As a public relations professional now teaching the next generation(s) of PR pros at Curry College, I am often asked by students whether or not they should pursue a graduate degree. My answer is invariably “yes, but don’t rush into it…don’t do it immediately…do your ‘homework’ first.”
This advice is met with skepticism by some of my more academic-minded colleagues who believe that the more “book knowledge” you can acquire the better, but I stick to my guns for some fairly simple reasons. First, particularly in public relations but other professions as well, experience (jobs, internships, volunteer activities) is a top priority for hiring managers. Second, graduate studies should provide you with higher-level knowledge about a specific area of your profession.
I advise my own students to do as I did…secure an undergraduate degree in the area (hopefully) in which they have an interest…then work for a while until they figure out/get a sense of what it is that they really enjoy doing and would like to have advanced knowledge of. Then pursue a graduate degree in that area.
I go on to explain that the benefits of this approach are two-fold. First, they will be studying something in which they truly are interested; second, in many cases, the employer will pay part, if not all, of the tuition.
Christine Santeusanio, a Boston-based recruiter with Chaloner, a national executive search firm that specializes in placing public relations, corporate communications, and internal communications professionals, says this question comes up often both from recent college graduates she interviews and from the firm’s corporate, agency and non-profit clients describing what they are looking for in candidates.
“New college graduates should gain at least a few years’ work experience in an industry and a function that interests them before pursuing a graduate degree. Working in a professional environment may help solidify someone’s desired career path. However, it might also expose him or her to other areas of the organization which may lead to an alternate path and, therefore, to a different graduate program.”
As one advances in one’s career field, of course, differentiators do come into play, and a graduate degree…along with proven work experience and skills…definitely improves one’s chances of that coveted promotion or job assignment.
A second tier of my discussions with students focuses on the “where” aspect of graduate education. This, too, should be carefully thought out. One’s undergraduate experiences will help to some extent in this area. Do you prefer a large university environment or a small college? What is the proximity to cities/areas where job and/or internship prospects are more plentiful? And, last, but not least, the graduate curriculum…what courses are offered that fit your desired goal?
I mention this last consideration speaking from personal experience. While I already had a marketing-focused MBA in the early years of my public relations career, I felt that I needed to get an additional graduate degree specifically in PR. With minimal research, I targeted a prestigious local university noted for its communication curriculum, applied, was accepted, and began my studies.
Things were rosy in the beginning…in quick succession, I took three courses that were exactly what I wanted to enhance my PR knowledge and that were applicable to current job as well as to my future plans. In a fit of giddy glee, I mentally mapped out a graduate degree that would strengthen my corporate communication skills and enable me to move up in my (then) corporate job.
Then registration rolled around for the fourth course…and the honeymoon was over! In spite of my own diligent searching and numerous meetings with my advisor, I was unable to find anything at all that met my needs. Granted my employer was footing the bill for my studies, so that was not an issue. But I could not, in all good conscience, take a course simply to fill in a blank…waste of my time and of my employer’s money. As a result, some 30 years later, the second master’s degree sits unearned.
As a public relations professional closing in on nearly a half-century of practice and teaching, I am a firm believer that one should never stop learning. I take advantage of every opportunity possible to attend programs that will enhance my own knowledge of my career field. I know very well that my profession is evolving rapidly and constantly, and I have no intention of becoming a “dinosaur.”
This is a sentiment I try to pass on to my students as well. Although it might sound like I’m discouraging further education after completing their undergraduate studies, I absolutely am not. Rather, I’m encouraging lifelong learning to ensure that they are equipped with the latest tips, tactics, and tools that will enable them to get a solid start on their career path.
A graduate degree is definitely a key factor in that start. Just do your homework first!