Master of Arts in English with an Emphasis in Professional Writing FAQ

Tell me about the Graduate Certificate in Professional Writing and the MA program.

The university’s English department offers the MA in English with several different emphases. Our area of emphasis in professional writing—in which we offer both a certificate and a full MA—are both 100 percent online.

If you are a resident student, you can earn an MA in any of our areas of specialization. If you are an online student, you can earn a certificate and an MA in the area of professional and technical writing. You must earn the certificate first.

The certificate requires 18 hours of online courses. These courses can also be applied toward the MA in English or the Master of Administration, if you decide to continue your graduate education.

So, I took the courses, how do I get the certificate?

You must be admitted to the program by submitting the materials listed on the application page and search for “Professional Writing Certificate” to navigate to the proper application pages.

Why would I want a Graduate Certificate in Professional Writing?

Job Skills: Possibly because you don't have a degree in English but you do a lot of writing for your job.

Workers with undergraduate degrees in science, engineering, or business are often surprised to find that much of their time is spent reading and writing—roughly half of their time!

Senior managers report that they spend a quarter of their time reading memos, letters, and reports, and a quarter of their time writing responses and other documents.

Instead of starting over again to earn a BA in English, the certificate program allows you to do graduate course work in the kind of professional and technical writing that you do at work.

Job skills: If you are a literature, philosophy, or history major, the certificate program provides an opportunity to develop practical applications and workforce employment skills.

Teaching: Community college English instructors earn the certificate to enhance their skills, to prepare to teach technical writing courses, and to learn skills to develop online courses.  

How much money do tech writers make?

STC reports that in Arizona the median salary for technical writers is $60,000/year. This doesn't mean that you will make that much in your first job.

The average for consultants is $35/hour, but these are often highly skilled businesses offering specialized services and having a long client list illustrating past performance.

Free lance tech writers and editors often find themselves in the neighborhood of $25/hour.

See these pages for more information on a career as a professional or technical writer:

Do you have any success stories? I'm eager to get a job (more than freelance) as a writer/editor.

Most of the students in our program are employed and seeking to advance in the field in which they are employed. Only a few years ago, the plum jobs were internships with IBM, NASA, Honeywell, etc.

Called internships, these were often trial jobs that paid up to $50,000/year. A few of these are still available, but in the past few years many businesses have out-sourced projects and jobs.

This has the effect of reducing the number of entry level positions in which the employer assumes that they will have to train you for their content applications and specialized software.

It shifts employment to the top end for consultants who are expert in a content area (like geology, healthcare, or military areas), in a specific process or technique, and in specific software use.

Unfortunately, only members can access the STC job list, but you can follow STC-Phoenix jobs at:

I have a BS in geology—can I get into the Professional Writing Certificate program?

Yes. You need an undergraduate degree to be admitted to the program, but it does not have to be in English.

Do I have to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) to be admitted to the Certificate or the MA program?

No, we do not require the GRE.

How long does it take to get the certificate?

One year, if you take two courses each semester including the summer. Courses are not self-paced. They follow the university’s academic calendar.

If you go on for an MA, you must complete all requirements within six years. The tentative schedule for future online classes (except where noted) is:

Summer (10 week session)
502: Advanced Technical Writing
606: Issues in Technical and Professional Writing

517: Professional Editing (online & campus)
549: Information Design and Usability Testing

605: Writing Proposals

522: Rhetoric and Writing in Professional Communities
569: Project Management and Document Development

See Professor Rothfork's homepage for online course descriptions.

When can I begin the certificate program? Do I have to wait until September?

You can begin any semester, including the summer. There is no required order in which you must take classes.

The numerical sequence implies a desirable order, starting with 502 (Advanced Technical Writing) and concluding with 606 (Topics in Professional Writing) as well as capstone courses, primarily ENG685 (Graduate Research).

Can I take a course or two before deciding to apply for the certificate program?

Yes. You must be admitted as a graduate student. You must apply for admission to the certificate program before completing nine hours in the program.

I just discovered the program and I want to enroll for a course that begins next week. Help!

Apply to the graduate school as a non-degree graduate student. You can change your status later.

This plan will cost you an extra fee, but admission should be granted in two or three days. When the graduate school gives you a computer account you can register for classes.

I am already admitted to the MA program in English. Do I have to apply again for the certificate program?

Yes. You must apply for each degree or certificate you hope to earn.

What does it cost?

See the tuition page. Arizona has a three-tiered tuition system for residents, non-residents, and web students. In the summer, everyone pays the same in-state rate.

I'm not a computer whiz. What equipment do I need to take online courses?

You need:

  • access to a personal computer connected to the internet
  • a word processing program, preferably MS Word
  • a free internet browser (e.g., Internet Explorer or Firefox)
  • one of your goals should be to learn to use an HTML editor. Blackboard Learn (our Learning Management System) offers an elementary HTML editor in conjunction with making class posts in the LMS. University computer labs have MS SharePoint. Dreamweaver is the other usual choice. Netscape Composer is a third choice and is available as a free download with the browser SeaMonkey.

