Masters in Technical Communication: Frequently Asked Questions

Last Monday, I asked you to send me your questions about pursuing a Masters in Technical Communication in the United States. Thank you for the incredible response to the blog post. Following is my attempt to collate and answer the frequently asked questions from my limited perspective as an International student in Missouri S&T’s Tech Comm grad program. Let’s start with the most repeated question:

Job prospects after graduation?

As an international student, if you are looking for a conventional, user documentation-oriented tech writing job, the prospects are quite dim. Think about it from the US companies’ perspective – they have access to native English speakers who they can hire without any visa hassles. Why would they hire us (non-native English speakers) who have just one year of work authorization after graduation? It does not make business sense. Also, to be fair, they need to give preference to their citizens, just like we would want to have preference in our home countries.

The goal of pursuing a Masters degree, not only in Technical Communication, but in general, needs to be reconsidered. The conventional reason for completing a Masters degree as a pathway to a job in the US and earning in dollars is becoming irrelevant by the day. Yes, it is still possible, but in different ways than before. The industry is maturing and is becoming very specific in its requirements. It is also branching out at an astounding rate.

So let’s reframe the question: Which skills and experiences can help me become a valuable contributor to an organization so that they find it worthwhile to invest in me and take a chance on me? Now that’s a better question.

Here’s how me and my coursemates tried to answer it:

  • Over the course of my career, I developed expertise in the niche and deeply-technical domain of software architecture documents. I proactively sought out challenging technical communication positions, especially at startups,  and built a strong portfolio around it. I maintained my interest in the changing technological landscape by contributing to open source projects and participating in on-campus engineering projects. And I never burned any bridges – the professional rapport and reputation I developed at Druva while working in Pune led to a summer internship in our California campus. And that internship prepared me for my current position at Cockroach Labs in New York. So my answer to the question of how to become a valuable member of an organization: Find your niche and develop expertise in it.
  • One of my coursemates leveraged the teaching assistantship experience into the position of a Technical Writing Instructor at another university.
  • Two of my acquaintances at other universities have enrolled in Ph.D. programs in Tech Comm. The academic positions in technical communication are competitive, yet highly viable.
  • I have met international students who have leveraged their academic careers into opportunities in allied fields such as usability and accessibility, human-computer interaction, international communication, medical and scientific communication, wearable tech comm, VR comm, and so on.

What about campus placements?

In my experience, campus placements are non-existent for technical communication students – especially international students. Don’t rely on campus placements.

What are the living costs of pursuing a Masters degree in the US?

The cost of pursuing a degree in the United States varies drastically depending on the location of the university, financial assistance you get from the university, and the program you choose.

The university I went to – Missouri S&T – is located in a small university town called Rolla, which is at a two-hour drive from the nearest city (St. Louis). It is a quiet little town with not much to do, but my living expenses were a fraction of my friends’ expenses who lived in major cities like Chicago and New York. I had comfortable accommodation in a shared house where I had my own room and bathroom, and it cost me $750 per month. Add to that groceries, utilities, internet, etc. and my total monthly expenses figured around $1250. I got paid $1600 per month as stipend for being a Teaching Assistant.

I would recommend going to university in a small town to keep the cost low, and move to a big city for work after you graduate.

Can I do part-time job outside of the college campus? If yes, how many hours per week can I work?

Not in the first year. In the second year, you can do a part-time internship for up to 20 hours per week. But that has to be related to your field.

Is it worth doing an online degree?

Yes, if your company pays for it. For instance, back when I was working at Symantec, they had a policy of funding a major chunk of an online degree. If your company provides similar benefits, definitely consider taking advantage of them.

Is it worth taking out a student loan for a Masters degree?

No. Absolutely not. I would not recommend taking out an education loan for any degree, not just a Tech Comm degree. But good Tech Comm grad programs do have financial assistance available, so if you get decent funding, then I would highly recommend pursuing a Masters degree.

Changing fields and moving to tech writing: Is the degree worth it? Am I eligible?

I think so. None of my coursemates had any background in technical writing. They all came from different backgrounds: HR, English, BioScience, to name a few. They chose the degree because they wanted to move into a practical, job-fetching field. And they found their own paths after earning their Masters. So I have seen it done, but it will be up to you to figure out how to make the most of your degree.

What about the scary political climate?

If you are on social media or listen to the news, the current political climate in the US definitely sounds scary. But in my experience, it does not affect my everyday life. The people in my life – be it in Missouri, California, or New York – are the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met. Yes, there’s racism and sexism, but it’s similar to the casteism and economic discrimination in India. The upheaval you hear about now is not unlike the upheaval we experienced in our previous election. This is democracy in action, and many good people are fighting the good fight. Don’t let the news and fear-mongering scare you away from experiencing a vibrant and evolving culture.

To summarize my thoughts:

  • Pursue a Masters degree in Technical Communication after you have considerable experience in the field already. Find out if you really like the field, which parts of it do you like the most, and build your expertise in those areas. Then seek a degree that helps you specialize in those areas.
  • Secure scholarship and financial assistance at an accredited university.
  • Be open to opportunities and allied fields that you might not have even heard of till you enter the academic circles of tech comm – I certainly hadn’t! Consider fields like communication in medical sciences, or usability and accessibility, or data science. Or consider an academic career (definitely on my horizon).
  • Your goal should be to step out of the comfort zone, experience living in a different culture and country, contribute to projects you deeply care about, and open your mind to global issues and perspectives.
  • At any point in time, be ready to go back to your home country – and be grateful we have a safe and welcoming country to go back to. Everyone’s not that blessed. (Side note: Volunteer or donate to organizations that work with refugees. We all need to help in any way possible).

If you have any follow-up questions or comments, feel free to drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com. And don’t forget to subscribe!

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