I'm desperately trying to get out of my dead end Federal job. I have a BA in English and a love of a lot of different topics, including several science fields. I would have Majored in science if I could have. But i have low vision and never could pass labs. I'm also very tech savvy. I got really excited recently when I realised that the university that I practically live on had a graduate degree for what they call 'science writing'. It sounds right down my alley, but I don't know if it's worth doing if my Bachelors degree was in English as opposed to a science or IT background. I've done a lot of on the fly computer how-to writing for co-workers and family who can't tell a mouse from a CD, but I have no paid working experience doing them. Is there a point in trying to get into this field without an obvious paper trail of a technical background? And would doing a master's degree program be rhetorical with a BA in English already?

In my experience, those who are employing Technical Writers require their writers to have the following:

  • A command of the English language.
  • Knowledge of writing style, technique and style guides.
  • Ability to express complex ideas in a simple fashion.
  • Knowledge of the subject matter or field being written about, or a demonstrated ability to learn in a similar field.
  • Experience with the type of documentation being produced. Writers can be asked to write on a broad range of things including project plans, user guides, safety plans, bids and proposals, marketing copy, you name it. In the case of user documentation, an ability to put yourself into the shoes of the consumer (or, being a user advocate) is essential.
  • Ability to draw basic diagrams and knowledge of when a diagram is required.
  • Knowledge of products, tools, and standards used by Technical Writers (or at least by the employer you are targeting), be it Microsoft Office (Word), HTML, DITA, Markdown, TeX, PDFs, the list goes on...
  • Interpersonal skills. You need to be able to interview and absorb information from subject matter experts.
  • Research skills. Sometimes the subject matter experts are unavailable (or uncooperative)!
  • Last, but not least, a passion for all of the above.

Degrees tick a lot of these boxes and provide general recognition of your skill in a particular area. They demonstrate you are interested, committed, and knowledgeable. The more technical the role, the more you will have to demonstrate expertise in that area.

There are several ways that writers can demonstrate their abilities outside of a degree and build up a portfolio:

  • Start a blog, or write content for someone elses
  • Answer questions on Q&A forums (such as this one)
  • Contribute to open source projects (on GitHub for example)

I'm also of the belief that technical writers must produce the sharpest resume or CV possible to a potential employer. Your resume is the first piece of writing they might see from you, so it needs to be the best.

Do some volunteer work for non profits that need technical writing, then list that work on your resume. It won't take much to get someone interested in you. Then take a contract doing documentation. Companies who create in-house software are notoriously deficient when it comes to technical documentation, and they know it. Anyone who wants to do that job is welcome, with virtually no experience. After a year contracting, launch your career with earnest. That is, unless you've gotten used to the golden handcuffs by then...

Also, check the StackOverflow career site.

Almost every technical writer I've ever worked with has an undergraduate degree in English or Literature or something related to writing, and no Masters degree.

So you don't have to have a technical or science degree, or even a Technical Communications degree to get into tech writing. And you definitely don't have to have a Masters of any kind.

The Masters you're looking at would probably help you get a job interview, and would likely give another candidate a leg up over you when it comes to who to bring in for an interview, but given the enormous cost, you might be better off turning all the experience you have (even unpaid) into a bullet point or two on your resume. You could also accept a short or part-time contract job or two just for the experience (again, to add to your resume). Look at flexjobs.com for starters.

Hiring managers care more about what you have done and what you can do for them than they do about the title of your degree. And you're already covered with your degree anyway, as most tech writing job postings list for degree requirements something along the lines of "degree in English, Writing, Journalism, Literature, Communications, or related field required."

So, to sum up: based on my own background and the backgrounds of almost every tech writer I've worked with, and based on the cost of an additional degree that you don't have to have, I'd advise against getting that Masters. To get in the door, though, you might need to beef up your resume with past experience (even unpaid) or with current experience, even temporary contract work.

Why not test the hypothesis, starting with the negative test?

You are unhappy in your current career. You have some background but nothing official. A BA in English might or might not be a meaningful credential (in my experience it depends on the school and the program's focus -- literature is probably a "no" but actual writing is more significant). So what happens if you apply for entry-level technical-writing positions now? Unless you're facing a deadline on deciding about the master's (it doesn't sound like you are), you have time to try finding a position without it. So why not do that first, before you spend money and commit to a year or two of study?

In order to find a position you will need to organize some of your past work and maybe even do some new work (contract, open-source, personal projects that you actually finish and publish). Prospective employers are going to want to see writing samples. So, I suspect, will the admissions committee for that master's program. So either way you need to move from "I can write" to "I can demonstrate that I can write", so you may as well get started on that. Once you've made a start there you can try to answer the question "can I get a tech-writing job with my current background?". If you can, then you'll need to decide if the master's degree would help you get better jobs; if you can't get a job now, that suggests considering the degree program more seriously.

If you can't get jobs with your current skills that doesn't automatically mean that the degree will help, of course; you don't have enough evidence to support that theory yet. When investigating the master's program be sure to ask not just about coursework but about their success rate -- how have their past students done? Don't let them cherry-pick -- "so-and-so successful tech writer is one of our graduates". You want all the data you can get -- how many students from each recent year got suitable positions within what period of time.

Some employers care more about the degree than others, but all of them care about whether you can understand the technical domain that they're in and whether you can write clearly. If you can demonstrate the skills, then at least for many employers the degree won't matter all that much. On the other hand, a master's program might help you gain skills that strengthen your position, so you need a clear understanding of what they offer and what you need.

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    There's also the possibility that you will get hired at a place that pays for school, so if you wanted to go for the degree after you get hired, the costs could be covered. – Terri Simon Aug 3 '16 at 16:25

The important thing is that you have the curiosity and aptitude for technical fields. Your English degree should help sell your ability to communicate effectively.

I have a Bachelors in English (writing emphasis) and currently work as a technical writer. The advice in other answers is similar to what I've suggested to people when they want to shift careers to technical writing. Examine what you are currently doing and see if there are job duties or projects where you had to write content. Highlight them in your resume.

Have you looked at the Society for Technical Communication? They recently started offering a certificate program in technical writing.

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