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.

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Masters in Technical Communication: Introduction to the series

Graduation Day! (Image source: Missouri S&T English and Technical Communication Facebook page)

In May 2017, I earned my Masters degree in Technical Communication at Missouri S&T. Since then, I have often been asked about my experience of pursuing the degree, if I find the degree worth the time and effort required, and how it helps me in my current role as the Senior Technical Writer at Cockroach Labs. This blog series is my attempt to answer the questions and open up the conversation to a broader audience.

To understand the impact of the graduate program on my career, we first need to discuss my professional background.

The Story So Far…

I graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from University of Pune, India. After a year-long stint at Wipro as a VLSI designer, I switched fields and moved to technical writing. I worked as a Technical Writer for 5 years: first at Symantec (a multinational company where I worked on user documentation) and then at Druva (a fast-growing startup where I worked on developer documentation and created software architecture and design docs). I presented at several national STC conferences and participated in numerous workshops. By February 2015, I felt as if I had learned all that the Indian tech writing community had to offer. I was beginning to feel stuck at this stage of my career when I had a chance meeting with a friend who was considering pursuing a Masters degree in her field. I wondered if there are any graduate programs in Technical Communication. So naturally, I googled it. I was blown away by the number of graduate programs in Technical Communication! Thus began my journey halfway across the world to pursue a Masters degree in Technical Communication.

The whole process of getting serious about applying to Tech Comm grad programs and starting my program in the United States took less 6 months. In those 6 months, I did all of the following:

  • Researched the Tech Comm programs
  • Prepared the application materials (Statement of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation, Transcripts, and so on)
  • Studied for and took the GRE and TOEFL exams (got good scores, thankfully!)
  • Applied for the program at Missouri S&T
  • Was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship
  • Applied for and received my student visa
  • Packed everything I owned and moved across the seas to the United States.

Since then, I have completed ten graduate courses in Tech Comm, successfully defended my Master’s thesis, did a summer internship in California, continued with same company as a remote part-time intern during the second year of the graduate program, taught a section of the technical writing service course to undergrads for three semesters, and moved to New York to join Cockroach Labs.

Pursuing a graduate program has made me a better technical writer. My industry experience as a technical writer helped me answer the “what” and “how” questions of technical writing, but the graduate program taught me “why” we do what we do. The program helped me develop the foundational skills and theoretical approaches to technical writing. It also opened my mind to new aspects of Tech Comm that I hadn’t been exposed to before: research in technical communication, teaching technical communication, proposal writing, cultural contextual theories in international communication, visual communication, usability and accessibility, history of the field, and so on. I got the chance to meet my tech-comm heroes: Dr. Kirk St. Amant, Tom Johnson, Dr. Lisa Meloncon, and many others.

I also discovered the treasure of academic research in Tech Comm, and the prominent academic journals: Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions of Professional Communication, and several more. I was introduced to the academic ecosystem of Tech Comm, which is a whole different career path in itself. I have found brilliant mentors in the field: Dr. Northcut, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Malone (my professors at Missouri S&T), and a very supportive and welcoming community of ATTW and CPTSC (professional organizations in the academic sphere).

The graduate program gave me much more than I could have asked for. It justified my decision to give up my steady career and comfortable life in India and move to the United States. I genuinely believe that more technical writers should opt for a formal education in Tech Comm, and I hope this blog series inspires you to consider pursuing a graduate degree in Technical Communication. Stay tuned for the upcoming posts:

  • How to choose a Technical Communication graduate program (Scheduled for 01/08/2018)
  • How to apply to universities (Scheduled for 01/15/2018)
  • MS in Technical Communication Program at Missouri S&T (Scheduled for 01/22/2018)
  • Graduate Teaching Assistantship at the Missouri S&T program (Scheduled for 01/29/2018)

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