear to offer a connection to the university or other students that I was looking for.
Michigan State University
- Offers an MA in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing
- Can be completed online
- Requires GRE scores and a high undergraduate GPA (3.5)
The course offerings were enough to keep me interested in this program but it was difficult to find information about it (faculty, student and university collaboration/support) from the website and I didn’t feel that the program met my desire to feel “a part of” a university. I also considered the name of the degree and I didn’t think that “Digital Rhetoric” sounded legitimate as a graduate degree—I had never heard of it and I worried that I would have to constantly explain what it was. Last, the entire program seemed more practical-based and didn’t offer the theoretical or rhetorical background that I wanted to supplement my knowledge base with.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
- Offers an MS in Technical Communication (or the related degrees Communication and Rhetoric or Human-Computer Interaction)
- Entire program not available online
This program focuses more on technology and design than communication. The Technical Communication degree has few required courses and the bulk of the program consists of courses from other departments (including the required certificate). For example, students are required to complete a certificate in Graphics or Human-Computer Interaction. The program goals represent the prevailing attitude that Communication and Rhetoric studies leads to continued study (academia) whereas the more technical programs lead to careers “in industry.” Students can substitute these certificates with courses in communication, marketing and management, or software engineering—but not courses in rhetoric.
- Offers an MS English degree with a specialization in Technical Writing
- The entire program can be completed online
- Requires GRE scores
- Is low cost (the entire program costs about $10,000)
This looked to be a great program and was an early contender that stayed on my shortlist right until the end. Coincidently, after my first semester of graduate school, I presented with Dr. Hailey of Utah State at the 2011 STC Summit’s Beyond the Bleeding Edge panel.
Truthfully, this program didn’t look challenging enough in the theoretical aspects I was looking for and its “course-based” program (no thesis requirement) was a negative and not a positive. Additionally, there weren’t enough courses offered outside of the core and this made the program feel a little “canned” to me. For those who live close to a campus, more “Theory & Practice” and other 7000-level PhD courses can be taken; however, these are not available to online learners.
Texas Tech University
- Offers an MA in Technical Communication (MATC)
- There is an “online version” of the program
- Requires GRE scores
- Is relatively expensive (tuition costs twice as much for non-resident online learners) at about $1,850 per course (12 courses total)
Of course, no graduate program search in technical communication would be complete without at least considering Texas Tech. The name and prestige that Texas Tech offers is very appealing—not to mention a great faculty, being very online-accessible, and offering avant-garde research.
I ruled out this program because it didn’t seem flexible enough (for instance, no rolling admission or ability to substitute courses outside of the program) to fit with my schedule (work and life). Furthermore, I don’t think I would have been accepted—as I said, this is as ‘famous’ a technical communication program as exists—but the courses are a perfect balance of theory/practice and I would have enjoyed studying many of the theories pioneered by the faculty. Perhaps my academic and professional accomplishments over the past two years will give me a chance to pursue a degree beyond my masters, and Texas Tech would be the list at that point [update: I applied and was accepted into the Texas Tech PhD program Fall 2014].
Which program did I choose and why
I chose to pursue my graduate degree at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
- Offers an MA, English with a concentration in Technical Communication (MATC)
- Can be completed online
- Does not require GRE scores
- Online students pay in-state online resident tuition
The program’s flexibility is what first appealed to me and after I communicated with the program director, I knew that Mankato would allow me to accomplish my educational and professional goals. The technical communication program is within the English department and technical communication students can take electives from the English and Composition departments. Mankato (and the Minnesota university system) has a strong communications department and technical communication students also can transfer courses from other Minnesota universities including the following:
- composition courses – for those working to improve the ‘practical’ aspect of technical writing
- rhetoric courses – cultural, visual, and verbal
- teaching courses and internships – an ancillary benefit of a humanities-based Master of Arts degree is the ability to teach college-level courses
If you want to teach
A Master of Arts degree in Technical Communication qualifies you to teach at the college level. Furthermore, completing Mankato’s MATC degree as an online learner may be more beneficial than the traditional classroom degree because of the increased interest and expertise in learning and teaching online. Completing a humanities-based degree also allows you to teach composition courses as well as technical communication—those with credentials in literature only or the sciences (Master of Science degrees) have fewer claims to teach composition or technical communication courses.
