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JRDerr wants to know if going into Technical Writing is a viable option for
someone with a brand new Ph. D. in English especially given that the job
market for TWs appears to be better than that for professors of English at
the University level.
JRDerr, you didn't mention what your field of study is. It might make
something of a difference if your work was geared more to Grammar and
Rhetoric than to Literature. But that wouldn't be the greatest obstacle. I
left the academic world after getting both a B.A. and an M.A in English and
went into Technical Writing. However, I had a prior background in
development programming, from designing programs and subsystems to testing,
installation, and troubleshooting. So it probably isn't fair to say that I
was "just" an English major who went into Tech Writing because it paid
better than I could get otherwise with a Liberal Arts background.
Some questions you might want to consider:
How technical are you?
Can you program your VCR? When you have a problem with your PC, what do you
do? How well do you understand the problems of your PC? I can't fix
computers, but I learned how to do basic troubleshooting when I was a
programmer. I know a lot of people who can't remember what they were doing
on the machine when it locked up.
How good a writer are you? Did your professors tell you that your papers
were readable, or that they were well-researched, or both? Frankly, my
experience was that most English majors were no more concerned with
readability than their professors were. Seminar papers and dissertations
are NOT generally models of reader-friendly prose.
Do you know how to write for readers with a third-grade reading level? An
eighth-grade level? Or do you expect everyone to be able to read at the
level you are writing? Have you ever done anything other than manuscript
writing? We deal with often very complex layout styles and esoteric points
(some on the list think they are minutia; others understand that often the
devil is in the details).
I could go on, but I hope you get the idea that, while Technical Writing may
be a viable career option for you it would not be simply because you have a
Ph. D. in English Literature specializing in the poetry of the
Also, I would second Geoff Hart's comments about how you present yourself in
interviews, resumes, and cover letters. If you're just marking time until
that faculty position you really want opens up, and if you let that come
through at all, I don't think you'll get hired. There is also that
stereotype that some prospective employers have of people being
"over-qualified" for a position. (I hate that notion that because I have a
particular degree I'm over-qualified for work I can do, but as someone who
does have input in the hiring process I know I try to get a reading on
whether someone is making a career in Technical Writing or just looking for
a port in the storm.
Finally, if you are just looking for a pay check while waiting for that MLA
connection to come through with a tenure-track position, you might be better
off trying the contracting houses and temporary agencies. They are less
fussy about how long a prospect might stay with them than companies looking
to hire permanent associates are. (No offense meant to contractors.)
Tom Murrell, BA, BA, MA
Senior Technical Writer
Alliance Data Systems, Inc. mailto:tmurrell -at- alldata -dot- net