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Getting a Master’s Degree in Technical Communication

By Lindsay K. Saunders

Obtaining a graduate degree was always a dream of mine. However, selecting the right program was impossible until I found one that allowed me to merge my backgrounds in education, law, and communication with a program of study focused on developing the career-based skills needed to succeed in a variety of professions. What I learned during my MA studies both expanded the knowledge I gained as an undergrad and helped me apply new skills and ideas in different professional contexts.

Making the Career Transition with Graduate Knowledge

Currently, I am a Development Outreach and Communications (DOC) Specialist for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) at the United States Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia. In 2016, I was looking for a major change, so I took a chance in applying for different jobs nationally and internationally. I’d never been to Zambia, but it turned out that I had an upcoming trip to visit foreign aid sites with a nonprofit called RESULTS—a movement of everyday people who use their voices to influence political decisions in order to end poverty. Through my position with USAID and my prior work with different kinds of organizations, I’ve discovered how my MA in technical communication can provide more ideas to expand the message of advocacy for public buy-in of grassroots solutions and professional resources, which could be used in government policy. I use the focused technical communication skills acquired in my MA studies to explain complex policies to government leaders in an effort to maintain their support.

When you work with information and communication, you must always consider who your audience is, how best to reach them, and ways in which to break down information for them. Getting my master’s degree prepared me for the unending need to think critically, take initiative, and think outside the box—all essential to addressing such situations. I learned to dig for answers before asking questions because, in our line of work, we must be prepared to provide the information people need to know before they even know they need it. Getting a job in communications for a government or nonprofit required me to have that ability, and my graduate degree helped reframe how I approached projects.

Aspects of Master’s Studies

The decision to pursue a graduate degree in any field is a big step. Such programs, however, do more than help individuals hone existing technical and communication skills. They also allow students to develop a range of leadership or management skills that can be essential to future workplace success. These include:

Goal Setting

I had ideals to emulate. Some people thought I was crazy for name-dropping Google, Unicef, and the United Nations, but I had to have entities to aspire to. The project planning, team management, and time allocation essential to doing graduate studies helped me to develop the skills needed to simultaneously focus on both short-term and long-term project (i.e., career) goals. This let me keep an eye on what was in front of me while not losing sight of my long-term objectives.

Continuing Professional Development

It’s always something to keep in mind. Even in Zambia, I’m taking a French class, reading books about global development, and taking advantage of any and every opportunity to learn about how foreign affairs works. Graduate training teaches you how to take charge of your own learning, find needed training resources, and—when necessary—train yourself in how to use technologies or perform tasks associated with working on a project. It can also provide you with more visible professional development opportunities (e.g., departmental talks, student meetings, and university symposia) that can help you learn how to expand your education in other ways, as well as develop important social networks.

Risk Assessment

Graduate studies often involve assessing the time needed for projects and making calculated decisions about how to allocate one’s time. Some students have control over the projects they work on, and they need to determine what activities to undertake based on identifying and assessing risks (e.g., how much time and effort a project will take) vs. rewards (i.e., how an innovative project can affect one’s grade). Students in graduate programs thus continually identify and evaluate such factors as they move through their studies—ideally, with the process getting more complex as the student moves through a curriculum. Through such training, individuals can hone their time management and project management skills while also learning how to identify and assess the risks associated with projects and plan accordingly.

What’s key about these skills is they apply across a range of technical communication areas and industries. They can also help individuals succeed at any level—from new employee to division manager—within an organization.

Knowing Constraints When Making Decisions

Was a master’s degree worth it for me? Yes; I love my job and getting my graduate degree has fueled my ability, confidence, and passion to work in public service. To determine if a master’s degree is right for you, consider the following:

Work Ethic

A first, major consideration is whether you are at the right point in your life and career where you can do the work expected of a graduate degree program. Getting a graduate degree is hard. I ended up getting my master’s degree through an online program while working full time in a different part of the state. As an MA student, I had to work twice as hard to prioritize my day job, finances, schoolwork, health, personal relationships, and organizational involvement. Managing all that while being in some classes that pushed critical thinking felt a bit overwhelming at times, but I came back and succeeded every time. The major takeaway: you cannot slack off—you must be willing to put in the work for a graduate degree.

Affordability

A second major consideration is the cost of getting a graduate degree. Is this a degree you can afford? Will your employer pay for it, and will you need to take time off from work or even change jobs to take courses? For me, graduate program options were available in my local area, but the challenge was fitting them within my work schedule at the time. The idea of taking time off from work or having no job in order to do graduate coursework was simply not financially viable for me. For this reason, I selected an online program that let me keep my job and pursue my graduate studies.

Focus

For many working professionals, the overall purpose of getting a master’s degree is to hone your skills in a way that allows you to focus on the career path you wish to follow. The key item to remember is not all graduate programs cover the same topics or focus on helping students develop the same foundation of skills and knowledge relating to the field. This lack of “fit” (i.e., the program does not fit with or help me obtain my objectives) is a major factor to consider when selecting a master’s program. For me, there was a nearby program that offered classes outside of my work schedule. The focus of that program, however, was in an area that did not connect to my overall career goals or objectives. For this reason, I opted for an online program that did align with my objectives, and the resulting fit greatly helped me get the most from my studies.

In the end, the master’s degree you select should be based on what works best in terms of your goals and according to your schedule. For this reason, it’s important to take the time to assess what factors can help identify a program that meets your goals and objectives.

Final Thoughts

In the end, it comes down to selecting the program that works best for you. In making your decision, consider the following questions:

  • Does the degree have value for you at a professional and/or personal level?
  • Does studying different perspectives, trends, and approaches in technical communication excite you, even when it frustrates you?
  • Have you talked to other people who have completed programs similar to your interests? If so, what were their experiences while enrolled in and after completing the program?

Use your answers to guide your decision, and you should be able to find the master’s program that will work best for you.

LINDSAY K. SAUNDERS (lindsayksaunders@gmail.com), originally from North Carolina, is enjoying the lessons of life abroad in Zambia and is privileged to serve as a Development Outreach and Communications Specialist for USAID. She has a weekly email newsletter and shares her journey on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Visit her website at www.lindsayksaunders.com or follow her on social media @LindsayKelleyS.

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