Study Professional Writing: Masters Degree, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a professional writing program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and Ph.D. degrees and potential careers.
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Professional Writing: Master's and Ph.D. Degrees at a Glance

Graduate programs in professional writing typically blend coursework in the mechanics of writing with elements of corporate, industry and public information delivery through traditional print, online and social media. The focus of these degree programs is generally on workplace writing like grants, reports, articles, policy statements, manuals and related materials. A master's degree provides technical writing skills as well as the opportunity for hands-on work; the doctoral program has this same emphasis but may also prepare students for postsecondary teaching jobs. You may also find that these degree programs have a strong project-oriented emphasis. Some people might think that earning a graduate degree in professional writing can help you break into a writing-related career in public relations, advertising, healthcare or advocacy, but employers frequently prefer candidates with experience.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Those who want to advance their writing career by enhancing their writing and related skills People who want to teach at the collegiate level or seek career advancement
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Technical writer ($65,000)*
- Public relations specialist ($53,000)*
- Advertising copywriter ($44,000)**
- May qualify for same jobs as master's degree graduates
- Post-secondary teacher ($64,000)*
Time to Completion Typically 2-3 years, full-time Typically 5-6 years, full-time (3-4 years beyond the master's)
Common Graduation Requirements - Completion of 10 or more courses (roughly 40 credits)
- Qualifying exams
- Portfolio
- Internship
- Master's thesis (optional)
- Completion of course requirements (60+ credits)
- Qualifying exams
- Research, write, and present dissertation
- Complete student teaching requirement, if applicable
Prerequisites - Typically at least a bachelor's degree in a related or other field
- Writing samples
- Letter of intent or essay
- Meet minimum GPA and GRE requirements
- Letters of recommendation
All of the master's requirements plus
- Professional experience/portfolio submission, if applicable
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **PayScale.com (June 2012 figures).

Master's in Professional Writing

Students seeking a post-baccalaureate education in professional writing may enroll in a Master of Arts or Master of Science degree program, often offered by a college or university English Department. You may also find degrees offered as Master of English with a professional writing concentration or Master of Professional Writing degree. Programs are generally intended for working students and full-time or part-time enrollment may be possible. Flexible curriculums allow you to specialize in an area of professional writing that best matches your career goals. Studies generally study print and new media, information architecture, editing and publishing, writing for the public and private sector, web design and project management.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Many employers are not looking for professional writers with master's degrees - they are looking for excellent writers. Continuing your education can hone your writing skills and build your portfolio.
  • Though bachelor's degrees are still the baseline degree in this field, a master's degree can help you stand out among other applicants.
  • Programs generally include an internship that could provide you with the necessary experience to land a job or advance your career.

Cons

  • An advanced degree isn't required for employment in the field; if you feel that your skills need a tune-up, you can take less costly continuing education courses online or at a local community college or university.
  • Experience is very important to employers, and it can be difficult to land your first relevant job, even with an advanced degree, if you don't have enough relevant experience.
  • Career fields for professional writers are expected to show uneven employment growth from 2010-2020 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; for example, public relations managers and specialists may see above average growth while general writers may see slower than average growth and technical writers' predicted job growth falls in between.

*U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

Common Courses and Requirements

In addition to core classes in writing skill and technique, master's degree programs in professional writing incorporate real-world skills such as organizational communications, measuring audience response or content layout and design. These degrees are typically intended for working professionals, and students can generally pursue a track that best meets their career goals, such as technical writing, freelance writing, scientific writing or corporate communications. Graduation requirements may vary, but frequently include at least a portfolio review, qualifying exams or a master's thesis, and sometimes a combination of the three; your program may offer a thesis and non-thesis option. You might also have to fulfill a foreign language requirement, but this isn't universal.

Common courses include:

  • Rhetorical grammar
  • Theoretical exposition
  • Prose style
  • Fundamentals of editing
  • Principles of communication design
  • Project management
  • Organizational communications

You may choose to pursue a particular career track, like biomedical writing, creative writing, teaching writing, technical writing or another area of specialization.

