Study Technical Writing: Bachelors, Associates & Online Degree Info

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What kind of job can you get with an associate's or bachelor's degree in technical writing? Find out technical writing degree program requirements, online options and info on courses.
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Technical Writing Associate's and Bachelor's: Degrees at a Glance

Technical writing is a diverse field that requires professionals to effectively and accurately communicate complex information to diverse, often non-technical, audiences. As a technical writing student, you'll take classes that can teach you how to communicate complex concepts and terminology using everyday language and multimedia technology. However, a technical writing degree may not fully prepare you for a technical writing career because professional experience in a technical field may also be required.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that job growth for technical writers would increase 17% between 2010 and 2020, which is about as fast as the national average. The highest level of employment for technical writers was in the computer systems design field, where, as of May 2011, the BLS reported an average annual salary of about $70,000, slightly higher than the industry average.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals seeking to become technical writers or who want to transfer their credits to a 4-year college and earn their bachelor's degree Individuals who want a career in technical writing
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual median salary) - Technical Writer ($65,000 - could require previous experience in a technical field) *
- Writer ($56,000 - freelance or salaried)*
Same as for associate's degree, plus:
- Graphic designer ($44,000)*
- Public relations specialist ($53,000 - may require one month to one year of on-the-job training)*
- Editor ($52,000 - might require previous experience as a writer or reporter)*
- Computer support specialist ($48,000 - usually requires 1-3 months of on-the-job training)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 25-26 undergraduate courses, including general studies and technical communications classes
- Writing portfolio
- Approximately 12-15 general studies courses
- Roughly 15-18 major courses
- Around 10-20 elective courses
- Internship and/or senior project or capstone project
Prerequisites - Minimum age requirement
- Proficiency in required basic skills, testing administered by college
- Minimum required ACT or SAT scores (only required by some schools)
- High school diploma, General Educational Development (GED) certificate or post secondary education with minimum required grade point average (GPA)
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate's Degree in Technical Writing

Technical writers are sometimes referred to as technical communicators, and programs that emphasize technical writing may award a degree in technical communications. These associate's degree programs can prepare you to design and write user manuals, technical manuals, Web pages, information brochures and instructional documents for business, government agencies or private organizations.

With this degree, you can enroll in a 4-year degree program or find a job as a technical writer. However, it's important to realize that, according to the BLS, most technical writers hold 4-year degrees, and you could compete with bachelor's degree holders for the same positions.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Many 2-year colleges have an open admissions policy, and when you graduate you can transfer your credits to a 4-year college or university and obtain a bachelor's degree in technical writing or other area of communication
  • Effective communication skills are relevant in a wide variety of career fields
  • You can learn the basic skills that could get you an entry-level position with only two years of college

Cons

  • Most employers are looking for applicants with a bachelor's degree, making the competition for technical writing jobs more difficult for applicants with associate's degrees*
  • The associate's degree programs cannot offer the full range of courses that the bachelor's degree programs offer; therefore your job opportunities may not be as diverse as those available to bachelor's degree candidates
  • The technologies that require technical writing are becoming more complex and sophisticated, which means an associate's degree may not provide sufficient training to meet those demands*

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Some schools design their courses so that your assignments will result in meaningful contributions to your portfolio, and some schools require you to develop a portfolio as a graduation requirement. You will also be required to take general studies courses in areas such as math, science and history. Your classes will have a strong focus on communication, design and production of user manuals, technical manuals and reports, as well as the accurate translation of specialized information. Courses offered may include:

  • Communications
  • Desktop publishing software, computer applications
  • Designing and publishing documents
  • Writing, editing, technical writing

Online Course Info

These degree programs are available fully or partially online. You could take some classes on campus and others online or you could take classes entirely online. You will be taking the same courses as students who attend classes on campus, and you will have the same graduation requirements. It's important to verify that the particular online program you are considering is accredited. If you're considering a program offered by an out-of-state college, you'll also want to verify residency requirements.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

You will want to consider what industry you will be writing for and find a school that offers courses geared toward that industry. You can also choose your own track and take courses designed to prepare you for your chosen area of expertise. For example, if you are planning on writing technical and user manuals for end-users of business software, you may want to consider taking accounting, inventory or other relevant courses to insure you understand what the end-user knows and needs. This foundation will improve your technical writing skills and make you more competitive in your chosen field.

Bachelor's Degree in Technical Writing

A bachelor's degree in technical writing or technical communication can offer more extensive preparation than an associate's degree program. You may learn the tools of the trade to design and create your document or presentation using multimedia, desktop publishing and images. Your writing and editing skills could be enhanced, as could your oral presentation skills. Coursework may also cover a selected area of study, whether it is medicine, technology, science or manufacturing. You may also work individually and in a collaborative setting to build teamwork skills.

The ability to translate complex information into a format that a wide audience can understand is in demand by many businesses. However, some employers could require that you possess experience in a technical field, in addition to a bachelor's degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Your bachelor's degree will likely give you an advantage over job applicants with an associate's degree*
  • Many companies, government agencies and organizations are utilizing technical writers covering a wide array of mediums and needs, providing many different job opportunities for technical writers
  • Technical communications programs often teach students to convey technical information in a variety of diverse formats beyond writing, such as through multimedia presentations, Web designs and graphic imagery

Cons

  • Technical writers employed by larger companies may spend time observing experienced technical writers before they have the opportunity to write*
  • You will be competing for technical writing jobs against applicants with both a bachelor's degree and experience in a technical field
  • Technical writing jobs are often concentrated in limited locations where the relevant technology-based firms or government offices are located, such as Texas and California*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Schools may require a senior project or capstone project as a graduation requirement, in addition to the required coursework. While enrolled, you'll complete the school's general studies courses, but many classes will focus on the particular track that the school's program features. For example, schools could offer courses such as medical writing, biotech industry writing or media writing, depending on the program in which you enroll. You'll also take courses in your major area, which could include:

  • Computer programming and technology
  • Desktop publishing software, computer applications
  • Writing and designing for the Web
  • Designing and publishing documents
  • Writing, editing, technical writing

Online Course Info

Fully online bachelor degree programs in technical writing are available. There are also programs that are partially available online and hybrid courses, which require some classroom time and some online time. The online programs generally offer the same curriculum and have the same graduation requirements as classroom-based programs.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Many degree programs provide an opportunity for internships, where you would work as a technical writer for a local company, gaining valuable on-the-job experience. Employers prefer applicants who have some experience in addition to their degree, and an internship can serve that purpose.

You will probably also have to complete a major project as part of the degree requirements. This project can become part of your portfolio, which you can show to prospective employers. This is an important opportunity to stand out and showcase your skills as a technical writer.

How Continuing Education Can Help You Stand Out

As a technical writer, it's important to keep up with the latest advances in communication technology, as well as the latest advances in your chosen field of technical writing. Colleges often offer continuing education courses that can help a professional stay current in the disciplines that relate to their profession. Many companies also offer specialized training in their products, including the technology that you will use to develop and produce your presentations and documents. Whether it is software or the hardware, the more skilled you are at using the technology, the more efficient you will likely be at producing relevant materials.

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Full Sail University

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