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Master's in technical writing at Mercer — FAQ

by Tom Johnson on Mar 26, 2019
categories: academics-and-practitioners writing

Considering earning a master's in technical writing to move up the career ladder? If so, check out Mercer's online master's in Technical Communication Management program, which is positioned within Mercer's School of Engineering and focuses on teaching you management skills to influence significant organizational change. There are many details to consider when choosing a master's in technical writing program, so I reached out to Pam Brewer, who directs the program at Mercer, with some questions.

Note that Mercer is one of my site’s sponsors.

Thanks for chatting with me about the master's in technical writing program at Mercer. At a high-level, what's the program all about?

Thanks for the opportunity to tell you about our online Master of Science in Technical Communication Management (MSTCM) program. We’re very proud of it because we focus on professional context, and our faculty have current, real-world experience. Our position in the School of Engineering also gives us a technical connection that sets us apart from the crowd.

Our technical communication program can be completed in two years, and it has been recognized as “one of the most affordable and effective” in the country, and our students speak highly about their experience.

Masters in technical writing at Mercer
If you're thinking about an online masters program in technical communication, consider Mercer's program. The two-year online program is called Master of Science in Technical Communication Management.

Can you tell us a little about you?

Sure. I was a practicing technical communicator before I made the move into education and earned a PhD. I worked for LexisNexis (actually, for their predecessor) and for Cincom Systems. I continue to do government and consulting work.

I've seen a lot of educational opportunities related to technical communication. What are the advantages of enrolling in a master's in technical writing program?

As a rough guideline, a bachelor’s degree prepares you to practice in a field, a master’s degree prepares you to manage in a field, and a PhD prepares you to research in a field. The right master’s degree, particularly with technical communication fields, can provide advanced practitioner skills and management skills so that you can enter a new field or advance your existing career.

So your master's degree is specifically designed to help technical writers become managers? Can you talk more about that?

Technical writers are uniquely poised in organizations to facilitate organizational change. They have access to information, they know how to analyze target audiences, and they design communication tools that encourage specific actions from those audiences. If technical writers can better understand how to identify organizational problems, analyze opportunities, and deploy solutions, they can become leaders of change in their organizations.

I can give you a few examples. When we work on advanced technical communication skills, we incorporate change management. We ask our students to identify opportunities for process change in their organizations, do a feasibility analysis of solutions, and propose a feasible solution(s). Many of our alums have reported significant changes that benefit their organizations at a process management level.

One of our alums, who works for a medical company, updated the communication process between levels of the organization, pitched it to management, and earned a new management position to implement the changes.

As another example, we teach usability assessment as a tool for process or product improvement. In the usability class I teach, students are encouraged to identify an opportunity to assess an emerging product or technology in their organizations, make the case for inserting a usability assessment, and then conduct the assessment. This assignment enables them to initiate and implement change through management channels.

All of these educational opportunities are turned into organizational improvement projects, each managed by technical writers.

Some practitioners are a bit wary about the value of technical writing academic programs, given that many professionals took many other routes to their current job. What would you say to someone wavering or not about getting an online master's degree?

A master’s degree enables people to move more quickly in developing their careers, and perhaps more importantly, it gives them more choices in a job market that can be very volatile. Broader choices, I think, allow technical writers to navigate into career paths that are most satisfying.

How is the online master's at Mercer different from other master's programs?

The foundation of our online master’s in technical writing program is our weekly, interactive video conferences, instead of asynchronous interactions only. We believe this is the standard of excellence! Students are able to network with and learn from a community of professionals, as well as their professors, in a rich communication environment.

Our program also focuses on working professionals, and many of our class projects are based on students’ choosing projects in their own workplaces. They immediately return value to their employers, and each project counts double for students: once for earning the master’s degree and once in their workplace.

So students can incorporate projects from their current technical writing job directly into their academic work?

Yes, regularly. We integrate management of technical communication processes in addition to the advanced skill sets we address. Students learn skills that will help them become managers in technical communication environments and at the same time return immediate value to their workplaces, which makes them more visible and valuable.

What kind of technical communication courses do you teach in Mercer's online degree program?

We offer courses in project management, usability, instructional design, content strategy, social media management, multimedia, editing, visual design, international technical communication, and basic research. All classes are taught through a management lens.

What do students who earn a master's in technical communication management go on to do post-graduation?

Because our students are usually working professionals, they often use the degree to move up in their present workplace, open a new opportunity in their workplace, or transition from another field into technical communication.

One of our current students, who will graduate later this year, just earned a management position at Rockwell Collins due to her technical background, earning the master’s, and increased ability to communicate the value she brings to the organization. Another student was able to leverage her work in the masters program to move from teaching in high school to a position with a content management company.

How long does it take to complete the technical communications degree?

The master’s program can be completed in 2 years or 4 years. To complete it in 2 years, students take 5 courses a year (2 in fall, 2 in spring, and 1 in summer); to complete in 4 years, they take one course in each session. We also offer a certificate that can be completed in 1 to 2 years. Students can apply to move from certificate to master’s work if they choose.

Is there a recommended technical track that students take in the program? How do you make sure they're grounded in both theory and tech skills?

There is no technical track in our program; however, each class covers a technical communication skill with a management focus. In addition, we have many students who come to the program with technical skills from their undergraduate education and the workplace.

Do students need to take a GRE or other test to gain admission?

No. We use an applicant’s letter of intent, letters of reference, and undergraduate GPA as our criteria for admission. We don’t feel the GRE is an effective gauge of success.

How much does the master's program cost, and what kind of financial aid is available?

Our program costs $700 per credit hour. This cost-competitive rate is one of the reasons we have been recognized as one of the most affordable and effective online communication programs in the nation.

Our online Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program was recently ranked by at No. 9 among the 40 Best Online Master’s in Communication Programs in the country based on quality and affordability (see 2019 Best Online Colleges for Communication Degrees).

In addition, SR Education Group ranked our program No. 4 among 25 best online master’s programs in communication, again based on quality and affordability. (See M.S. in Technical Communication Management Among Best Online Master’s in Communications Programs.)

Students who take six credit hours per semester qualify for federal loan programs. We also offer deferred payment for students whose organizations subsidize their graduate work.

Are any of the professors in Mercer's technical communication program hybrid academics, with one foot in the corporate world and one foot in academia?

I don’t know about “hybrid academics,” but all of our faculty have workplace experience in technical communication, and we continue to consult and work on grants in order to keep our skills current. Part of our requirements for tenure and promotion is technical currency.

Our faculty is committed to advancing students’ careers and customizing their education for their workplace growth and development. Contact us if this unique program sounds like it might be right for you. Visit Mercer’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management (MSTCM) program for more information. You can also reach out to me directly with any questions at [email protected].

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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