About Dr. Huiling Ding, Ph.D.: Huiling Ding is the Director of the Master of Science in Technical Communication program at North Carolina State University’s Department of English. As Director, Dr. Ding advises students in their course selections, makes sure they are on track in meeting the requirements for the program, and provides support throughout the completion of their capstone project and practicum requirements. As an Associate Professor within the Department, Dr. Ding conducts research in health communication, digital rhetoric, communication in the workplace, intercultural communication, and social justice, and teaches classes in global technical communication, theory and research in technical communication, the graduate student internship/practicum, and empirical research and writing for publication.
Prior to her role at North Carolina State University, Dr. Ding held numerous professorial positions both nationally and internationally, including as an Assistant Professor for the Department of Professional Communication and Rhetoric at Clemson University, and as a Visiting Assistant Professor for the SIE Summer School Program at China East Normal University in Shanghai.
Dr. Ding earned her Bachelor of Arts in Medical English in 1997 from Medical School of Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, after which she served as an Instructor for the Foreign Language Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai. She subsequently earned her Master of Arts in English in 2002 from Northern Illinois University, where she was also a Graduate Instructor. She received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University in 2007, and served as a Graduate Instructor in the Department of English. Her dissertation examined how the United States, China, and the World Health Organization communicated health risks associated with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); her findings were later published as a book entitled Rhetoric of Global Epidemic: Transcultural Communication about SARS. After earning her MA, Dr. Ding was a Strategic Fellow and a Research Fund Fellow at Purdue University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have an overview of your responsibilities as the Director of the Master of Science in Technical Communication program at North Carolina State University?
[Dr. Ding] As the Director of the Master of Science in Technical Communication, I direct and advise our students in terms of course selection, and make sure they are on track to graduate by meeting the requirements for their chosen specializations. I also advise them in their capstone topics, and work with my advisees to make sure they produce a high quality capstone project. Independent of student support, I manage institutional requirements such as program assessments, recruiting, graduation rates, retention rates, etc.
In addition, I work very closely with our corporate partners. We have a lot of industry partners, including IBM and the Society of Technical Communication, and both of them actually have a stunning mentoring program with us, so we refer our students to those programs. People from both organizations attend our orientations to talk about their programs, and what they have to offer. We also work with local employers, such as RTI International, Red Hat, and so on, to help them find qualified interns and students for core positions. It’s a mutually beneficial connection all around. The companies keep coming back to us. We’ve been here for over 30 years, so they have a lot of our alumni working with them on publications, technical communication, information development, and more. And as those alumni work at these companies more, they also assume leadership or management positions, and want to give back. We have a lot of word of mouth references that help our students as well. Employers will come back to us repeatedly, saying, “We love your students. Send us more!”
[MastersinCommunications.com] How does your program’s curriculum prepare students particularly well for careers in industry? Could you please provide an overview of the structure and content of the curriculum for the Master of Science in Technical Communication program at North Carolina State University?
[Dr. Ding] We require 33 credit hours, which means 11 classes. We have five mandatory core courses, and then students put together their own plan of study focused on any of the areas they are interested in through their choice of six electives. Students work with me to make sure their course selections meet our requirements for depth, breadth, and rigor of study in technical communication. I also ask them, “What’s your plan after graduation?” to make sure they stay focused and on track.
For the required core courses, there are:
- Theory and Research in Professional Writing: This course provides an introduction to theories and research methods in technical communication, and how to design a research study.
- Rhetoric of Science and Technology: How language and science intersect and depend on one another, and how to critically analyze science and technical texts as well as the public’s reception of scientific/technical developments.
- Advanced Technical Writing and Editing: This course teaches students knowledge and skill in designing and developing technical texts for a variety of audiences and purpose with tools commonly used in technical communication, ranging from video tutorials to Adobe InDesign to single sourcing, DITA, and XML.
- Publication Management for Technical Communicators: The process of publication management, project management, and team management for technical documents.
- Projects in Technical Communication: This is the capstone course, in which students explore different media for technical communication, such as instruction manuals, websites, and scientific journals, and use their knowledge to craft a comprehensive project.
In the foundational classes, students learn about the history of the discipline of technical communication, as well as the rhetorical theories that underpin it, and important topics in the field. They also learn research methods such as how to work with users, and how to conduct workplace studies. Students also learn how to work on teams with scientists and engineers, as they will likely have to work on such teams throughout their career.
