Last week, I had the honor of returning to the old classroom of my undergraduate days to speak to future professional writers about what our field is all about. The experience filled me with both nostalgia and excitement of being on the old grounds, and it made me reflect on just how far I’ve come since the days I came daily to that room. It was a treat to sit beside some of my old professors instead of on the other side of the teacher/student relationship. I felt, for a moment, like I’d “made it” (I’m not entirely sure what “it” is in this case, but hopefully you understand what I mean).
At one point in the conversation, the question arose: “What didn’t the major do to prepare you that you wish it did?”
I had a difficult time with this question, mostly because I had a very diverse college career. My time in Computer Science taught me how to learn new programming technologies and took care of the technical side that many students have said MSU’s Professional Writing program sometimes lacks. My time in the Communication Arts and Sciences major as a cognate taught me about other genres, like video and audio and a little on Flash, that I didn’t have the chance to explore in my major either. But the big takeaway I had by my final year for college wasn’t anything the major did wrong, but something in general that college doesn’t prepare you for.
College doesn’t prepare you for actually working in any given field. It is for that reason that I cannot stress enough to any current college student, and especially students of Professional Writing, to get an internship while you’re still in school.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I’m not trying to say that you do not learn skills in college that you will use in your job; that would be untrue. What I am saying is that while in college, you are using these skills as part of your class. Your “client” and your “audience” will always be your teacher, who in most cases is a single individual. Your “deadlines” are set in stone, and you are given obvious guidelines as part of your project. The members of your team will be your academic peers, ensuring you can know certain things about their skill level and expertise and your ability to relate to them in general.
These limited variables are not true in the actual working world. Your client could be a major organization who has designated a representative to your group that cannot spare more than one hour a week to talk to you about the project. Your deadline may or may not be a reasonable amount of time to do the work that has been requested. Your project guidelines may be completely undefined as the client doesn’t know or maybe even care what they want from you other than “a website, and a better one than the one we have right now.” It’s up to you to figure out what “better” means and how to do it in their budget and time line. Furthermore, your client may or may not provide you with valid information regarding your audience, and you and your team might not have time to further investigate that yourself. Even if you figure all this, your team may consist of individuals who are much younger or older than you, and at different stages of knowledge and training in the fields relevant to this project.
Any number of those mysteries could occur in any combination on a project you are assigned in the work world. Upon dealing with such amazing challenges, you may quickly find that a field you thought you would enjoy is actually fraught with a lot of things you can’t stand.
For that reason, students should strive to get work experience in the field they are interested in while they are still working on their undergrad. For students at MSU’s PW program, there is no shortage of internship opportunities in the area, and the faculty and staff within the program are great at finding and tracking these opportunities down.
For myself, I went through my time in the PW program expecting to graduate and become a technical writer. In the classroom I enjoyed technical writing and the challenge it presented to speak on complex topics and yet keeping the language simple enough for readers not within the field to understand. Doing this sort of work struck me as a way to find a stable career in nearly any field, and would give me an excuse to spread my focus across as many of my interests as I wanted.
I got an internship working for a group on campus that was trying to update a severely out-of-date manual on the aerial application of agricultural chemicals (or “crop-dusting” as we tend to actually call it). While I enjoyed the challenge of the writing, I quickly found out that the organization I was with had too many other projects on their plate that stopped them from focusing on making this document effective. My editor did a quick job revising my work, and the discussions about the effectiveness of one approach or another that I wanted to happen didn’t really happen. The project’s manager would often accept my chapters and leave me for days without work, offering no suggestions as to how I could spend my time. Despite finishing my part of the project before its deadline, it never moved beyond that and as soon as the internship was over, I wasn’t convinced that it was going to go anywhere anytime soon.
During the same summer, I began working as a web developer for another organization on campus as second part-time job. I was quickly surprised at how much more thrilled I was at the challenges this job provided me over technical writing, as it allowed me more freedom to explore my artistic side as a designer, my coding side when writing HTML and CSS, and my writing side when I’d be asked to write training documents for our clients. It felt like a perfect match and it was from that experience that I realized that I would get such enjoyment turning web development from what was at that time a hobby into a career. The web work often suffered similar problems with feedback delays and deadline shuffles as the writing one, but I found them less frustrating there. That’s because I found the work itself so much more rewarding that the frustrations that came with the job were minor compared to the joy success brought me.
When summer ended, I had to choose one job to continue — I couldn’t keep them both as a full-time student. I discussed the matter with both of my employers, but after the technical writing internship made it pretty clear I wouldn’t really have work to do again until October, I continued on as a web developer.
This valuable lesson was something I could not have learned in the classroom. I had to learn it in the trenches of the work world.
So students! Ask yourself what you’d like to do when you graduate. It’s okay if you are conflicted between two or three things. Try to create an academic schedule that will allow you try all of them while you are still a student, and get a feel for what your true calling is. You don’t want to end up in your late-20s, unhappy with your job because you didn’t ask these questions as a student. Likewise, the effort will give you work experience that you’ll find will make you all the more desirable to a possible employer.
About the Author
Adam Robert Clegg is a Web Developer for Michigan State University’s University Relations Division as part of their Web and Social Media Team. You can see his completed works on his portfolio. When he’s not coding web pages, he’s “pwning n00bs online” and tweeting about it.