Online Degree Options

It is possible to earn a master's degree in the field online. Schools typically have an online course delivery system that they use. In many cases, there is no residency requirement. Graduation requirements are similar regardless of location.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Carefully planning your course of study can allow you to tailor your classes and internship arrangement to suit your career goals. Many programs offer technology classes, such as those in online or social media; some programs even offer a web-oriented track. Electives that can give you broad, well-rounded skills that an employer may value in addition to writing, such as project management, production layout and design, social media writing or grant writing.

Doctorate in Professional Writing

Ph.D. programs in professional writing are usually offered as a Ph.D. in English degree with a specialization like professional writing or rhetoric and professional writing. A doctoral program typically explores similar concepts as the master's degree program but at more sophisticated theoretical and practical level. Many emphasize pedagogy and research and culminate with a dissertation; some take more of a project-oriented approach and require a capstone experience. Students frequently seek to attain skills that prepare them for career advancement, although the degree typically isn't required, or for post-secondary teaching jobs. Students interested in teaching at the college or university level may find securing a graduate assistantship useful career preparation.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A doctoral degree is commonly an entry-level education requirement for post-secondary teaching jobs.
  • Ph.D. programs are designed to be small; this enables students to work closely with their peers and professors and learn from the experience of others.
  • Programs typically require project-oriented work intended to improve students' employability.

Cons

  • For students seeking to become college or university instructors, job security is typically only available through tenured positions, which are highly coveted and very competitive.
  • If you plan to pursue a particular specialty as a writer, for example medical or technical writing, you may find that employers prefer years of experience to a highly advanced degree.
  • You may be overqualified for careers other than post-secondary teaching that might not require Ph.D.-level studies.

Common Courses and Requirements:

Projects and internships are frequently required, as are qualifying exams partway through the program and an oral defense of your dissertation. Course selections can often overlap with those made for master's degree students, although classes cannot typically be repeated for both degree levels. Ph.D. students typically have a limited number of required classes, such as:

  • Theory of communication
  • Linguistics
  • History of rhetoric

The remainder of the course load is fulfilled by classes in research methods and pedagogy, plus electives intended to meet student interests. Some credits are also typically reserved for doctoral dissertation research and writing.

Online Degree Options

Currently, online Ph.D. programs for professional writing are not widely available. Be advised that online programs may not be accredited. Traditionally on-campus programs may offer limited online courses.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Depending on your career goals, you may want to use the opportunity to take electives that include computer-related classes that can provide you with real-world employment skills. Some programs offer specialized labs with the same kind of software used in the workplace.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. American University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Strategic Communication
      • Master of Arts in Strategic Communication - Advocacy and Social Impact Concentration
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Johns Hopkins University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Science Writing
      • Master of Arts in Communication
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Queens University of Charlotte

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Communication - General
      • Master of Arts in Communication - Integrated Digital Strategy Concentration
      • Master of Arts in Communication - Undecided
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Purdue University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Communication
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MA in English and Creative Writing - Fiction
      • MA in English and Creative Writing
      • MA in English
      • MA in English and Creative Writing - Nonfiction
      • MA in English and Creative Writing - Poetry
      • MA in Communication
  • Campus and Online Programs
    6. Full Sail University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Fine Arts - Creative Writing
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MEd - Reading Education
  • Towson, MD

    Towson University

  • Online Programs Available
    9. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • M.A. in Communication with an Emphasis in Education

Featured Schools

American University

  • Master of Arts in Strategic Communication
  • Master of Arts in Strategic Communication - Advocacy and Social Impact Concentration

What is your highest level of education?

Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Arts in Science Writing
  • Master of Arts in Communication

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Queens University of Charlotte

  • Master of Arts in Communication - General
  • Master of Arts in Communication - Integrated Digital Strategy Concentration
  • Master of Arts in Communication - Undecided

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Purdue University

  • Master of Science in Communication

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Southern New Hampshire University

  • MA in English and Creative Writing - Fiction
  • MA in English and Creative Writing
  • MA in English

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Full Sail University

  • Master of Fine Arts - Creative Writing

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Northcentral University

  • MEd - Reading Education

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