What we want to make sure our students know is how professionals in technical communication actually argue–how they craft their arguments, how they write, and why they write that way. They also learn how to make technical writing and scientific concepts more accessible to the layman audience or day-to-day users. Students will learn a lot about rhetorical theory, and ways to make writing accessible, interesting, and engaging to different audience groups. Our advanced technical writing and communication classes prepare students to work with a wide range of technologies, ranging from Adobe Suite such as Photoshop and InDesign, to HTML, XML, and the mockup languages that are used extensively by our corporate partners for user documentation or online help.
We train the students in how to use those tools, and how to do video production and editing, because user tutorials are a huge market. Our goal is to prepare students and give them a marketable, versatile set of skills that will appeal greatly to potential employers. Our fourth class about publication project management is meant to help students build leadership skills. Some students’ first job out of the program is with a smaller tech writing division, where they may quickly assume the responsibility of leading a team. So we train our students on the latest project management approaches and techniques, such as Agile and Scrum. Agile is becoming increasingly important, so we want to make sure our students know how to work with engineers, designers, and other divisions. Technical communicators need to be adept at project management, know how to talk about the programs, and negotiate with their team in terms of various deliverables and what they need from which teammates, including content area experts on their team.
So that is why we require students to work with a real-world client to identify a workplace problem for their capstone project. During their work on their project, students receive support from their faculty mentor who guides them in conducting thorough research and coming up with solutions that are effective and feasible. And then, they will present their final deliverables to the entire class and to program faculty. Later, many of our graduates present their solutions to their employers as well. We are often considered a professional terminal degree, because most of our students move on to industry really quickly, before or after graduation. About five to ten percent of our students actually move on to doctoral programs.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have more details about the capstone project and what it entails?
[Dr. Ding] For the capstone project, the timeline usually starts in late October of students’ second year. We ask students to think about their project, to talk with professors and to me, and to identify a problem they want to solve. Most of the time, students have an idea or several ideas of what they want to do. Many of our students have been in intern or professional positions for quite a few semesters, so they know the workplace problems they want to solve. They have already been talking with the managers and telling them, “This is the issue I see in my division. I want to work on this. What do you think?” And they receive permission from their employers to work on their project. For students who don’t have experience in the field and who have not assumed technical writing positions, we also have divisions coming to us, and saying, “I need a content strategy for my website” or “I need a publicity package that includes flyers, booklets, and video.” And students work with their advisor to develop a capstone project idea that addresses these real industry needs.
Throughout the process, students receive a lot of support. Each student will be assigned one faculty advisor and one reader for their work. Once students formulate an idea, they write and submit a research project proposal to all of the MS faculty, and we’ll give them feedback to help them revise along with their individual advisors. The professor teaching the capstone project will also work with them to make sure they stay on track. Students usually have their research proposal officially approved around Christmas time of their second year.
Around this time, students will also have taken their publication management course, which will give them many of the skills necessary to manage their time with their project. Around January and into the spring semester, students will be working on the capstone project, meeting with the capstone instructor every week. And in general, before mid-February, they will typically have their first draft produced. Their advisor will generally have check ins to make sure students have completed certain sections of their paper at a certain time–for example, the introduction, methods, and part of the result. Beginning in March, they have practice sessions to allow students to practice their final presentations, and then we have all presentations around mid-April. And in their capstone course, students meet every week to talk about the projects, so they have a lot of peer-to-peer support. Students talk about their project, work in writing groups, and meet deadlines together.
For students who want to go to doctoral programs, we always encourage them to produce a solid publishable research paper, so that their project is comparable to a thesis in structure and length. But most of our students want to work as technical communicators right after graduation, so the final deliverables for their projects are often items such as tutorial videos for corporate or academic contexts, publicity packages, instructional applications for mobile devices, etc. The range for the projects can be quite broad–for example, one student even created an open source documentation tool using a programming language. Web designs, usability reports, content strategies, research on grant proposal writing, teaching accessibility, and designing accessible documents and websites and technologies are just a few examples of the variety of themes students have explored in their projects.
