Technical communication is defined as any form of communication that is about technical or specialized subjects, utilizes technology in its creation or dissemination, and/or provides instructions on how to complete a task or operate equipment, software, or other systems. Examples of technical communication include software instructions, training materials for employees, product guides, medical instructions and medication information, scientific writing for scholarly journals, and informational articles for the public on topics in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Technical communication is an essential element of both consumers’ lives and the success of companies and organizations. It is what enables consumers to use the products they purchase, which in turn ensures that companies meet the needs of their customers. Furthermore, employees who need to learn new systems within a company rely on cogent technical communication to navigate these systems and be effective at their job. The research and medical communities also rely on technical communication, while the greater public relies on strong technical communicators to explain important STEM topics to them in articles and other informational content.
Master’s degree programs in technical communication train students to engage with a wide variety of technical communications, from science and medical writing to technical instructions for different types of technologies. Students of these programs also learn about how technical concepts and forms of communication are important in different environments, including corporate settings, science and medicine, the social sciences, and government.
Curriculum Details for Master’s in Communication Programs with a Specialization in Technical Communication
The curricula of master’s in communication programs are usually structured such that students complete a sequence of core classes before progressing to classes specific to their technical communication concentration. Core classes for master’s in technical communication programs typically cover topics such as technical and scientific rhetoric, professional writing and research, and technical editing. After completing their core curriculum, students progress to classes that allow them to specialize further within the field of technical communication, such as courses in web development and design, grant and proposal writing, scientific reports, data visualization, content management, instructional design, and user data collection and analysis.
Examples of classes that may comprise the core curriculum of master’s in technical communication programs include but are not limited to:
- Theories and Principles of Professional Writing: The different types of professional writing for different contexts (for example, proposals, white papers, press releases, technical documentation, etc.), and how principles of rhetoric govern these communications. The process of professional writing, from defining one’s target audience to researching the topic in question and translating complex concepts into understandable and actionable content. The structure, tone, and style of technical and professional writing are discussed and applied to different projects.
- Foundations of Science and Technical Communication: The skills necessary to write technical and scientific content for publications such as medical journal articles, technical instructions, and journalistic articles on STEM subjects. How to create scientific and technical content for different audiences ranging from subject matter experts and researchers to the general public.
- Managing Technical Communications and Publications: How to manage teams in the production, editing, design/layout and publication of technical content. How to understand the needs of an organization or the public, and write and disseminate educational content according to those needs.
- Organizational Communication: The different forms of communication that are necessary for the successful operation of a large organization such as a corporation, a government body, or a non-profit association. How information flows between different departments within an organization, and how to optimize these communications as well as communications between an organization and various stakeholders (e.g. consumers and members of the general public, investors, other businesses, etc.).
- Rhetoric and Composition for Technical Communication: Classic and contemporary theories of rhetoric and composition, and how they inform technical and professional writing. How to apply principles and strategies of narrative writing to technical communication, including how to find the “story” within different forms of technical and professional content.
In addition to the core courses, some programs allow students flexibility in their selection of electives, so that they can receive the training they need in the areas of technical communication that most interest them. Common electives for master’s in technical communication programs may include but are not limited to:
- Design and Development of Instructional Material: The principles of developing effective instructional materials across a variety of fields and for a range of audiences. How to identify the needs of target audiences, and how to address these needs through structured educational content. How to engage and maintain readers’ interest in educational content.
- Content Management for Corporations: How an organization designs, creates, distributes, and manages content through technologies such as content management systems and internal wikis. How to structure training materials, information systems, and other communications for an organization to ensure efficiency and productivity.
- Proposal Writing: The process of writing proposals for grants and projects in technical fields, and the steps to submitting a proposal for review and approval. The required structure, content, and tone of different types of proposals, how to incorporate feedback from a committee into the final proposal, and how to address questions of different parties involved in the proposal process.
- Health Communication: The fundamentals of writing, editing, designing, and publishing medical and health-related documents for patients, health care providers, and the general public. How to write engaging, relevant, and/or actionable content for health education materials, health campaigns, grant proposals, and medical documentation. Students learn to apply the concepts they learn in class to real community health projects and issues in their area.
