Why Get a PhD in Technical Communication?

By Debbie Davy

A 2010 The Economist magazine article bemoans the decreasing value of a PhD. It ends with the premise the PhD does not buy the graduate a place of wealth or importance, and begs the question “Why bother?” More recent media coverage seemingly reinforces this perspective. Yet, for individuals in technical communication, the situation is different. I believe a PhD supports practical experience with theoretical knowledge and makes us more valuable to business. The key is understanding how the PhD can be of benefit, the costs associated with pursuing one, and ways in which to leverage the PhD upon completion.

What Are the Benefits of Getting a PhD?

To advance professionally, we need to continuously improve our knowledge base and practical experience. This is driven by the needs of our profession and of our employers. Historically, business may have overlooked the contributions of technical communicators in solving business challenges (e.g., institutional knowledge retention, optimum human factors, engineering design, etc.). Today, this perspective is changing, and a PhD can be a mechanism driving such change.

Marking Technical Expertise

A PhD indicates expertise—specifically, research expertise in a focused topic. Today, earning a PhD is still considered the pinnacle of educational achievement and a marker of technical expertise for many of the technology-focused companies where we work. The recognition of expertise indicated by a degree is there, and the key is conveying that expertise to reveal the value that PhDs in technical communication can add.

A first step is conveying how acquired research expertise indicates management and planning expertise in researching human behavior. To obtain a PhD, one generally has to plan, oversee, document, and report on a long-term research project that, in technical communication, examines how individuals communicate about or with some aspect of science or technology. This experience marks PhD holders as effective researchers and project managers.

When combined with the critical aspect of PhD studies, research on identifying and critiquing patterns of communication can contribute to the design of a technology. A PhD in technical communication can indicate expertise in research and design, as well as in usability testing and gathering user data and information on consumer perceptions and habits. If we can convey our expertise to businesses, we can establish the PhD as a marker of not just technical expertise, but value-added technical expertise.

Conveying Cultural Gravitas

A second step is connecting degrees to international ethos. Other cultures associate credibility, or gravitas, with an advanced degree. In fact, certain cultures perceive such degrees as so significant that individuals often change their names to include this marker on official documentation (e.g., adding “Dr.” to one’s name on a passport). Such perceptions can be important to establishing the technical communicator’s and organization’s credibility with prospective international partners.

This degree-based gravitas can be of value to organizations involved in or seeking to move into the global marketplace. In such cases, employees with advanced degrees can contribute to the value of the organization by representing high resource expertise and even high product or service quality in global marketplaces. Again, the key is making employers aware of how such credentialing in technical communication contributes to an organization’s credibility and the perceptions international partners might have of its products and services.

What Should You Consider If Interested in Getting a PhD?

The decision to pursue a PhD is not easy, nor should it be done quickly or taken lightly. It is a commitment to a lifestyle of study involving a regimen of reading, research, writing, editing, and revising. For this reason, individuals interested in a PhD in technical communication should consider certain factors when deciding to pursue a degree and what type of PhD program they should consider.


The first item to consider is the kind of program available based on your location and the nature of your job. Currently, most programs in the field offer on-site programs, yet a few do allow individuals to do PhD work primarily online. When I was considering a PhD in technical communication, the only options available to me were online programs. However, you will certainly have more options if you can attend in person; it will be easier to get face time with professors and other students. In my case, I only looked at schools with online programs, as there were no PhD programs at universities near me with programs in technical communication. I also considered other program-related policies, such as taking time off (which I was able to do for a life event).


When considering a program, it is important to understand the resources (e.g., funding, labs and facilities, library holdings, etc.) available at the university and review the work the faculty has done and is doing. Larger universities often have access to more resources through library networks and relationships with other institutions. Access to more databases expands access to research materials. However, if a resource-rich university is not a viable option, your university might have reciprocal privileges or access through other nearby institutions.


The faculty you will be learning from is critical, for it is they who will provide you with the training associated with becoming an expert researcher in a key area. For this reason, the faculty at an institution, what they study, and what and where they have published, are important items to consider. Programs, in turn, often focus on specific aspects within a field because of the faculty members’ expertise. For example, a technical communication PhD program might focus on rhetoric, whereas your interest is in human factors in engineering. A review of the faculty could help determine if the program is right for you.


When researching PhD programs, it is important to have an idea of the topic you want to study. A PhD program is narrowly focused on an area in the field, and unless the program offers what you want, there is a risk of you not completing it. My PhD research focused on rhetoric, which narrowed my list of programs further.


Time is a critical challenge when considering a PhD program: time to complete a technical communication PhD and time required to do the work. This varies from person to person and program to program, but one should be prepared for four to eight years of study. This time is typically divided into three parts: course work, qualifying exam preparation, and dissertation work. PhD programs also require students to spend a significant time reading, researching, and preparing for classes (in my case, I had online classes once or twice a week for several hours each). Workload in my case averaged 20 hours per week and involved readings for class, researching and drafting papers, and working on projects with fellow students. When you start the research phase, the time commitment will depend on your access to material and, in my case, to individuals who were key players in my research.


The cost of a PhD program involves multiple elements. There is the cost of the program registration, which is significantly more for international students. If you are working full time but decide to pursue the degree full time, there is a potential loss of income. If you are in an online program that requires yearly campus attendance, there is the loss of income and the cost of attending on-site classes (e.g., food, travel, and lodging). Depending on the focus of your courses and research, there is the added cost of course materials. In my case, the cost has been well worth it, as I’ve been able to participate in new projects not available to me before the PhD.

Concluding Thoughts

Today, technical communicators face increasing challenges to be seen as valued contributors. A PhD in technical communication can be an effective step toward that end. It can expand your professional network, increase your gravitas as a subject matter expert, open research opportunities that enhance the technical communication body of knowledge, and increase your compensation. My own PhD experiences have enriched my life. I learned from top people in the field, and the committee members who supervised my PhD research were personal mentors who contributed to my success in and after the program.


Eaton, Angela. “Applying to Graduate School in Technical Communication.” 2006. Accessed 2 February 2018. https://www.depts.ttu.edu/english/tcr/grad_application/ApplyingToGradSchool.pdf.

Martinez, P., and M. Blancero. “Graduate Degree Costs and Benefits.” Accessed 20 September 2011. http://www.phdproject.org/inthenews_costs.html.

Webster, David, and Tad Skinner. “Rating PhD Programs: What the NRC Report Says…and Doesn’t Say.” Change 28.3 (May-June 1996): pp. 22–32, 34–44. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Accessed 16 September 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40165441.

DEBBIE DAVY, PHD (debbie.davy@mac.com) is an experienced consultant to public, broader public, and private sector clients based in Toronto, Canada. She is a senior member of IEEE (elevated 2006). Debbie works for clients in finance, medical informatics, secure printing, science, and telecommunications, and other fields and contributes knowledge of IT business analysis, business principles and concepts, business strategy, requirements, risk management, information management, technology implementation, corporate knowledge retention, document design, and change management. To support this practical experience with theoretical knowledge, Debbie has a PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric (Texas Tech University, 2017) and the master of science in Technical Communication Management (Mercer University, 2008). Debbie can be reached through D.K. Consultants Inc. (www.davy.expert).

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