In terms of the actual content students create for their projects, it varies widely depending on the project. For example, a student creating a publicity package may develop PDF and print documents, infographics and posters, and videos for a hypothetical corporate or non-profit client, accompanied by a reflective research paper that talks about the primary organizational or communication problem or challenge they tried to solve, the types of research and usability principles they incorporated into their final product, their design process, and the challenges they encountered and approaches they took to overcome such challenges.
I should note that once students get to the final presentation stage, they have already received a lot of feedback, support, and multiple levels of approval for their project topic and deliverables. So the actual presentation is more of a celebratory process. We celebrate your success! You survived this, now you have a central piece in your job search portfolio. Let’s share what you’ve done, and let’s see how you have done it, and how our classes helped you to succeed. We do want students to have that kind of theoretical and methodological reflection in their final presentations.
[MastersinCommunications.com] This program also requires a semester of professional work experience in technical communication. Could you elaborate on this requirement?
[Dr. Ding] So far I’ve been directing this program for four years, so I would say about one-third of our students actually are already in the field doing technical communication or work in a related area. For those students, they can get their current job to fulfill their internship requirement. And then, for two-thirds of our students, who are often young, fresh out of college or maybe a couple years out of college, we have the IBM Pathfinder program coming to us and telling our students, “We have this great internship program, and if you are interested, we will assign you a mentor, and you can work, work with your mentor on this project.” IBM always comes back to us for intern positions, and they pick the best students out of our cohort. And in addition to IBM, local employers send us part-time job positions and internship positions that are available to students. We also have a lot of on-campus intern positions–for instance, our Schools of Engineering or Science, or research offices often need someone who can write and who can produce technical writing or scientific writing. And our students are often the top choices for these campus positions.
So, a lot of our students actually come here and take on intern positions in the first semester, so by their second semester or the first summer after their first year, most of our students already have an internship or a part-time job. Even for our international students, they have a lot of support and many opportunities to find internships in the area.
We also have a graduate internship class, which is very helpful in giving students structure and support around their internship experience. It’s usually taught by one of our faculty in the program, and the instructor of that class matches students with potential employers, in terms of skill sets and requirements. Students then have to do the work of emailing those employers to ask them about available positions. This class provides good support for students who do not have an internship in their first semester and want more help locating and applying for such positions. And then, throughout the semester, students will be working with the professor, to make sure they know how to perform in a workplace setting and write different types of content for these settings. They also learn how to develop a stronger job search portfolio.
On the flip side, because one-third of our students actually come in with a full-time job, we do our best to make our curriculum schedules flexible to accommodate working professionals. Our core required classes and the electives are usually offered in late afternoon or in the evening, so we can be accommodating to students who have to work from 9:00 to 5:00 pm. And for our students who come in with no jobs, they can take evening classes, and then start with an entry level technical writing position, working for ten hours per week, and then move up as our scheduling allows them to do so. Many of our students start with a light internship schedule that then builds and can even turn into a full time position over time. We also have some electives offered online for students whose schedules don’t allow them to take late afternoon or evening classes. And we also have a few students who actually telecommunicate, in their last few semesters of study–for example, students moving to California or Colorado or Washington, D.C. These individuals can take their classes via Skype or using other technologies, in their last semester. So that can be done, as well, with us.
I serve as an advisor for students throughout their studies, and then when they get their capstone project, each student typically gets two faculty advisors, what we call first and second readers. They work closely with these professors, similarly to how the professor who teaches our internship course works closely with students to monitor their progress and evaluate their learning outcomes. We conduct regular exit surveys with our students, and I’ve seen a lot of comments saying our faculty are very accessible, students get a lot of support, even though we are a very small program. We have only 4 full-time faculty now, and we have usually about 30 students in the program.
Independent of faculty support, if our students get into the Society of Technical Communication or IBM Pathfinder program, our industry partners will also provide them with mock interview sessions, and CV and resume critique sessions. And they get another round of CV and resume workshops in the internship class. We have a career center in the college and in the university, but I’m not sure how much students use that resource relative to our in-department offerings. I do have students sending me their resumes before important interviews, and I critique the resumes and make suggestions, as well. So, yeah, they have all kinds of support and infrastructure for their internship and job search process.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students who are interested in your program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Ding] There are two types of admissions that students interested in our program should consider. We have very competitive teaching assistantships, and then we have admissions only. I’ll start with the TA applicants. For our TA applicants, we typically give out one TAship for every 4 students, so it’s about a 25 percent chance. And what we are looking for is teaching and/or tutoring experience, as well as proven ability to interact with students well and knowledge of what writing instruction looks like.
