Can a historian become a technical communicator?

by Fabian Klopfer on January 24, 2019

Studying humanities – and what’s next?

„So, what are you gonna do when you’ve graduated?“

Who of us hasn’t heard that question as a student? Especially students of the arts and humanities often find it difficult to come up with a satisfying answer. After all, the German job market is looking for electrical engineers or computer scientists, not historians who specialized in antiquity like me.

History has a good reputation. Historians are regarded as deep thinkers who look through the structures underlying our past. But in everyday life, bar the occasional appreciative nod, being a historian mostly provokes the question mentioned above. Having knowledge about the campaigns of Alexander the Great or the politics of the Roman Senate in the 1st century may be fascinating but it won't help you to find work in today’s world.

In fact, when I was looking for a job after my graduation, I realized that nobody outside the seminar rooms is seriously interested in the content we discussed there. No matter how enthusiastic we debated about Athenian democracy or Augustus over the years, I did not find a single job offer that asked for any of my academic knowledge.

The job market for students of the humanities

This was admittedly quite clear to me and many other students of the humanities, but a combination of juvenile overconfidence, a certain sense of moral superiority over fellow students who "only" studied for a job, and an (un)healthy fatalism regarding career perspectives made us forget this fact. If such fears crept up on us, we preferred to ignore them and deal with them later.

But bubbles tend to burst, especially those in which humanities students believe that they will somehow, somewhere, eventually find work after graduation. After all, it is commonly agreed that the labour market looks very promising right now, especially for academics (full employment, anyone?). But the reality is, this is true only for graduates in specific industries, while others spend months or even years looking for a job before they find something. (https://www.zeit.de/campus/2018/s1/geisteswissenschaften-bewerben-arbeitsmarkt-jobaussichten).

Career perspective – technical communicator!

This brings me back to my current position at parson: technical communicator.

„Technical communicator? So you write for a science magazine?“ is what I often hear when explaining my work. Many people don't associate anything at all with the term and just look at me insecurely. In fact, none of my relatives and friends had an instant idea of the term. Once I explain that I write manuals and internal documentation for companies, I usually get skeptical looks that seem to say: „So, guys like you are responsible for all the gibberish that prevented me from getting my new TV working the other day?“

In general, most people are not convinced that I have an interesting job that would justify the long years I spent at university.

But what can I say? They couldn't be more mistaken!

Tasks of a technical communicator

As a technical communicator you have a challenging and demanding job that involves much more than describing the parts of a television set and putting sentences like "Press 'On' to turn on the television" on paper. The tasks of a technical communicator have been described in depth on this blog before (https://www.parson-europe.com/de/wissensartikel/441-was-macht-ein-technischer-redakteur.html), so I will keep it short:

  • Write user manuals, documentations and web helps
  • Analyze and document complex processes and workflows in all sorts of companies
  • Use various forms of information processing (XML, wikis,…)
  • Edit multiple (technical) subjects and present products in an understandable way

Humanities students as technical communicators

But how does this help students in the humanities in their efforts to find a job in technical communication?

To a very great extent!

Assuming we have an understanding and knowledge of technologies, we also have numerous soft skills that, according to a tekom survey of 2017, companies expect from technical communicators:

  • good communication skills
  • planning ability/structured work
  • sophisticated writing skills
  • accuracy
  • ability to concentrate

These are precisely the skills that students in the humanities acquire in their studies: collect information, analyze them, and present them in an understandable way. The only difference is the type of information that technical communicators have to process. Instead of medieval manuscripts or Franz Kafka, technical communication deals with the description of a software for building services engineering or the restructuring of the manual of a public authority.

Career start for humanities students in technical communication

So, is technical communication the number one solution for all job-seeking students in the humanities? I'm afraid that it is not that easy. Acquired soft skills will help you, but you won't become a technical communicator without any specialized knowledge. Vocational training (or a traineeship) is a suitable way to enter the field, which is  what I am currently doing at parson.  In addition to my work in projects, I take courses at tecteam and tekom to become a certified technical communicator after two years. On the one hand, that's a lot of work for the time being. On the other hand, the job perspectives are excellent, and the salary is good compared to other industries.

So, if you have a degree in the humanities like me but no idea what to do with it, I can highly recommend becoming a technical communicator. If you have sound knowledge of software, good english language skills, no fear of technical questions, and a taste for multifaceted work, you should seriously consider this career option.

You just need some courage!

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