Grad School: A Look Back

As May 11 passed this week, it occurred to me that it’s been 20 years since I got my master’s degree. Aside from saying, “Ouch,” and acknowledging a comment from a friend that I’m old, I wasn’t sure what to do with this information. For the purposes of this blog, however, I’ve decided to evaluate the value of that degree I earned two decades ago.

Why Did I Go Back to School?

In the late ’90s, I was answering complaint letters for the Walt Disney World Resort. While that was legitimately a writing job (and so I could say an effective use of my B.A. in English literature), I was not feeling challenged or, if I were honest, happy. I wanted to be working in the space business. After attending a space conference in 1997, I’d decided I would contribute to the industry by becoming a technical writer. I was taking engineering classes so I could “speak space.” The aerospace companies I’d spoken with wouldn’t take me seriously unless I had some sort of proof that I could add value.

Some nice person in the vocational guidance office at Valencia Community College (now Valencia College) explained that I’d been doing things the hard way. I should just get a degree in technical writing. “And there’s no math,” she added. That was reason enough to avoid calculus get me to University of Central Florida.

The Education

I was fortunate that there was a good tech writing program in the Orlando area. Mind you, it was on the other side of town from Disney, but the alternative was to continue slogging through calculus, programming, and classes for which I lacked the patience or even, really, the interest.

I liked the fact that the average age of my classmates was closer to my own. I also enjoyed the fact that there was a surprising amount of philosophy reading in my classes…a favorite subject of mine. The point of all the philosophy, I think, was to help us understand what people value and how to prioritize writing so you get readers’ attention. That’s what I got out of the readings, anyhow.

I was also focused and determined to reach my goal. Nearly every class–at least every semester–I’d write a paper related to human spaceflight, collecting sources for my eventual master’s thesis. My thesis director, Dr. Karla Kitalong, realized early on that I had “Mars on the brain” and was unlikely to be deterred or diverted. I defended that longer-than-necessary thesis and kept going from there.

Life After the Degree

The Walt Disney World Resort provides tuition reimbursement to help up-and-coming “cast members” attending college. The “catch” to this program is that you need to stay with the company for at least a year after graduation so that the Mouse gets some value for the money they spent on you. I hung in there dutifully for a year, spending my last year at the Disney Reservation Center, writing and editing training classes for those friendly folks who answer the phone when you call to book a Disney vacation.

My path to the space business was not a straight one. I spent my free time writing policy papers for the National Space Society. My first job outside Disney was proposal writing at a defense contractor in Northern Virginia. There, I learned how to interact with engineers and expand my capabilities. After three years “inside the Beltway,” I was ready to move on. I was in the midst of interviewing with another company for some serious adult money when I got a call from Huntsville, Alabama, asking me if I’d like to write for NASA. I responded, “Pardon me while I drool.” Despite that smooth-talking response, I did get the job, leaving the serious-adult money, an unsold condo, and the Beltway behind me.

The NASA folks were impressed by the master’s degree, as the defense people had been. That might have been the last time (2006) that the M.A. made an immediate difference in my hiring chances…so the degree had a half-life of maybe four years. After that, my experiences and my connections within the space industry got me jobs and opportunities. After six years at NASA I got a job as chief of communications at a small space-focused engineering company. That entrepreneurial environment was to help train me for going freelance when I lost that job a year and a quarter later due to cutbacks in our major customers’ programs. Freelancing since 2014, I’ve supported a variety of organizations, including the Science Cheerleaders, Florida Hospital, Nissan, a space policy consulting company, a space news website, and a large “new space” launch company. It’s been an interesting couple decades.

Do I Recommend Getting an Academic Degree?

Should you get a tech writing degree to advance your career? It depends on your circumstances. It was a good fit for me: I was trying to change industries. I was single, childless, petless, and still young enough (late 20s/early 30s) to work full-time and take a couple classes at night without collapsing. I knew practically nothing about the tech writing business. I needed some sort of credential or “proof” that I could, realistically, go from writing for Mickey Mouse to writing for the space program. I could get financial assistance from my employer. I made some great friends at the school and learned a lot about my chosen profession as I went along.

Twenty years later, I can definitely say that the M.A. was worth it. The degree made the experiences that came later possible. Find the lever that makes your career dream possible.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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5 Responses to Grad School: A Look Back

  1. Never underestimate the power of a sheepskin. As technical communicators, a degree opens doors. The rest is on your skills. I was set on retirement after working 30+ years in the DoD area in San Diego—moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Two months in, the biggest wireless provider came knocking at my email. Why? Degree, plus experience. Today, all-remote as an “information developer” from home, and a very nice wage. Degrees open doors.

    Bart! A master of the arts, salute.

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