Masters in Technical Communication: Choosing a Graduate Program

Choosing the program that’s right for you is a daunting task. This blog post discusses how I chose the graduate program at Missouri S&T.

As we discussed in the previous post, I had worked for 5 years as a Technical Writer in India. I had worked with multinational companies and startups, on user documentation as well as developer documentation. By then, I had realized my strengths as a tech writer and identified my knowledge gaps.  I realized the need for formal education in writing in general, and technical writing in particular. So I Googled “technical writing degrees,” not expecting to find any. To my utter surprise, Google returned 5,790,000  results.

Thankfully, the search also directed me to Fer O’Neil’s blog post on choosing a technical communication program. In this outstanding blog post, Fer discusses the criteria and selection process he used to narrow down the choice of his graduate program, as well as analyzes several graduate programs. I cannot recommend this blog post highly enough. It is an excellent starting point for anyone serious about pursuing a TC graduate program in the United States.

Studying Fer’s blog post helped me come up with my criteria for choosing a graduate program. The first criteria Fer discussed in his blog post was MS or MA, so naturally, this was the first one I evaluated as well. Being an engineer, I was inclined towards MS rather than an MA degree. I thoroughly researched the programs Fer had listed in his blog post, as well as the programs listed in Dr. Angela Eaton’s article and in STC’s Academic Database. The MS programs seemed to have a real-world focus instead of a theoretical approach to technical communication. I perused the syllabuses and courses of several universities before finalizing the program at Missouri S&T.

The Technical Communication graduate program at Missouri S&T aligned with my expectations – at least from the course descriptions. For example:

  • Help Authoring – I was already doing it all day every day at my job.
  • Web Design – I knew I wanted to make time to learn it while I was working but couldn’t find the time. It seemed like a great opportunity to finally learn Web Design.
  • Visual communication and Usability were topics that were coming up frequently at STC India conferences and other industry interactions.
  • International Technical communication – Localization was taking off in a big way when I was working at Symantec.

I could relate to almost all the courses. I emailed Dr. Wright at Missouri S&T to get more information about the program, and within a few email conversations, I knew I had found the right program for me.

Dr. Wright informed me that I am eligible for a teaching assistantship – I didn’t even know that was an option! An assistantship would mean a part-fee waiver and a monthly stipend. I was mentally prepared to put in all my savings and borrow money from my parents to fund my graduate education, but the assistantship would lessen the burden considerably. (In the second year, the entire fee was waived off. I really hit the jackpot with Missouri S&T).

What sealed the deal for me was Dr. Wright’s response rate. He was always helpful, always prompt – it was almost as if he could sense my anxiety and questions and respond to them. (His empathy and unwavering support would later prove invaluable when he took on the responsibility of being my thesis advisor). Another person responsible for my choice is our brilliant administrative assistant, Ms. Linda Sands. She was an immense help in getting the paperwork in time, signing up for classes, all that good stuff. People usually suggest that you research 10 universities and apply to 5. I didn’t. I was sure about my decision and applied only to the Missouri S&T program. And I am so glad I did!

Though I got lucky with my choice, I now have a better understanding of the factors one should consider while selecting a program:

Location, location, location: One of the factors I didn’t consider at all (because I didn’t know any better), was location. This means finding a school in a location in which you’ll be comfortable. Missouri S&T is in Rolla, a university town at a 2-hours drive from St. Louis. Coming from a crowded city in India, Rolla seemed isolated and empty. It took me a semester to get used to it – and once I did, I fell in love with it. However, small-town universities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t neglect to research the demographics of the area when identifying graduate programs.

Find Support to Cover the Costs: Many universities offer assistantships. An assistantship is an arrangement between the student and the university where the student is given financial support while teaching or conducting research for the university. Ask if your program of choice offers assistantships.

STEM versus Non- STEM Courses: This is an important criteria for international students that I had absolutely no idea about. International students who complete graduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs in the U.S. can apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. The OPT extension allows people who qualify to work in the U.S. for 3 years. Students of Non-STEM courses get an OPT for only a year. FYI:  Most Technical Communication graduate programs are Non-STEM.

Once you decide to pursue a graduate program in Technical Communication and finalize your program selection criteria, go through the following resources to analyze graduate programs:

In the next blog post, we will discuss how to apply to TC graduate programs in the United States.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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