By Lance C. Becker | STC Member
Today, technical professionals—engineers, scientists, etc.—can increasingly find themselves performing writing and communication activities for which they were not formally trained. Similarly, persons with backgrounds in writing-related areas (e.g., English or communications) might be considering jobs requiring them to produce technical documents they’ve never encountered before. In both cases, individuals need quick, effective, and targeted training that is more focused than a formal degree program. A graduate certificate in technical communication can be the solution.
For me, the decision to pursue a graduate certificate in technical communication addressed the need to do more communication-related activities for my work. Combining my applied engineering background with the courses in a certificate program provided me with the skills needed to address end-user expectations at my current job. As a result, I can now readily identify a problem or need and quickly develop related recommendation reports, proposals, and procedures to deliver information directly to different audiences.
The Benefits of a Certificate in Technical Communication
Certificate programs can offer a range of benefits for individuals who need targeted instruction in areas related to the workplace. These are generally connected to the configuration of such programs.
Benefits to the Professional
The structure of a graduate certificate program allows you to focus on honing your abilities to communicate detailed information to different audiences. Unlike degree programs, which usually involve 10+ courses (for a master’s degree), most certificate programs require less coursework (usually five courses). This means certificate programs often take less time to complete (usually 1-1.5 years) and generally cost less. My certificate program, for example, consists of five courses, and I will complete it in one year—less than half the time needed to complete an MA in the field.
Also, graduate certificate programs often focus on developing workplace-related skills vs. requiring courses not directly related to your career goals. This allows you to hone the communication skills connected to the work you will do in your current or prospective jobs. The courses I have taken, for example, allowed me to develop my skills in report preparation, proposal development, and procedure writing. These abilities are key to my current job as a field engineer who regularly arrives at the site and must quickly evaluate a problem and prepare reports that include proposed solutions and related procedures.
Benefits to the Employing Entity
Employers also experience the benefits of graduate certificates. Employees who possess effective technical communication skills can help organizations share key information more quickly and effectively. From a bottom-line perspective, this translates into readily delivering quality products to different audiences.
In my case, I’ve seen these benefits in terms of cost and time savings. My ability to effectively produce documented solutions and procedures means end users receive needed information quickly. This allows the departments that use such materials to perform certain tasks more quickly and to share their own information more readily. The result is a decrease in production time due to the effective sharing of technical information.
Factors to Consider Before Pursuing a Graduate Certificate While Working Full Time
Doing graduate work involves dedicating time to a course of study. If you are interested in a graduate certificate in technical communication, you should therefore consider certain factors before committing to such a program.
The first factor to consider is your feelings about writing. Graduate certificate programs involve extensive writing, review, revision, rewriting, and then more writing. If you don’t have an affinity toward writing and communication, a graduate certificate program can be challenging. For me, this was easy, because my undergraduate English minor and workplace experience connected to the enjoyment I take from writing. For individuals with less experience writing, the process of intensive writing, revision, and rewriting could be daunting.
Commitments to Work
Time committed to work is also a key consideration. If you have a full-time job, you might have difficulty finding the time to participate in required courses. Additionally, full-time employment can involve unexpected overtime hours that can affect the time you can devote to classes at any given point. For this reason, you need to determine how much time—both current and anticipated—you need to dedicate to your job. Only then can you determine if you have the time needed to take on certificate studies. In my case, I regularly spend six hours per week doing a variety of reading, researching, and writing related to the certificate class I’m taking. To do so, I have used evenings and weekends, rather than restructuring my work schedule.
Commitments to Family
You need to consider all of your time outside of work, including family time, when planning to pursue a graduate certificate. Family life, social obligations, and other commitments must be figured into your decision. I had to plan carefully to balance such factors and determine how to allocate time for studies to avoid affecting important family events (e.g., my children’s jazz band competition).
Accreditation and Further Study
A final consideration is whether the institution offers accredited, graduate-level, academic credit. “Accreditation” means the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the institution as awarding specific degrees, certificates, and varying levels of college credit. This factor can affect how employers and other institutions view the legitimacy of a program. You can research a program’s accreditation on the U.S. Department of Education database of accredited post-secondary institutions and programs at https://ope.ed.gov/accreditation.
Upon completion of the certificate, you might be able to apply your classes toward an advanced degree (e.g., an MA in English) at an accredited institution if desired. If your long-term goal is to obtain an advanced degree, then such an option is worth investigating when selecting a certificate program.
Factors to Consider in Determining If a Program Is Right for You
Finding the best certificate option involves understanding dynamics that can affect participation in a program. This can involve considerations related to location.
How, When, and Where
How, when, and where you can participate in a program is a top concern if you are working full time. As work hours and family or social obligations can vary, you might not have the time needed to commute to or attend on-site classes every week. Also, class schedules can conflict with work or other commitments. So, unless a program fits effectively within your existing schedule, your ability to participate may be limited.
Like many working professionals, my job and existing commitments made on-site options impractical. I selected an online certificate program, and the benefits have been tremendous. I have been able to use my mobile device to connect to courses at any time and from anywhere, allowing me to participate at different intervals throughout the day. However, there have been limitations, such as the lack of face-to-face communication with instructors and peers. The key is knowing what options are available and the benefits and the limitations of each option.
Online, asynchronous programs are an effective option for full-time working professionals. Flexible and without traditional daily or hourly schedules, they generally allow professionals to participate and to complete assignments, quizzes, and tests at any time during the week. For me, the greatest benefit involves getting course updates on my mobile device, thinking about an assignment throughout the day, and then going to my computer to write about what I have been contemplating.
This approach allows you to plan your school time around work, family, or other commitments vs. the other way around. The greatest challenge is not letting a crazy day or hectic week prevent you from keeping up with weekly activities. The trick is to stay ahead so you never fall behind.
Technical communication involves conveying the findings, results, and recommendations of technical or scientific work to different audiences. A graduate certificate in technical communication is an effective means of obtaining the training needed to do such work. Success involves considering key factors to identify the program that best works for your needs and with your schedule. By considering the items discussed here, you can select the right kind of program for you. From that point, success involves allocating the time needed to participate effectively in your courses and determining how such programs can contribute to your short- and long-term goals.
LANCE C. BECKER (firstname.lastname@example.org) has recently completed a graduate certificate in Technical Writing and Communication at Louisiana Tech University. He plans to continue studies at LA Tech, applying his certificate work toward an MA. After receiving a BS from Eastern Illinois University, with a major in Industrial Technology and Applied Engineering, and a minor in English in 1999, Lance started a career in industrial construction. Working as a project engineer, he reports his recommendations and provides procedures and proposals to the project and maintenance needs of large manufacturing-based and energy-production facilities.