Considering Graduate School for PR? Get Experience First

Dr. Mark Van Dyke discusses whether or not PR professionals should pursue their Master's degree

Jackie DiBella’s post earned my respect … and sympathy. I thought about my public relations students who, upon hearing stories like Jackie’s, are simply giving up on job applications and are instead submitting graduate school applications.

Some students have been planning for years to pursue a graduate education after college. Others suddenly see graduate school as a kind of “park and ride,” or a way to pull over and wait until they make up their mind about a career or ride out a gridlocked job market.

Ron Culp, a Ketchum Communications partner, suggested that people in this situation base their decision “on rational reasons, not an impulse caused by difficulty in landing a job in the current bleak economy” (PRSA Forum, para. 2).

First, let me dispel some common misconceptions about graduate school. Your undergraduate degree is your ticket to an entry-level job. No, a master’s degree in the public relations field won’t necessarily make you more qualified or enable you to demand a higher entry-level starting salary. In fact, holding a master’s degree with little work experience could work against you in public relations. An employer may hire an equally qualified candidate with a bachelor’s degree, knowing that you might expect a higher salary despite your lack of experience.

A master’s degree is designed to teach advanced knowledge and skills (e.g., management and research) that help mid-career public relations professionals to advance. When considering a master’s degree in the public relations field, also consider degrees like an MBA. Public relations is increasingly valued for its application as a business management function. A Ph.D. is only for a few – those who intend to focus their work on research or enter a field like education that requires a “terminal” degree.

Also, consider two schools of thought on pursuing a graduate degree. Adherents of the “continue your education” school will advocate entering graduate school as soon as possible. There is no better time to pursue a graduate degree than now. Your head is crammed full of knowledge and you have the classroom routine down to a science; and you may find it difficult to return to school once you begin a career, start a family, assume a mortgage, etc.

Residents of the other school, like Ron Culp, recommend that students “get into the field” and gain experience. Culp surveyed several friends who held jobs in college teaching and in public relations practice. All three agreed, “Advanced degrees should only be pursued after working for a couple of years.” According to Culp’s colleagues, it’s important to explore career paths and determine which one is for you, build a professional work ethic, understand the marketplace, become self-sufficient, earn benefits that could help pay for graduate school, and gain practical knowledge and experience that will make you stronger graduate school candidate.

Maria Russell, a professor of public relations at Syracuse University, also agreed: “If I were [a student]…. I would go out and work for a while, then maybe I would consider what kind of advanced degree to get” (PR Week, What’s a master’s worth?, para. 4).

I’m from the school of “get your feet wet.” I spent more than 25 years in public relations with the U.S. Navy. After experiencing combat operations in the Persian Gulf the Navy paid for me to complete a master’s in public relations at Syracuse University, where I applied what I had learned about life and death to my education. Nearly ten years later, I applied what I learned from my master’s to help save lives in NATO peace-implementation operations in Bosnia. I then completed a Ph.D. in public relations from the University of Maryland and now teach public relations at Marist College.

Having seen the way things work in the “ivory tower” and in the “real world” I know that education and experience have been critical to success in my career. However, I benefited greatly from experiencing the world around me before going back to school.

I was glad to see in Jackie’s biography that she has not given up on her job search. My advice to other recent or prospective college graduates is to focus on your personal goals. If your goal is to immediately obtain a graduate degree, go for it. If, however, you have your heart set on finding a job and launching your career in public relations, follow Jackie’s example and don’t give up!

Dr. Mark Van Dyke is an associate professor of communication at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. His scholarship and teaching focus on strategic public relations management, international conflict resolution, leadership, and intercultural communication. He is also on Twitter via @markavandyke.

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21 comments on “Considering Graduate School for PR? Get Experience First

  1. Thank you so much for your praises! All the searching and not giving up paid off– shortly after my post I landed a job at a top firm on Long Island as an Assistant Account Executive. And I have been loving every second of it!

    Graduates: Don’t give up!! A job is out there waiting for you!!

    Thanks again!
    -Jackie

  2. Great post! Excellent commentary for my communication students. I can also relate, being an academic and PR professional having a MA!

  3. Good article but it did leave me wondering at what point in one’s career does grad school make sense? In particular in the context of agency work when does a Masters help?

      • Sounds like good advice, Devon. The knowledge gained from a graduate degree comes into play when you begin to compete for management positions and increased levels of responsibility.

        Also, it’s good to hear from you again. You seem to be enjoying success in your career and becoming proficient with digital and social media (I noted your “Sent from my iPhone” message. Keep it up! Mark

  4. As a working professional for the Connecticut Department of Labor’s employment services division and a student of Dr. Van Dyke, I agree with the theory of work first, education second. Too many times have I seen undergraduate degree holders struggle with their options; school or being unemployed. However daunting that decision might be, most fail to realize the rising costs of education in today’s day. On average, for a two year MBA program, students have to pay almost $30,000 per year to obtain that degree. Not only does that place them into a deeper hole, but it also makes them less marketable based on the fact they have a lot of educational experience with no true employment history.

    Employers now look for confidence and trust; confidence in the potential canidate that they are going to provide innovation and growth and trust that they are a good employee. Without having any professional references, this is difficult for the employer to believe. Further, just because some one may be a great student and strives well in academia doesn’t mean they will have that same focus and drive. Of course this may be unlikely, but again, a resume with years of professional experiences speaks much louder than a resume full of education with large gaps of employment.

