About Pam Estes Brewer, Ph.D.: Pam Estes Brewer is the Graduate Program Director for the Master of Science in Technical Communication Management offered by Mercer University’s School of Engineering. As Director, she serves as the primary advisor to students in the program, oversees curriculum development, teaches classes in the program, and coordinates the course schedule. As an Associate Professor, Dr. Brewer teaches classes in international tech communication, user experience, and research and rhetoric. Her research focuses on the virtual communication of international teams, and she authored a book on this subject in 2015 entitled International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success. She is currently a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication and is a member of the review boards for several academic journals. She received her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University in 2008.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Brewer] The Master of Science in Technical Communication Management is unique for its focus on management applications of technical communication. Our goal is to prepare students to assume leadership roles in the field of technical communication, and therefore it is ideal for individuals who want to move from executing strategies to developing and overseeing technical communication strategies, initiatives, and projects. It also prepares students to manage teams working on technical communication projects.
Students learn the history and core theory of advanced technical communication, and how to use various types of multimedia and visual communication methods to represent complex information in accessible ways. They also learn advanced team management, project management, and technical publication management skills. Students take seven or eight core classes, one or two electives, and a final capstone course. The core classes are Usability, Advanced Technical Communication, Managing Multimedia, Managing People and Projects, History and Theory of Technical Communication, International Technical Communication, Visual Communication, and Instructional Design. Students can take these classes in any order they wish. For their electives, students can either take classes in the School of Engineering or even outside of the School if they want to take classes that will complement their studies in technical communication management. For example, if they wanted to add depth in instructional design, they could take a course that might complement that from a different department, such as psychology.
As an alternative to our master’s program, which is 30 credit hours, students can choose to pursue a certificate, which is only five courses. This credential is often particularly appealing to international students, or to students who need a credential faster. Students in the certificate program can also move up into the MS program if they wish to, but students in the MS program cannot move “down” to the certificate.
We are a fully online program, but we are very different from some other programs in this field in that our program is synchronous, and therefore highly interactive and hands-on. Students meet with their instructors and classmates via live video chat every week in the evenings. The synchronous element is very important to us, because it enables students to discuss course concepts in real time, to share their thoughts, and to develop a sense of community and collaboration. We’ve heard from many of our students that this dynamic is very important to them. The meeting time once per week is 8 to 9:30 pm US Eastern time, but all of our students make it work, including our students in China, India, and all zones of the US.
The nature of our program is highly applied, and we actively encourage and support our students in completing projects that are directly applicable to their current role. Almost every student in our program is a working professional, and it is advantageous for them to make their program coursework and assignments as relevant to their current work as possible, as it enables them to return value to their organizations immediately.
[MastersinCommunications.com] While many master’s programs in technical communication are housed in university English departments, the Master of Science in Technical Communication Management is offered through Mercer University’s School of Engineering. Could you elaborate on how being housed in the School of Engineering has impacted the course content of the program, and also how it offers students unique advantages?
[Dr. Brewer] Interestingly enough, technical communication as a field has its roots in engineering. It had its infancy right after World War I and II, in fact, as that was a period of much technological advancement. So, housing technical communication in engineering is kind of a natural fit, more so than placing it within departments of English, I’ve found, and I’ve actually taught in those departments as well.
The fact that our program is within the School of Engineering means that our coursework is really attuned to technological advancement, and I believe that contributes a great deal to the learning outcomes our students receive.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management is offered fully online. Could you elaborate on the online learning technologies that Mercer University uses to facilitate students’ interactions with peers and faculty?
[Dr. Brewer] Currently, we use WebEx from Cisco, but we will soon be making the move as a university to Zoom. In all of our classes, there is a lecture component, but we really prioritize student discussion and interactive learning activities that solidify understanding. Our students are practicing professionals who bring a lot to their peers. The web conferencing technology allows instructors to share their screens with students, and for peer-to-peer screen sharing; we require students to have audio and video on so that they are fully present. While this is a time commitment, we feel it makes a huge difference as it enables students to build trust and a sense of community, which enhances the transfer of knowledge.
We try to use all of the tools within our web conferencing technology–the audio, the video, the whiteboard, the desktop sharing, and the breakout rooms. We do all of that in order to reach our objectives. Outside of classes, our professors are readily available by email, phone, and at times even video chat. For example, I teach an intensive research course during the summer, and I give students my cellphone number for when they need to get in touch with me. Our faculty are highly responsive, and that is something that is very special about our program—we are very present for our students.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management must complete a capstone research project, typically culminating in a publishable article, a professional conference presentation, and/or a change report for their organization. Could you elaborate on this project, and what it entails?
