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!

Everyday Tech Jargon

In January, we focused on building our tech skillset:

Now that you have familiarized yourself with the basic architecture and programming of apps and websites, you might want to scale your app, host it on a cloud platform, and deploy it on a orchestration platforms such as containers. Sounds daunting? That’s because it is.

Yet that is what deeply-technical writers do at their everyday jobs. The technologically complex products that our companies develop do not work in isolation. These products are used in an even more technologically complex environment. And to document these products well, it is imperative to understand the ecosystem they are used in. For instance, to document CockroachDB, me and my fellow technical writers at Cockroach Labs need to learn how to deploy CockroachDB on AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, and how to use orchestration technologies such as Kubernetes and Docker. And we have to evolve our knowledge in parallel with the evolving technological landscape.

This can definitely seem daunting for a beginner tech writer, and rightly so. But the important thing to remember is you can never familiarize yourself with all the technology out there – no one can. What you can do, however, is become comfortable with the technology and its ever-evolving nature. In my experience, learning how to learn is the mandatory skill for a technologically-literate writer.

To that end, let’s familiarize ourselves with the common tech jargon that forms the everyday vernacular of developers. Understanding these technical concepts will help you to communicate better with the developers and take on technically challenging documentation projects with confidence. This month’s resources will discuss:

  • How does the internet work? (Scheduled for 02/09/2018)
  • Cloud computing for beginners (What is cloud computing? Introduction to AWS and DigitalOcean) (Scheduled for 02/16/2018)
  • Containers for beginners (What are containers? Introduction to Kubernetes) (Scheduled for 02/23/2018)

HTML for absolute beginners

In the previous post, I shared a resource for Python, which is an excellent language for server-side programming. This week, I want to share a resource for the web client-side programming. This week’s resource is HTML for absolute beginners. It is an hour-long video that shows you how to build a web page from scratch. I love that it’s so hands-on and builds up from the basics of HTML programming. Check out the video here:

 

Bonus tip: Learning HTML makes it very easy to learn authoring languages such as XML and Markdown.

Why “be more technical”?

On the topic of how “technical” should technical writers need to be, the Technical Communication (TC) community is divided into two camps: Those who think it is absolutely essential to be tech-savvy to be a good technical writer, and those who think being too tech-savvy is actually a handicap for a technical writer. I belong to the camp that says being technical is a blessing for your career.

The camp you end up in depends on the product and company you work at and your end audience. If the product is a UI-based product, then yes, being technical is not a requirement. You need to explain the terminology and workflows, which does not require technological knowledge. But in today’s usability-focused world, products are getting intuitive and not needing extensive documentation. And to simplify the user-experience, the complexity is moved to the backend. With the rise of modular software architectures and plug-and-play software modules, the need to good technical writers is increasing in the developer documentation arena. Developers now don’t need to tell users how to use the products; instead, they need to tell other developers how to integrate the products with their own. And this is where, in my opinion, the lucrative opportunities for technical writers lie.

My experience so far validates my belief. Granted, my academic background is in engineering, so I am naturally inclined to the technical side of things. However, I think even if I was not an engineer, I would still have learned all things technical that I possibly could. Let me show you how “being technical” has helped me in my career so far:

I started my career as a VLSI engineer at Wipro. There, I was asked to document the Application Notes for the Integrated Circuits we were designing, and thus began my love affair with technical writing. After a year, I switched fields and moved to Symantec as a Technical Writer. At Symantec, I learned the on-the-job skills required for good technical writing. But the job wasn’t technical enough to retain my interest and the engineer in me started cribbing about it. So I moved to Druva as the Engineering Technical Writer and this proved to be the inflection point in my career. At Druva, I documented the software architecture and design of our products for internal developers. I reported to the VP of Engineering and worked closely with the CTO and the developers. The documents I created helped developers understand the overall architecture of the product, know what their colleagues were working on, learn what design decisions were made and why, and helped them better collaborate with their peers. Also, they were relieved that they didn’t have to write the design docs anymore. At most, they would have to write a rough draft and I would take it from there. As a result, I became a valued and highly visible member of the Engineering team. The position opened up several growth avenues for me, one of which led me to the MS in Technical Communication program at Missouri S&T. My work helped me develop an amazing rapport with our CTO – he offered me a summer internship in the California office, which was later extended to a remote part-time internship that lasted throughout my second year at Missouri S&T.

In the last semester of my grad program, I started looking for jobs. I didn’t want to go back to California. This time, my heart was set on New York. As an international student, I knew I would have to prove my worth for a company to take a chance on me. And the way to do that was to build my portfolio. So I researched open source projects where I could contribute documentation and build my portfolio. I came across an interesting project – CourseWorld – and started contributing software design docs to the project. This project helped me demonstrate not only my ability to understand and document technology, but also my knowledge of GitHub and online collaboration tools. In short, it helped me “show, don’t tell”. And it worked! I got interview calls from exciting startups for deeply technical positions. One of the calls that got me super-excited was from Cockroach Labs. After an intense interviewing day, I was hired as a Senior Technical Writer at the New York office and offered a six-figure salary. So you can see why I am biased to being more technical 🙂

Being technical has helped me leap through my career. It has opened up avenues of career growth that I didn’t know existed. And honestly, it’s just fun to dive into the inner workings of a product and understand how the magic happens.

Update: I made a video to discuss how tech writers can work on becoming more tech-savvy. Check it out:

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

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