Table of Contents Introduction Reasons for Wanting to Work in Industry Inventory Your Technical Communication Skills Differences between academic work and industry work What Can You Expect? Conclusion

Differences between Academic Work and Industry Work

In an article entitled Collaborative Partnerships: Academia and Industry Working Together in Technical Communication (November 1995), Deborah Bosley writes that,

“Higher education has as one of its primary missions the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge as an end in itself. Traditionally, higher education focused on acquiring knowledge, not necessarily on learning to use it. Conversely, industry views the value of knowledge and research as related directly to the market value of the products it produces.”

I agree with this distinction because it clearly defines the two concerns of the different worlds: one to produce knowledge for itself, and one to produce products. I see it played out over and over again. For instance, in the academic world you might not admit that you taught students types of documents, because that suggests a “product” orientation, instead of a “process” orientation that emphasizes generic decisions students need to learn to make. The term product has negative connotations for among educators. But it has nothing to do with manufactured products, or only an abstract relationship. In another example, a recent graduate of our program returned to campus to donate a stack of outdated software to our lab. Her “tutorial” on how to use the software consisted in the training session they do on their new hires to get them to assemble a Frame 4.0 manual the way they do it at XYZ Corp. It had little of what we would call education, but passed as such in the corporate world. The distinction extends to training versus education, theory versus practice, capitalism versus altruism, free information versus information as currency or information as politics. The distinction highlights the differences between the values of the two realms.

Why do you need to know about the fundamental distinction between academia and industry if you’re considering a move to industry? Because you have to start thinking in terms of products. For good or ill, I tried to do this in my professional brochure, a document containing thumbnail sketches of the kinds of documents I could produce. You need to see where you can use your strongest asset, your writing and language skills, to further the client’s business goals, or simply to get a job done cheaply and expediently. Most clients get impatient when you tell them they should set up a focus group with their users to determine their document characteristics. They know all they need to know about users already. Users do not read the manual. For the most part, despite what you read in the journals about modern business, clients may not want to listen when you tell them to examine their business practices in ways that encourage knowledge management. They may not want to hear your discourse about a long–term investment in a company–wide style guide. They want a product.

Go to TopSo the fundamental distinction between academia and industry does have some relevance to our discussion, because it helps clarify, and give a background to, some of the misunderstandings that confront the academic in the technical communication workplace. The differences between the two arenas carries over into other things like pacing, the importance of standards, and the nature of your daily contact with people.

You will have to deal with pacing differences in any move into the workplace. Consider that the academic world revolves around two large time frames, the year and the semester (or quarter). In business you do not get such neat time durations. Everything needs to happen right away, or in a kind of convoluted “before yesterday” time frame, whereby you always come in under your time budget as a way of asserting your additional value to a client. In fact, the whole pacing of the corporate world continues to baffle me in some respects.

Work in industry seems to move in different fits and starts, a seeming inconsistency that parallels the issue of standards and their application. For its good natured sharing of information, the academic world did not prepare me for the heat you take for misspellings, typos, and other flubs that the user notices and that damage your credibility. I tried to dot all my “I”s and cross all my “T”s, but invariably I would let some typo slip by. I seemed to have a knack for misspelling clients’ names, or their company names, or for remembering clients’ names wrong. It is scary to have a client point out a mistake a month into the project that you just never got around to fixing. Like it or not, the academic world breeds sloppiness in matters of copyediting and proofreading, and you can easily loose credibility with a typo.

Another difference between academia and industry lies in the way people come and go in the workplace whereas colleagues in the university or college tends to remain more stable. The contact person I knew on a job was fired and no one informed: the work I had supplied ended up taken, lost, or at least not availalbe to the new person. Luckily I had backups. Yet this person now took over management of my project, knowing nothing about it. This happens quite frequently because, as projects evolve, you work first with some people and then with others. You need to develop a sense of acting and thinking on your feet and not let it bother you when this happens. It is just a part of business and you need to accommodate it.

Go to TopIn these ways, the values, principles, and attitudes of the business world differ from that you know at the university or college. I hope this discussion has brought out some of the more startling instances of these differences as a way of helping you understand what you’re in for in your move. And even though you can clearly see the differences between the two worlds (and I haven’t dwelt on their many similarities) you still need to know what to expect that will startle and confuse you simply because of your training and familiarity with the academic environment.

October 21, 1995. Long Island, New York. I spent 3 hours one afternoon loitering around an office building, leaning against concrete pillars, waiting for my ride. The day was warm but the leaves were falling. I’d just gotten fired from the biggest job I’d landed since I started in September. With it went the big contract (to revise a whole documentation set) that I’d wanted all along. In my briefcase I had a check for $438.00, hastily written and handed to me without comment, that represented about half of the past month’s total revenue for Thomas Barker Software Documentation Services. I found myself two months into my four–month stint as a technical writer, looking at the oncoming holiday season with no prospects nearly as promising as the one I had just seen disappear. Luckily, on the way home, my ride, an engineer with a hybrid circuit board manufacturing company, offered me an even better job than the one I had just lost. I was able to borrow living expenses against that contract that carried me through January, when I finished the job.