[Dr. Brewer] Students complete the capstone research project through the course TCO-685, which is the Project Research course that I currently teach. In this course, students collaborate on projects or develop an independent project that they have determined will move their organization forward in a meaningful way. Students have a lot of flexibility in terms of the types of projects they complete and the methods they employ. This flexibility is particularly advantageous for the majority of our students who work full-time while enrolled in our program, as they can apply the insights they learn directly to their current job.
For example, one of my students is working on establishing KPIs, or key performance indicators, for her company. And to do so she is using a mixture of surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Another student works for a company that has been acquiring several other companies, and expanding very quickly, which has resulted in a lot of siloing of communication. He is very concerned about how communication is coming into his user education department, and he decided to develop a project that was focused on how information was flowing in and out of his department and whether or not it was effective.
Depending on the professor leading the capstone course and the size of the class, students’ final projects may be individual or collaborative. This summer I’ve got a small class and that has enabled me to allow each student to choose an individual project. Students do collaborative projects in many classes, and the virtual workplace is so rich with choice of tools that connecting across different time zones isn’t a problem. Our students collaborate all over the world. Their projects are directly applicable to their jobs and lead to better work outcomes for them immediately. This experience ends up being more meaningful for the students.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?
[Dr. Brewer] Our online students have access to the same offices as a campus student would at Mercer University. They have access to career services and advising, tutoring, the library, and professors’ office hours. As the MSTCM Director, I serve as all students’ primary advisor in that I help them navigate the program’s systems, their course selections, and any other challenges they encounter. And as a team of faculty more broadly, we are very collaborative and stay closely in touch with regards to how classes are going, how students are doing, and what their needs might be. For example, with our electives we try to look at what student interest is at any given time because our expertise as faculty is pretty wide and varied. We try to offer electives that will be meaningful to the students. We also try to bring subject matter experts into the classroom when possible. And because we are so collaborative and responsive, students rarely feel the need to “seek out” mentorship because we bring it to them.
I think one of the biggest potential problems with online education is the fact that students can feel like they are a part of nothing. They send questions or responses out into the ether and are not sure when they will hear back from professors or classmates. That is something we actively resist here at Mercer University. Excellence in online programming means having true presence—of faculty and students both. That sense of community is extremely important.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Brewer] Our program is very much a program for working professionals. We require applicants to have several years of work experience, and we have a 3.0 GPA minimum requirement. We do not require the GRE as we’ve found that it is not indicative of success. We place a lot of weight on the statement of purpose and letters of reference. We want to see that students have done their research and have specific reasons for wanting to be in our program because that specificity of intent, we have found, drives success. In the letter of intent, applicants should consider such questions as, “What are my key drivers and how does this program enable me to achieve what I want to do? How does this program’s course content and learning opportunities match my goals?”
The letter of intent is also our gauge of their writing abilities. They need to be reasonably good at the written language, and their letter of intent is demonstrative of their communication abilities.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Brewer] The first thing that I would note is that our faculty are exceptional and all of us have workplace experience in addition to teaching experience, which allows us to bridge the gap between those two areas very well. The fact that there is no one on our faculty who does not have workplace experience in the technical industry also means that they have professional connections that students can leverage during the program and after they graduate, and that is a definite strength. Our synchronous element that makes students part of a real community is another great strength of our program. The fact that we are 100 percent online, so students don’t have to visit campus but still feel like they’re a part of Mercer University, is, in my opinion, pretty fabulous.
The third thing I would note is that we have designed our curriculum so that students return value to their workplace immediately. In many cases, students’ workplaces are fully or partially funding their degree work, so that direct application piece is very important.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Mercer University’s School of Engineering also offers a Bachelor of Science in Technical Communication. Could you please elaborate on how the curriculum for the BS program differs from that of the MS in Technical Communication Management?
[Dr. Brewer] At Mercer University, we view the BS degree as a practitioner’s degree, the MS degree as a management degree, and the PhD as a research degree, and this informs our development of our curriculum. For our BS degree, students focus on concrete skills in a particular area. They can concentrate in instructional design, usability, multimedia, or traditional writing/editing. Our master’s program, on the other hand, focuses on management and the principles, theories, and skills associated with overseeing technical communication projects—it is broader than the BS degree, and prepares students for leadership within their area of specialization in technical communication.
Thank you, Dr. Brewer, for your excellent insight into Mercer University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program!