Education and skills development are vital to a technical writing career. While there are no set-in-stone educational requirements for a technical writer, there are very few writers in the field who do not have a college degree. There are occasional exceptions to this rule (Some companies provide in-house training, generally to employees who have lost their current position due to a restructuring such as the closing of a manufacturing plant), but for those wishing to enter the field, an academic education is essential.
Beyond the schooling needed to enter the field, technical writing is a craft that requires continuing education, from the development of writing and technical skills to the learning of new computer applications and other writing tools. Each aspect of a technical writer’s education must be maintained. Skill erosion can be a significant problem for mid-career writers, especially those who have been working for the same company for several years. Companies frequently become married to specific processes, styles and tools. As long as that writer stays with the company, they might get away with less outside education, but they eventually find that their skills are outdated or that they have become inflexible in their thinking. The beginning of a new job search is a bad time to find out your skill set is out of date.
Levels of academic education
Non-Credit Classes and Seminars:
While non-credit courses rarely go directly on your resume, these classes can often provide you with either an overview of a subject or with a specific tool skill. One example is a writer may want to take a course in desktop publishing or visual design in order to develop their skill in those areas. Another example is an technical writer who attends technical seminars at a conference in order to keep on top of the newest developments in their area.
Many classes offer certificates of completion to their students, but that is not the same as a certification. Certification requires some sort of testing to ensure that you have reached a certain level of knowledge. Some colleges offer certification rather than a specific degree to people who take (and pass) a set of classes. As a rule, the number of classes required for a certificate from a school is less than the number required for a degree. Certificates are not limited to formal schools. Often the producers of a product, may offer training and certification for people who use that product. In some fields, this can be a prerequisite for a job, although technical writing positions seldom require certifications.
An associate’s degree generally requires two years of academic study. By itself, an associate’s degree rarely meets an employer’s educational requirements, but as a supplement, an associate’s degree can be very useful. A technical writer who already has a writing-related Bachelor’s degree can improve their employability by adding an associate’s degree in a technical subject. On the flip side, someone who already has a higher-level technical degree might go back and supplement that degree with an associate’s degree in a writing-related area.
A bachelor’s degree is the standard level of education for a technical writer. While many technical writers choose to move beyond a bachelor’s degree, most employers do not require a higher degree than this, especially for entry-level writers. Until recently, the number of colleges offering bachelor’s degrees in technical writing has been limited, but more and more colleges are beginning to recognize the need for this track of study.
It is a good idea to balance a technical skill and a writing skill. For example, one student might choose a major in engineering with a minor in non-fiction writing or journalism. Another student might major in English, but minor in chemistry, mathematics or computer science. The best course of action at this level is to choose a double major, in which you get both a technical degree and a writing degree.
A Master’s degree is not essential to becoming a technical writer, but it can open up many career areas and is sometimes required in order to reach the top pay grade at a company. Again, most writers will want to use this degree to either increase their writing skill or their technical skill. Many mid-career professionals will also consider a degree in management, if they are looking to run a writing department.
Many people balk at pursuing a master’s degree due to its perceived difficulty or to the time requirement. Once they choose to pursue this degree, however, most students find the educational experience much more satisfying at this level. The appeal of a master’s level education is that it is much more focused on the area of study a student is pursuing.
Few technical writers choose to move beyond a master’s degree. It is much more common for a technical writer who holds one master’s degree to pursue a second master’s degree rather than a doctoral degree. Those who do choose to pursue a doctoral degree are almost always focused on technical subjects rather than writing. At this level a writer generally moves beyond what is considered technical writing and more into academic writing or research.