One criterion that I was hoping for in my university search was feeling connected with the university, program, and my fellow classmates. I know that this is difficult to achieve in an online program but Mankato has accomplished it. The MATC program is synchronous, which means that the courses have a set “class time” when all of the students meet online for class and the courses follow a typical semester format. There are many differences between courses and programs that are offered asynchronous or synchronous and your reasons for choosing one over the other will be different from mine. For me, having the live interaction with the professors and my classmates was essential for creating a familiarity that more often leads to friendship and collaboration than asynchronous distance programs are able to achieve.
Teachers and Technology
Another advantage to choosing a major university such as Minnesota State University is access to the latest learning technology. The Mankato IT department keeps the faculty and students in the most current and relevant software to facilitate online learning. Although each teacher in each course can choose the method of course delivery, most of the courses I have taken have used the newest version of Adobe Connect Pro. However, in past courses my teachers have also utilized Google Hangouts, Skype, Dropbox, Google Docs, WebEx, and WikiSpaces. This is another aspect of Mankato that reflects how it is a leader as an online technical communication program—that the teachers are willing to try new technologies and new approaches to online learning.
Of course, I recognize that I cannot truly compare my experience at Mankato with that of another university, but from what I’ve ascertained from other students taking online courses at other schools, Mankato is a forward-looking university that isn’t afraid to experiment with new ideas for online and global learning.
Global and Collaborative Learning
An example of how Minnesota State University, Mankato, is becoming a truly global Technical Communication program is the “International Technical Communications” course I took last semester (spring 2012). In this course, we not only studied current pedagogical frameworks from the books Designing Globally Networked Learning Environments (GNLEs) and Culture, Communication and Cyberspace, but we also had an engaging webinar with the authors. Furthermore, we were able to put the pedagogical theories to practice by collaborating with students from the German university Hochschule Karlsruhe – Technik und Wirtschaft (Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences). I met with my German counterparts throughout the semester and my Mankato-based team completed a project that documented webinar best practices for online learning and collaboration.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the collaboration and community-building that Mankato strives to create is also demonstrated by the cross-cultural project with Karlsruhe. One of the German project leaders was Jürgen Muthig and because of my participation in the course, I was able to meet with Prof. Muthig a month later at the STC Summit 2012 in Chicago. I was also able to learn more about his standardization model called Functional Design.
Using the Library
Mankato is part of the state-wide Minnesota library system and online Technical Communication students have access to both electronic databases and print resources. Additionally, the Mankato Memorial Library allows students to chat with a Librarian 24 hours a day. Three little-known tips for online graduate students to get the most out of a libary are the following:
- If an electronic version (PDF) of a journal article isn’t available (or available through a proxy, see #2 below), you can email or chat with a Librarian and request it—I’ve requested one in the middle of the night and the article was scanned to PDF and a link emailed to me within an hour.
- Signing up for library services and logging into the system establishes a proxy that allows you to log in to all the sites the university is a member of—I don’t know how many this is, but I’ve always been able to access any journal articles I’ve needed directly from publishers’ websites using Google Scholar. I have accessed 112 journal articles to date.
- If you need a book (which can’t be scanned) or want to see the physical journal, you can request “Document Delivery” and the library will, for free, mail you the book or journal.
I know that there are many more programs and certificates available and which one is right for you will depend on many factors. Among them are whether you are already in the field or are looking to become a technical communicator—the programs are as diverse as the skills and knowledge needed to be a successful technical communicator. I hope that this post will help you with your graduate program research.