PhD in Technical Writing?; RE: TECHWR-L Digest, Vol 71, Issue 16

Subject: PhD in Technical Writing?; RE: TECHWR-L Digest, Vol 71, Issue 16
From: "Porrello, Leonard" <lporrello -at- illumina -dot- com>
To: 'Charlotte Claussen' <charlottefuture -at- gmail -dot- com>, "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 19 Sep 2011 17:08:14 +0000

Among other things, Charlotte Claussen said (below), "This is in line with a common misunderstanding that you are either good in practical work OR in theoretical work" and "...it is plain wrong to call a PhD a disadvantage."

I think I avoided the either/or fallacy by including the caveat "necessarily" in the following: " Philosophy is predominantly a theoretical endeavor that doesn't necessarily translate into practical ability."

I agree that knowledge itself is never a disadvantage. What I argue, however, is that the skill set, talents, and type of thinking and work required to earn a PhD don't automatically or necessarily translate into the type of practical ability that makes for a good technical writer. We see the principle behind this assertion at work in many areas. For example, this is why some people earn MAs and PhDs in English Literature while others simply write novels. Occasionally, you find someone like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, who can do both, but that is a rarity.

I don't mean to disparage the PhD in the least. I think academia has made and continues to make very important contributions to art of technical writing. In my own technical writing, the work of John M. Carroll and Robert E. Horn is foundational.

I would again assert that a PhD is in and of itself a disadvantage for a technical writer who is not in academia. First, a PhD doesn't necessarily translate into practical ability in the workplace. For example, specialized research in the area of, say, screen capture use and usability isn't going to make me a better technical writer than someone off the streets who reads and applies my research. In other words, in terms of being able to do technical writing, a PhD adds nothing.

Second, the opportunity cost of earning a PhD is very high, and unless your love of technical writing is in itself remuneration enough, you will never regain what you spent in time and money earning a PhD. Apart from the years of income you do not earn while in graduate school, PhDs do not generally earn more than their technical writing colleagues with "only" BAs and MAs. According to the STC salary statistics that I remember from several years ago, the four years and many, many dollars spent on a PhD in tech writing can be considered a total loss (except in terms of personal edification--which I do not mean to make light of).

Third, U.S. culture is marred by anti-intellectualism. PhDs in the Humanities may be respected for what some consider esoteric knowledge of belles-lettres, but they are not respected for their ability to do even simple things, such as wearing matching socks or changing a flat tire. On top of this, bad experiences people have had, with the likes of the PhD the OP talked about, fuel this anti-intellectualism. Because of this, I've even heard of people with PhDs who deliberately leave the degree off of their resumes.

For anyone who wants to work outside of academia as a technical writer, earning a PhD in technical writing is about the worst career move one can make.


-----Original Message-----
From: techwr-l-bounces+lporrello=illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com [mailto:techwr-l-bounces+lporrello=illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com] On Behalf Of Charlotte Claussen
Sent: Saturday, September 17, 2011 3:53 AM
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Subject: Re: TECHWR-L Digest, Vol 71, Issue 16

PhD in technical writing

Porrello, Leonard wrote:

"Scientific disciplines and possibly engineering excepted, I tend to
think a PhD is a disadvantage when it comes working in the trenches.
As we all know, "PhD" stands for "Doctor of Philosophy." Philosophy is
a predominantly theoretical endeavor that doesn't necessarily
translate into practical ability. And as far as technical writing is
concerned, I think a PhD is counterproductive, on several levels, for
anyone not interested in a career in academia. Having a PhD in English
or technical writing proves that one has mastered at least one facet
of English or technical communications theory. It in no way proves
that one can work competently as a technical writer or manage a
technical writing group."

This is in line with a common misunderstanding that you are either
good in practical work OR in theoretical work. Although this is true
for some people, it is plain wrong to call a PhD a disadvantage.
Research is all about gaining knowledge, and knowledge can never be a
disadvantage. (while being arrogant and not listening are major
disadvantages in any work environment!)

If we want technical writing to be a serious field we should encourage
more research in the area, we should influence the research questions,
and we should implement the new valuable knowledge in our work. True,
some people are only good with narrow theoretical ideas, but they
could still obtain valuable findings, that the more practical minded
writer could benefit from. Or, if one researcher's findings are not
directly transferable to practical ability, it might instead be useful
for another researcher who's work is directly implementable for
technical writers.

In my opinion, if theory and practical work are opposites, there's a
reason to revisit either our theoretical claims, our way of working,
or both.

Best regards,

Charlotte Claussen
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Re: TECHWR-L Digest, Vol 71, Issue 16: From: Charlotte Claussen

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