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Exploring the Educational Pathway of a Technical Communication Undergraduate

By Jessica Lynn Campbell | STC Member, and Lauren Jones | STC Member

The continuously evolving areas of information technology, online platforms, and multi-media communication make technical communication an attractive field for new college graduates. As a result, students are increasingly choosing a major in technical communication to gain the knowledge and skills needed to obtain successful employment in today’s digital environment. Considering the diverse tasks technical communicators do on the job, students entering the workforce might be unaware of what fields they can work in, what skills may be necessary, and even what job titles to search for. A few key details can help them succeed in these activities.

Foundational Skills

Technical communicators can work in any field, as well as fulfill numerous roles, but what exactly are employers looking for? Recent research can help answer this question. Some research, for example, notes technical communicators should specialize in a certain skill set and become an expert in one area. Others, however, indicate a broadened skill set will make professionals more effective in the workplace (St.Amant 2016). According to certain scholars, the core competencies one should have include: project planning, project analysis, solution design, organizational design, written communication, visual communication, content development, content management, and final production (Batova and Andersen 2016).

Historically, technical communicators were trained in purposeful and clear writing; however, considering today’s digital landscape, technical communicators are now using various media to communicate to a larger audience. As such, technical communication has become an interdisciplinary field using theories from disciplines such as cognitive science, philosophy, and sociology. While usability and audience-centered design skills remain important, there is a growing need for applying related skills to content development in areas such as Web design, digital media, and other information and communication technologies (ICT). Students, in turn, need to review the educational options available to them and consider the pathways—both coursework and internship or work experience—that would help them best develop such skills.

Interactive Skills

Collaboration in the workplace is necessary. As use of component content management (CCM) increases, so does the need to work collaboratively. Technical communication students who broaden their skill sets to include small group communication and collaboration might thus be better suited for environments where work is more collaborative and holistic. Additionally, this helps prepare students to serve as forum moderators in product development, testing, and marketing processes (Frith 2014).

Management skills are also important. Content developers, for example, gather information and research to develop into content for clients or employers. Such tasks involve different resource management, time management, and even project or team management skills. Pairing these skills with competencies in business, technology, and design enable novice technical communicators to further expand job opportunities in ways that could mean the difference between obtaining a content developer job or a higher level content strategist job (Batova and Andersen 2016).

Breadth or Depth of Skills?

New technical communicators can become an asset to employers by narrowing their expertise to one area of focus. Yet research is conflicting on whether to focus on developing specialized skills or gaining knowledge in a wide range of skills in order to expand one’s career options. For instance, some recent scholarship suggests marketing experience to be most helpful when pursuing a role in social media writing, content development, or content management; likewise, having a background in the medical field is advantageous when pursuing a medical writing role (Lauer and Brumberger 2016).

Other research notes certain technical communication roles require a specialized skill set, but also recommend novice technical communicators initially develop a wide variety of skills to keep options open (Baehr 2015). As the technical communication field increasingly includes more modes of communication, participants, and audiences, students need to think of themselves not just as writers and editors, but also as quality control experts, translators, information architects, and managers (Batova and Andersen 2016).

Pairing Skills with Job Titles

Several factors contribute to job classification. Understanding such dynamics can be key to graduates locating the right technical communication job in today’s workplace. As Baehr explains, “[W]here in the organization the job [is] located, the amount of time spent creating content, the relationship to products, or in some cases, self-selected titles influence job classification” (2015). Students, in turn, need to familiarize themselves with such dynamics. Common technical communicator job titles include: content developer/manager, technical writer/editor, grant/proposal writer, social media writer, and medical writer (Frith 2014). Understanding these positions and their related expectations is important for students entering the workforce.

What capabilities and skills do employers require for typical technical communication positions? (Brumberger and Lauer 2015).

Job Title
Competencies
Tools/Technologies
Content Developer/Manager
audience awareness, content development/management, editing, project planning/management, web analytics, written communication Adobe Photoshop, Content Management System (CMS), Microsoft Office, HTML/CSS/JavaScript
Technical Writer/Editor
editing, project planning/management, research, style guides/standards, visual communication, written communication Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Visio, Microsoft Office
Grant/Proposal Writer
editing, project planning/management, research, editing, subject matter familiarity, verbal communication, written communication Adobe Acrobat, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office
Social Media Writer
editing, project planning/management, research, subject matter familiarity, verbal communication, written communication Adobe Acrobat, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office
Medical Writer
editing, project planning/management, style guides/standards, subject matter familiarity, visual communication, written communication Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Photoshop, CMS, Microsoft Office

Today’s graduates need to know these job titles and their differences when searching through job postings on websites like linkedin.com, monster.com, and careerbuilder.com. They also need to regularly review such postings to learn what requirements employers associate with different technical communication positions. Students who know how to find, read, and respond to such postings can begin to assess what experience and training are essential to enter a particular field and structure their studies accordingly. They might also explore prospective internship opportunities to gain certain skills and experiences (Lanier 2009).

Conclusion

The technical communication job market is replete with both generalists and specialty roles; students should therefore explore opportunities to gain an understanding of a range of topics and practices, as well as consider developing knowledge in a particular focus area. Possessing a range of skills will provide new graduates with the ability to navigate job searches and changing work environments. In the end, the more students understand the dynamics of the field and jobs available, the better they can shape their studies to meet the expectations of today’s workplace.

References

Batova, Tatiana, and Rebekka Andersen. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Content Strategy— A Unifying Vision.” IEEE Transactions On Professional Communication 59.1 (2016): 2–6.

Batova, Tatiana, and Rebekka Andersen. “A Systematic Literature Review of Changes in Roles/Skills in Component Content Management Environments and Implications for Education.” Technical Communication Quarterly 26.2 (April 2017): 173–200.

Baehr, Craig. “Complexities in Hybridization: Professional Identities and Relationships in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication 62.2 (May 2015): 104–117.

Brumberger, Eva, and Claire Lauer. “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Postings.” Technical Communication 62.4 (November 2015): 224–243.

Frith, Jordan. “Forum Moderation as Technical Communication: The Social Web and Employment Opportunities for Technical Communicators.” Technical Communication 61.3 (August 2014): 173–184.

Gollner, Joe. “The Accidental Content Strategist.” The Content Philosopher. 30 August 2012. http://www.gollner.ca/2012/08/accidental-content-strategist.html.

Lanier, Clinton R. “Analysis of the Skills Called for by Technical Communication Employers in Recruitment Postings.” Technical Communication 56.1 (2009): 51–61. Academic Search Premier.

Lauer, Claire, and Eva Brumberger. “Technical Communication as User Experience in a Broadening Industry Landscape.” Technical Communication 63.3 (August 2016): 248–264.

St.Amant, Kirk, and Lisa Meloncon. “Reflections on Research: Examining Practitioner Perspectives on the State of Research in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication 63.4 (November 2016): 346–364.

JESSICA LYNN CAMPBELL (jessicalynn@embarqmail.com) has a BA in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin, an MA in English-Technical Communication from the University of Central Florida (UCF), and is currently completing her PhD in Texts and Technology at UCF. Jessica is an experienced technical communicator, author, and multimedia manager. She is an active member and mentor in the Society for Technical Communication. Her scholarly interests include international and health and medical communications.

LAUREN JONES (lauren.jones254@gmail.com) is a BA student in English-Technical Communication at the University of Central Florida (UCF). She is an active member in UCF’s Future Technical Communicators club and the Society for Technical Communication. Lauren graduates in the Fall of 2018 and plans to pursue a career as a technical writer.

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