TechWriting for Ph.D's?

Subject: TechWriting for Ph.D's?
From: "Geoff Hart" <geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Wed, 10 Nov 1999 08:31:38 -0500

JRDerr is <<...a soon-to-graduate Ph. D in English... One possible
avenue for employment... is techwriting... it is a growing area
(unlike the professorial job market) which requires writing skills,
the ability to read and synthesize complex and difficult material,
the ability to work on long term self-directed projects (rather like a
doctoral dissertation)>>

It also requires an entirely different approach to using those skills
than the one you're familiar with from your time in the academy.
The problem with English degrees is not that they don't teach you
anything useful: it's that they teach you to write for an entirely
different discourse community than anything you'll find in the real
world. (Speaking as a recovering scientists, I'd hasten to add that
this is true of any PhD program, including science, but it's
particularly problematic for English majors because you receive
formal training in writing and get to think you're good at it... unlike
most techie types, who at least subconsciously admit that we
didn't get that training and end up with a writing inferiority complex

<<how does one break into techwriting if one has previously
pursued an academic career? Most of us have rather limited
technical knowledge, but we have the ability and the desire to learn
new things rather quickly.>>

The ability to write (both writing and tool skills), the ability to
change how you write to account for different audiences (i.e.,
empathy for the reader), and the willingness and ability to learn
about a new field (that's the technical part) are pretty much all that
you need to know to succeed in technical writing. Oh, there are
tons of little details, but you can pick up most of them on the job,
or here on techwr-l. If you can convince an employer through your
cover letter that you have each of these three abilities, then you're
well on your way to getting an interview.

<<Also, do you think that listing a Ph. D on one's resume is

Definitely. So much so that as an act of sheer, unselfish
generosity, I'll take yours and spare you the burden of carrying that
millstone with you your whole life. <gdr> Seriously? Some
companies have been infected by the credentialism bug, and won't
look at anyone without a "proper" degree; others have
anticredentialism, and won't look at anyone who appears "better
than us"; others still could care less what degrees you have, and
want to know what that degree taught you, what you're like as a
person, and what you'll be like as a professional. A PhD is like any
other trump card: you need to know when to play it, and when it's
no longer going to do you any good.

<<I have had potential employers tell me that I couldn't possibly be
interested in working for them since I was so used to the ivory
tower (ironically I was working at an inner city correspondence high
school at the time) >>

The biggest problem with advanced skills and degrees is that they
make you a prime target for headhunters; this problem is also
known as "leaving as soon as something better comes along". You
started your question with the observation that you're getting into
technical writing largely because there are no professor jobs
available; if that attitude ever comes through in an interview, you
can forget about getting the job. Why would someone hire you,
knowing that you're going to leave as soon as a teaching position
comes up? The trick is to get into a field because you love it, not
because it's the only way to keep you from flipping burgers at
McDonalds; if you can figure out why you might love technical
writing, and how you'd enjoy using your skills for the job, then you
can explain that any employer and make the sale. If you can't, you
should reconsider why you want to take the job in the first place.

For me, I love the use of my skills, and it's just a bonus that
I'm working in my own field and feeding my own curiosity
while so doing. I could probably techwhirl just about
anywhere and still enjoy it, provided that I got to learn new
things and solve new challenges.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"If you can't explain it to an 8-year-old, you don't understand it"--Albert Einstein

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