I feel like I’ve stepped into quite the conundrum by entering the technical communications field. As I continue to search for full-time work, a problem that I seem to find almost everywhere I go is that technical writing jobs in my area seem to require that one be a specialist in their field, or do very, VERY specific types of work. Both before and after my technical communications studies, I had always been taught that with few career exceptions, being a generalist was more often a desired skill set, simply because I couldn’t get stuck in one specific direction and find little to no work. Having a broad range of skills and abilities made one more marketable, flexible, and thus desirable as an employee. I know the last place that I consulted for full-time appreciated that generalist ability of mine, because I ended up being the go-to person for web editing, web design, and general graphics design. There were those who had the title of “web publisher” but didn’t even know basic HTML, and I actually did.
However, I’m finding that as much as I did my best in both my career and my graduate studies to study a broad range of subjects, including social media, e-learning design, content management strategy, UI strategy, and technical writing and editing, to name a few, I end up as a Jack of all trades, but master of none. However, it seems that because I don’t have specifically five years of medical or proposal writing background in XYZ software, I’m useless. I was recently criticized for having an “unfocused” resume because it was so broad. When asked what specialization I wanted to follow, I listed all the subjects I mentioned above and then some others. I feel I have the skills to start out in any of those fields if someone gave me a break to go in any of those specific directions.
One of the things that stuck out in my mind from Adobe Day at Lavacon last month was commentary by the panel at the end of the morning, in which the group said that one of the issues right now in tech comm is that there are too many tech comm specialists instead of tech comm generalists. When I heard that, it was music to my ears, and I felt vindicated for taking the approach I had with my career! I’ve already taken steps–specifically getting a Master’s degree in Professional and Technical Communication–to provide myself with an education on understanding all the available possibilities in the technical communications field, and be able to adapt to it. However, one of the other challenges listed in the panel talk was the general resistance to progressive change. I fear that the resistance to change is far more widespread than anticipated, based on my own experiences. Every job listing and every recruiter I talk to seems to want to pigeonhole me into one specialty, and I don’t want to do that. The reason I went to graduate school was to allow me to gain opportunities beyond my knowledge of content management alone, and allow me to flex my editing, writing, design and e-learning muscles some more.
Perhaps because I’m a “newbie,” I don’t understand this strict adherence to being a specialist in only one kind of tech comm. Becoming a specialist is a double-edged sword. On one side, being able to work in a niche field makes your skills more desirable for that niche. However, on the other side, it limits the kind of work one can do if there are layoffs or one finds him/herself out of work.
Since I’ve been looking for full-time work for almost a year now, I talked to my husband recently about this idea, and questioned whether I should commit more to one particular area of technical communication than another. While I’ve done a lot of content management work, I find it constraining when I want to be able to edit what I see as just plain BAD writing, and I feel limited to not flex my brain muscles on all the things I’ve learned in grad school in the last two years. I’ve tried to immerse myself in the tech comm world and the e-learning world to varying degrees, but again, I find myself as a generalist since I don’t have any job to help me hone my professional focus as of yet. Even so, I wondered if I should just resign myself, and just try to figure out what specialty I should focus on, perhaps in the hopes of increasing my job prospects. After voicing this concern, my husband vehemently disagreed, feeling that it was better just to continue to be able to look at a little bit of everything and do a little bit of everything, as it broadened prospects by giving me multiple directions to follow.
It makes me wonder how other graduates–whether they are from undergraduate or graduate school–find a job at all. How is someone supposed to be able to do a technical communications job with little to no experience? How the heck can they become specialists without first being generalists given a direction from their first jobs? I know I have the flexibility and know-how to go into many jobs, but it’s autobots that read my resume instead of people more often than not, and autobots don’t understand the value of what I can do and my ability to learn on the spot. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this rut, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any flexibility on the part of employers. There are plenty of us who are more than willing to be dedicated employees with a strong skill set foundation, and we aren’t given a chance.
So, what is better? Being a specialist or a generalist? Write your opinion in the comments below.
For me, I’m still torn, and my problem is that if I do need to be a specialist, I don’t know what direction to follow, because I like so many aspects of tech comm. Should I find work as a full-time blogger, pursue my desire to be an instructional designer, go back to content publishing and management, become a technical evangelist, become a teacher or trainer…or what?
(If you know of any telecommuting/remote jobs or jobs in the Central NJ area along these lines, let me know!)