I’ve never really discussed membership in the Society for Technical Communication (STC) because of my own mixed feelings about STC or organizations like it. I have been a member, off and on, am not one currently, but might be one again in the future. What follows are my own very subjective observations and experiences about organizational membership. In the end, any decisions and experiences will be yours, so don’t take my word for it, go find out for yourself.
Advantages of Membership
I joined STC as a student when I was in grad school (1999-2002). The student rates were and still are affordable, at US$60/year. By all means, if you’re in school and want to learn about technical writing opportunities and details about the profession, STC is worth the money, time, and effort.
The most valuable resource for me is their scholarly journal, Technical Communication, which provides insights from academics and professionals about various practices and trends in the profession. The contributors address a lot of the things I talk about on this blog but do so using concrete, data-driven examples and studies. The journal alone is worth the money, and is probably one of the reasons I’ll re-up my membership at some point. They also publish Intercom, which focuses more on trends and how-to topics for practitioners.
STC’s website has a Job Bank for posting or seeking work, as well as an annual salary study, which can give you some insight into what other technical communicators are making in the field. (Observation: the STC website is s l o o o o w loading pages.)
The annual STC Summit is an opportunity to learn about trends in the field and to meet other technical writing professionals. They also offer member-evaluated awards for technical writing projects (which have their own separate registration fee and are open to members and non-members), so that’s an opportunity to have your work evaluated by your peers. And, again, the rates are reasonable for students ($200 for student registration).
STC has started a certification process, where you can absorb information from the tech comm body of knowledge and get officially certified in specific skills as a technical communicator. This was a process being discussed when I was in grad school, and now appears to be a real thing. I must confess that I have not looked into the certification process, but it might be worthwhile for new tech writers to demonstrate proficiency at specific skills. At this point in my career, I feel my “certifications” are reflected in my experience. I’m a work snob. 🙂
And yes, STC is a good opportunity to build up your network, especially if you’re uncertain which industry you want to break into or want to get in contact with fellow tech writing professionals in other industries.
Downsides (why I’m not a member)
Given all these advantages, you might ask, why am I not a member?
Part of it is laziness, part of it is the price tag for the various memberships, publications, and conferences, and most of it is my personal perceived value for money paid. I am a regular in good standing with the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which is the professional society for many of my customers. It’s likely short-sighted, but for me, aerospace conferences and professional gatherings provide more bang for the buck because I’m more likely to find paying work in my industry of choice. If I wanted to diversify and seek opportunities elsewhere–not an impossibility–I might shift to STC again. Also, as a freelancer, my professional networking focuses on projects rather than looking for steady jobs. If I were to return to a chapter or Summit, it would be to learn specific skills. But, again, business development trumps education. (And here’s an ugly little secret from me: when it comes to talking shop, I’d much rather talk about the content–engineering and space–than talk about technical writing. Sorry, but there it is.)
Speaking of value, the costs for regular or “Gold” STC members are high, in my opinion. Higher, at any rate, than AIAA in terms of memberships, publications, and conferences. Again, if I can spend less and drum up more business, that’s a bigger win for me than spending more and getting some education. I might change my mind on this eventually, but that’s why I haven’t plunked down the money for membership recently.
I joined one or two special-interest groups (SIGs) and quickly found my email inbox overloaded, often with content and comments that did not relate to me. Choose your SIGs wisely, and make sure you direct those messages to a specific folder in your email box.
Some of my misgivings regarding joining a local chapter are not STC’s fault at all, but are based on having been overworked by other volunteer organizations. The problem with a lot of groups is that once they get a new member onboard who is good at doing X, they often work them until they get burned out and quit. I’m getting lazier as I approach 50, and I already have plenty of space- and STEM-related volunteer activities to fill my free time. I’m not looking for additional commitments, I just want to pay and learn or, occasionally, pick up some extra work.
Lastly, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed that I tend to be a bit irreverent about my work and my role. It’s been my experience with a couple of chapters that some STC folks take their roles (and the Society) very seriously and that irreverence or snark are not appreciated. Meanwhile, irreverence seems to be expected with the engineering community, even when they’re doing crazy things like building rockets to go into space, so I seem to fit in better with the engineers. Again, these are my personal perceptions of specific chapters and my behavior/observations at the time. I haven’t attended an STC chapter meeting in years, so my perceptions might be out of date.
Bottom line: If you’re a student thinking about a technical writing career, don’t know what you want to do, don’t know people who work in the field, or want to know what the field is like, by all means, join STC! Take advantage of those great breaks you get as a student and get your feet wet. Once you’re a professional, you’ll make your own choices about the relative value of STC for you.
I’d like to thank STC member and Heroic Technical Writing reader Larry Kunz for his helpful suggestions in reviewing this entry.