    My advice to any one now seeking a job or changing gears to education, try told hold a part-time job! Working and mainting a full schedule is much better than JUST going to school. If you can, go to school at night. Even though employers understand today’s market and the limited success you may have in finding a job, people have and still do work and go to school.

    If you need help, go to your local labor departments. In Connecticut alone we have about 14 local offices that will be able to help; so be proactive!

    – Sent from my iPhone

  5. Thanks for the positive comments about my post. I’m glad it was helpful. To update my post, the job market for public relations professionals is looking brighter than last year according to several reliable sources.

    For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported:

    “Employment of public relations specialists is expected to grow 24 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. The need for good public relations in an increasingly competitive and global business environment should spur demand for these workers, especially those with specialized knowledge or international experience. Employees who possess additional language capabilities also are in great demand. The recent emergence of social media in the public relations is expected to increase job growth as well.”

    The BLS added, “Many public relations firms are expanding their use of these tools, and specialists with skills in them will be needed. Employment in public relations firms is expected to grow as firms hire contractors to provide public relations services, rather than support more full-time staff when additional work is needed.” (See http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos086.htm)

    The Council for Public Relations Firms also reported results of a survey conducted in October 2010. Of member firms surveyed:

    “Over two-thirds (68.4%) reported that projected 2010 revenues would be higher than in 2009.”

    “A plurality (38.9%) expected that, based on discussions with clients and prospects, PR budgets would be higher in 2011 than in 2010.”

    “Over 80% of firms we surveyed reported that more requests for digital and social media expertise would be one of “the most frequent new business trends” for 2011.”

    “Nearly 40% of firms anticipate an increase in hiring activity in Q4 as compared to the first nine months of the year.” (See http://bit.ly/fF12kv)

    This seems to provide additional encouragement to pursue a job and gain work experience before starting a full-time graduate program. Strike while the job market is heating up … and become competitive by acquiring experience with social media and other specialized skills that employers are seeking.

  6. I wish i’d read your blog before going to grad school. I’m done with grad school but the only job opportunities coming my way are Account Coordinator level or unpaid internships which is frustrating after interning for 2yrs while attending grad school. I thought i’d make it to the Account Executive position.

  7. While I agree that experience is the most important component for those beginning their careers in PR, I think this largely depends on an individual’s situation as well. In my own experience, I went from an undergrad studying Film into Grad School to study PR; a sort of mid-academic career change not unlike those looking to retool professionally through a degree.
    Fortunately I attended a school which afforded me lots of hands-on portfolio building experience I did not gain through my otherwise unrelated undergraduate degree. Grad school was a good option for me, and while many undergrads might use it as a crutch, there are lots of good reasons to pursue this education that will benefit your professional life.

    Gaining experience in the field was critical to helping me figure out a career path, but the two are not mutually exclusive: I gained a lot of experience in social media both inside the classroom and in the field.

    • I was in a similar situation. I realized a bit too late into my undergrad (political science and business) that I wanted to be in public relations. After working for a year in political communications and education, I decided to go back to school. PR companies were simply not interested in me unless I had an education in PR – even for entry level positions. I knew that another undergraduate degree would be time consuming and I was eligible for post-graduate study. So I dusted off my lunch box and went back to school (as it turns out, I ended up in a British university). And of course still work part time.

  8. I waited almost 8 years to go back for my Masters degree, which I am doing now in London, and I have no regrets. Not only do I have the experience to bolster my qualifications now, but being in the classroom with experience in my back pocket also made the lectures so much more relevant and useful. When you can start thinking logically about how this is taught and how it is done, and maybe how it should be done, your strategic mind goes into overdrive. It’s pretty exciting. Being a grad student has its ups and downs but I would not have benefitted as much had I gone immediately after my undergrad.

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  10. I went to grad school to get my MS in public relations right after college. While I completely agree that it is not necessary to have to work in PR (and I did have to log internships after the degree, as well as faced it working against me for a perceived higher salary requirement) I’m still glad that I went.

    I worried that if I didn’t go straight from undergrad that I wouldn’t go at all because I know that life happens and things are unpredictable. I knew that at 22, I could secure my masters by 23, learn the business and it has prepared me tremendously. I find that while I did have to start at entry level-like everyone! I am better equipped to talked the business and have moved up the ladder considerably faster than my peers who didn’t, not all based on the graduate degree, I’m sure, but I still attribute my a great deal of my knowledge of the business to that. Was it worth it 60g to go in the hole? That remains to be seen, but I still am glad I have it and have an accelerated level of education completed at such a young age 🙂

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  17. I am thinking of Grad school for PR. I have my undergrad degree in Broadcasting. I only have 2 months radio experience and 1 month experience in TV production, but my TV job is one day a week. I have applied for PR jobs but never get them. I do not have the skills they want. So how can i get experience before going to Grad School? It harder for me because I do not have an undergrad degree in PR. I am only working this TV job one day a week. There are no broadcasting jobs. I have applied to over 80 PR jobs over the last 8 months. For now i am stuck with no full time job. My grades were good. Sadly my old profs ignore me and will not answer me when I ask for advice of how to get a job in PR. The PR majors from my old school all have jobs. Should I go to grad school for PR?

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