Someone on Twitter posted the intriguing question, “What’s the best decision you’ve ever made?” For me, that decision was to pursue a master’s degree in technical writing at the University of Central Florida. Note that caveat: for me. Going for an advanced degree was the best call at that point in my life, but it is not necessary for everyone.
What I’d Done Before
I had this fuzzy notion in college that I could get a technical writing job just on the strength of my B.A. in English literature. This turned out not to be the case, as I got very few responses. In the one interview I did get with a major aerospace contractor, one of the interviewers laughed at my idea of experience…and maybe she had a point, at the time.
Coming out of Northern Illinois University at age 22, I had precisely one technical writing course to my name. I still had an “academic” style of writing, which was unsuitable for technical communication. I had zero experience writing about any real-world aerospace technology–science fiction did not count, and what was probably what earned the chuckle from the interviewer. Reading about aircraft, spacecraft, or rockets–fictional or otherwise–didn’t help much, either. My actual work experience consisted of being a stock clerk at Osco Drug and a merchandise host at Walt Disney World. I wasn’t getting into the space business any time soon.
Matters rested there for a few years. I acquired more travel and tourism experience, but hadn’t done much to get the credentials to be a space person. Then, in 1997 I attended my first space advocacy conference, the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Orlando, FL. I met and talked with people who were interested in or working on space hardware in the present day, not 300 years in the future. I got inspired and went back to school, determined to be…an engineer?
Thanks to my experience with the aforementioned large aerospace contractor, I was convinced that I’d need to get some sort of engineering degree to “prove” that I could write about space. B.A. English + B.S. Engineering = Space Writing Job, right? So I went back and started re-taking dummy algebra, dummy physics, basic computer programming, etc…all the classes I’d managed to miss my first go-around in academia. It was computer programming that spelled doom for my engineering career. Aside from having a condescending professor who enjoyed insulting me in front of the class, I also just wasn’t getting it; I lacked the precision of thinking required to do that job, and I just didn’t find the work fun. If I was going to make a career of this space thing, it made sense to do something I actually enjoyed doing.
I headed down to the academic advising department to consider my options. I explained that I wanted to write for the space business, not design for it. Plus, it occurred to me that by attending engineering school part time would take so long that my parents might be retired by the time I finished.
I don’t recall the name of the person I spoke to in that office, though I will credit the school (Valencia Community College, now Valencia College) for pointing out that UCF had a master’s program in technical writing, I could finish it before my parents retired, and there was no math or programming required! We had a winner.
The Impact of the Credential
Because I was still so early in my second go at college, I still knew practically nothing about aerospace, but with the M.A. credential I could at least show that I knew what technical writers do and had a much better idea of how to organize information in a useful fashion. Just pursuing the M.A. was sufficient for me to get a job as a tech writer at Walt Disney World, working at Disney University, their management training office. Thanks to my time with the National Space Society, I was also developing some experience writing about space-related hardware as a citizen advocate.
A year after getting the degree, I got an interview and then a job with a defense contractor in the Washington, DC, area…again, on the strength of that degree. I knew zip about military engineering, and confessed as much when they flew me up for an interview. The hiring manager said something that made an impact on my relationship to the work: “I’ve got plenty of engineers. What I need is someone who can write!”
The next time I interviewed for a real space job, 15 years after my last embarrassing attempt, I had a few key things I did not have the first time:
- A credential showing I had the skill set or at least the education to do the job.
- Experience with and knowledge of the industry I wanted to enter.
- A portfolio of writing samples relating to my intended line of work.
Is a Degree Necessary for Everybody?
This was my path because I wasn’t terribly wise about the way the business world worked. Once I had a tech writing job, I encountered peers who did not have the same background. There were people with communications degrees, psychology degrees, or journalism degrees…or jobs doing the same. It took me a bit longer to get where I wanted to go because a) when I pursued my B.A. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, except maybe write science fiction and b) I had a liberal arts degree that was not career focused. I hadn’t gotten the B.A. to teach, nor to become a professional academic. I had a minor in history and had taken enough science classes that I probably could’ve gotten a minor in that as well…but again, where did I want to go and what did I want to do? I just didn’t know, which was how I ended up selling t-shirts and Mickey Mouse back scratchers on a cart in Epcot Center at age 22.
Once I knew where I wanted to go, which was a learning process in itself, I just needed to learn what I needed to get there. In my case, an advanced degree made sense. That might be the case for you, too. Or perhaps a certificate program would work, especially if you’re closer to 50 than 20. In other instances, you might have work experience but just need to find ways to fill your portfolio with subject matter related to your chosen field.
Perhaps the most important decision(s) you can make, then, are:
- Deciding what you want to do with your career.
- Take the steps necessary to get where you want to go.
Go forth and conquer.
Life’s path for technical communicators are varied. I am in a position to use my title of “information developer” as I will be in S1000D one moment or helping a young writer the next as a stylesheet and applic request awaits me.