The TAs we select usually have higher GPAs and test scores, and our evaluation of their writing samples is more rigorous. They also need very strong recommendation letters that speak to their teaching experience or their ability to teach and tutor. Applicants to the TAships do not necessarily have to have a formal background as an instructor–for example, experience as a tutor in a writing center could qualify an applicant for the position. The TA positions also require a two-year commitment, and it has a minimal requirement of credit hours TAs should have each semester to qualify for the position.
For admission-only students, what we are looking for is–what do you know about the field of technical communication, and what about it interests or excites you? You should have some exposure to the field, and you should also have a solid background in professional writing or communication of some kind–be it journalism, graphic design, or video production. You should know what the field is, what we have to offer, and be able to express your goals for your graduate education experience. Strong, clear, and coherent writing is also a must, of course. Students must submit a writing sample, which can be an academic paper from an undergraduate class, or a piece from a professional project. For example, we’ve had news releases and product manuals submitted to us for writing samples.
We do have students coming to us from various fields, like physics, engineering, statistics, environmental studies, education, history, philosophy, communication and social studies–all kinds of students come to us. And what we look for in those students who did not major in English or in a field directly related to professional writing is an understanding of technical communication, what it is, how it is used, and how it is powerful.
We do require GRE scores, but we pay attention mostly to the verbal and essay scores. International students also need to take the TOEFL. We are a very diverse program, and have students coming from all over the world, including Europe, Africa, and Asia.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes your program unique and a particularly strong option for students?
[Dr. Ding] Our program was established over 30 years ago, and during that time we have built a very strong reputation as a program that trains highly skilled and marketable graduates who have a strong understanding of technical communication’s history, as well as current and future developments in the field. Over time, and due to our excellent faculty support and curriculum, we have an incredibly strong alumni network, with graduates who are eager to give back to the school and to new students. If you look at many technical communication divisions at large companies in the region, you will find that a good number of the employees and managers there will be from our program. So, we have a solid reputation here, a very strong alumni network, and annual conferences and monthly gatherings to build student-alumni connections.
We have a great internship program, and our partnerships with companies means that students get all kinds of support to help them to find an intern position, and to succeed in that intern position. The capstone project is also really important to us, because we do want to make sure students produce a central piece for their job search process. We also have a very close-knit student population, as we are a small program, admitting 15 students per year, on average, and they go through all the courses together, and we have a very active student organization, Technical Communication Association (TCA). TCA provides many leadership opportunities for students–they can be president, vice-president, treasurer, or social media coordinator.
Our job placement is excellent, which has been between 90 to 100 percent. What helps is everything I described above, as well as the fact that most of our students get internships in their first year, so by the time they graduate, they have often moved from intern positions to full-time positions.
Our curriculum is also great in that it allows students to tailor their course of study according to their interests. The core classes provide a solid foundation from which students can decide the direction in which they want to go using our broad selection of electives. Students can also take interdepartmental electives, and we have departments with courses that intersect with technical communication concepts. For instance, if students are interested in user experience, we have a lot of connections in the School of Engineering, where students can take human-computer interaction class and courses on other topics. Our engineering and design departments are real assets to our students here. We’ve had students work on interdepartmental projects with students from the design and engineering departments, including an app for sports and fitness fans.
Something that students might not consider at first is the value of our location. Raleigh, and Cary, and Morrisville, and Durham–all these cities have a high concentration of companies in need of technical communication support. So for students looking for internships, and for those who want to stay in the area, the employment prospects are great here. So many jobs are created here, and you can easily find job ads of technical communication positions on a weekly basis. Our close connection with local employers is also instrumental, and many companies actually send us jobs before they release them publicly on sites such as Indeed. Sometimes hiring managers will reach out to us personally and say, “Hey, do you have someone who’s qualified, who will be a strong candidate?” So a lot of our students get employed that way. It’s the perfect combination of great location for this industry and our strong relationships with the industry in this region.
Thank you, Dr. Ding, for your excellent insight into North Carolina State University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication program!