See the university’s online support for more information.

I live in Japan and don't want to get up in the middle of the night to be online for chat sessions.

There are no scheduled times when you have to be online. Course material is asynchronous. You can do coursework anytime during the week or so when a unit is featured.

Courses are not self-paced. They are classes in which classroom interaction is important. Our classes follow the regular semester calendar, which makes them easier to integrate into busy schedules.

Aren't online courses second rate?

The courses in the certificate program are graduate English courses taught by English department faculty. Your Northern Arizona University transcript does not differentiate between web and classroom courses.

You simply earn university course credits and degrees. You will have a semester-long opportunity to interact with other students and the professor through discussion posts, email, and HTML presentations. Other students in the courses are often highly accomplished professionals.

I have looked into other programs like this. What can you tell me about your program that might make my decision easier?

There are not too many of these programs. Perhaps you found our program through the STC site with its list of online education programs. Utah State and Texas Tech also offer online programs.

When shopping for a program, ask these questions:

  • What is the school's reputation?
  • Which department offers the program? At UCLA and other California universities, the program is offered by the extension division. I am sure these are excellent programs, but the credits are not offered by an academic department, such as the English department, and cannot be used to earn a graduate degree.
  • Who teaches the courses? The “industry” trend is to have senior faculty develop courses and then have graduate assistants or adjuncts “deliver” them. Our courses are taught by the same English department graduate faculty who also teach classroom courses.
  • How robust are the courses? Are they comparable to classroom courses? The trend, influenced by commercial development, is to create slick programs and sites that offer more entertainment than education. For example, everyone "chats" to swap opinions, but at the end of course, has anyone been challenged to learn new academic or job skills?
  • How responsive is the instructor? Does the instructor respond to emails, submissions, and questions within a day or two? Does he participate in discussions?

I am looking for a program that concentrates on the kind of writing I do for a specific profession or industry. Do you know where I can find such aprogram?

Not really. There is an American Medical Writers Association and a Legal Writing Institute. The University of Chicago offers a certificate in medical writing, but it is offered by their extension division.

Your concern is for a content area or application rather than writing skills. The essential and enabling skill for employment as a professional writer is a demonstrated talent for writing clear, coherent, and readable prose.

You must master these skills first. Only then does it make sense to think about refinements, such as advanced software tools and familiarity with a technical content area.

Major employers recruit new university graduates as technical writing interns knowing that their essential qualification is an education in writing rather than knowledge of software or familiarity with a technical content area.

Advanced software training is offered by industry, commercial workshops, or community colleges.

How do I take tests online?

These are writing courses. There are quizzes for most course lessons, but the more important material for evaluation is your writing, which you submit as discussion posts, email attachments, and HTML files.

I haven't taken an undergraduate class in technical writing. Is the Advanced Technical Writing (ENG 502) class on a much higher level than the undergraduate technical writing course?

The short answer is no. The ENG 502 course should not be conceptually much more difficult or challenging than a junior level university technical writing class. The undergraduate technical writing course is not a prerequisite for ENG 502.

The longer answer about the level of the course recognizes that tech writing is a skills course that perhaps resembles welding or studio arts courses more than conceptual courses like philosophy, physics, or math.

ENG 502 offers students continued practice and discussion of skills that were introduced to in the undergraduate course, which typically familiarizes students with the practice of:

  • writing to anticipate and meet workplace needs rather than writing to explore or express your thoughts and emotions
  • organizing documents with explicit visual structure using a decimal outline system, headlines, or website structure
  • including graphic information (tables, graphs, photos) as well as developing graphic design
  • doing recurrent audience analysis and usability testing to develop rhetorical strategies

If you are fairly adept at “psyching” people out to know what they are thinking, this rhetorical skill is at least as important in professional and technical writing as knowledge of scientific or technical content.

We do very little with advanced technical content but, in general, you should seek to become familiar with the culture of some area of science, engineering, or business.

I am a foreign student. English is my second language. Can I apply for admission to the certificate program?

See the graduate college page on international applicants.

For the certificate and MA programs, the English department requires a TOEFL score of 89 (internet-medium exam), 237 (computer-medium exam), or 570 (paper medium).

Like all applicants, you must submit a writing sample to the English department with your application to the certificate program. A committee will decide if your writing skills are adequate to successfully complete the program.

I live in small town far from any urban area, but I want to do the MA online and need to take ENG 608 (Fieldwork Experience). How can I do that?

It is more difficult to develop professional skills without being physically involved in a professional community. This is what internships and field experience are designed to provide.

Nonetheless, you can develop professional skills and be involved in a professional job situation via the internet. One way to do this is to offer your professional writing and web skills to clients through Elance.

More questions?

If you have questions about this certificate, please contact either Dr. Greg Larkin or Dr. John Rothfork.