- Communication for the Government: How to write compelling, relevant, and persuasive government documentation, campaign and advocacy materials, public policy content, responses to public comments and queries, and community education materials. The process of translating complex legislative and social issues into prose that is accessible to a broad audience.
- Information Design for the Web: How to tailor both written, visual, and video content for web browsers and for web audiences. How to create content that is accessible to a broad Internet readership, ranks well in online search engines, and is relevant to reader queries and interests.
- Software Documentation: The process of creating software and other computer-related documentation for non-expert consumers of technology. How to research, plan, write, and edit documentation for audiences ranging from employees at a corporation using internal software to members of the public.
- Visual Rhetoric and Data Representation: How to incorporate visuals into content to enhance readers’ comprehension of complex topics. Tables, pictures, icons, charts, infographics, videos, and other multimedia content forms are discussed in the context of creating informational and engaging content for audiences.
Below is a sample curriculum plan for a student pursuing a 2-year course of study. Please note that specific course titles and content, as well as course sequencing, may vary across different programs.
24-month Sample Curriculum for a Master’s in Technical Communication Program
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Note: While the majority of programs in other fields of communication are typically offered through Schools or Departments of Communication, Mass Communication, and/or Journalism, master’s in technical communication programs are sometimes offered by Departments of English and Schools of Writing/Writing Studies. Some colleges even have dedicated Departments of Technical Communication that are separate from their other departments in areas of communication. In this way, technical communication programs are often considered separate and distinct from other master’s programs in communication. Students researching master’s in communication programs who are interested in technical communication programs may also need to check the English departments of their schools of interest to see if they offer master’s in technical communication programs, as these programs may not be featured on these schools’ communication department websites.
Potential Careers for Master’s in Technical Communication Graduates
Graduates of master’s in technical communication programs can work in a wide variety of roles that require them to translate technical or complex information into instructional or educational content. Communication professionals who complete their master’s in technical communication may work as technical writers and documentation specialists, medical writers, marketing writers, project specialists, training consultants, user experience specialists, journalists specializing in STEM fields, researchers, and instructors. They can also work as project managers, human resources professionals, and other roles that require translating technical concepts into understandable and actionable prose for various audiences. Below are descriptions of several of the careers that graduates of master’s programs in technical communication may enter:
- Technical Writers and Documentation Specialists: Technical writers and documentation specialists create instructional and educational content for both consumers and employees of companies. They create and publish software instruction manuals, internal wiki pages and terminology glossaries for companies, equipment operation instructions, and articles in technology and science-related journals. They also write documentation for companies that need to record their development of software, software updates, and/or other technological innovations.
- Medical Writers: Medical writers specialize in creating documentation and instructional materials about health-related topics, medications, and medical procedures. They may write articles, medical journal abstracts, press releases for medical centers, and patient education materials (such as medication or pre-surgery instructions). The content they create aims to help health care providers better serve their patients, to keep the medical community informed of the latest technological and scientific advancements in their field, and to educate the public about developments in health and medicine.
- Training Consultants: Training consultants specialize in creating training materials and other educational content for employees of companies. They write the materials to assist employees in the onboarding process, and with getting familiar with companies’ internal systems and procedures. These specialists may create the content for training presentations and pamphlets, instructions for how to use an internal content management system, and surveys that measure the efficacy of a company’s training program.
- Science and Technology Journalists: Science and technology journalists specialize in translating complex technical and medical concepts into content that the general public can understand and act upon. They write articles on such topics as new health and scientific studies, medical issues such as environmental factors that impact community health, and the latest developments in technologies across industries, from software to computer hardware to virtual reality.
- Researchers: Graduates of master’s in technical communication programs can also apply their communication skills and knowledge of technical concepts to research in a variety of fields, including medicine, technology, the natural sciences, and sociology. Researchers design and implement research studies, document their findings, and translate their results into various publications, including scientific journal articles and articles for the wider public.
Campus and Online Master’s in Technical Communication Programs
Relative to other master’s in communication programs in other specializations, Master’s in Technical Communication programs have fewer campus-based options. Students who do not live near a campus-based program may want to explore online programs as potential options. Currently, there are six online Master’s in Technical Communication programs. See below for more information.