The Value of Higher Education in Today's Market

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Posted At: December 8, 2010 3:04 PM
by Jessica West

Whether it is the poor economic state of the job market, fear of entering the “real world” or simply objection to facing responsibility, undergrad PR students are frequently choosing the path of graduate school. Graduate programs prepare students for careers in a wide range of activities and work to ensure that they are marketable to potential employers; however, some debate whether a graduate degree sets you apart or merely deprives you of additional first-hand experience.

In a PRNewsPros blog post written by Janet Krenn, PRSA chair of new professionals, Krenn conducted a study to help answer this question. Out of 32 PRSA members surveyed, 66 percent said that their M.A. degrees in PR provided everything from strengthened skills to credibility.

“Overall I found that most of my respondents were glad they got their advanced degrees,” Krenn said. “Even the one or two that said that they didn’t know whether the advanced degree helped their career also said that they didn’t personally regret having gone through the process. Most of the folks who responded were positive and highlighted the professional benefits of graduate school.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of public relations specialists is expected to grow between 13 and 24 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the projected average for all occupations. A master’s degree could be the means recent graduates need to advance them beyond their competition.

In Krenn’s case, the benefits outweighed the costs. An above-entry-level position, greater experience and higher pay were perks she would not have received without an advanced degree.

Other professionals believe that graduate school may seem like a nice stepping stone into the industry, but isn’t necessarily the right option for recent PR grads. Carly Rullman, account coordinator for Scout Branding in Birmingham, Ala., thinks it is smart to get a job post-graduation and keep in mind a PR master’s for the future.

“I think once you have a master’s, you tend to talk about your experiences in that program and neglect all you worked so hard on in undergrad,” Rullman said. “Give your undergrad studies and extracurriculars a chance to shine by interviewing for jobs.”

Rullman feels highlighting undergraduate achievements is only one of many reasons to go straight to work upon graduation.

“Employers will also admire you for facing the career world, even in such tough economical times,” Rullman said. “You really have nothing to lose! It is certainly worth a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, then consider going back to school.”

According to MarketWatch.com, graduate programs typically see an increase in applicants with downturns in the economy, and the latest was no exception. Many undergrads, either unemployed or looking to secure an upper hand, are turning to graduate school as a way to buy more time and eventually increase their salaries.

While experience, knowledge and leadership are important for promotion, beginning PR professionals’ success is often accelerated by participation in training programs or continuing education opportunities conducted by their employers. Firms commonly present their practitioners with opportunities to further their knowledge and ability — either through in-house programs or at local colleges and universities — and often reimburse all or part of the cost to those who complete the courses.

University of Alabama doctoral student Kenon Brown suggests getting some experience before pursuing a master’s, even if it is an internship or a part-time job in PR.

“You need to know how to do the technical side of the field before you can begin to think about the managerial side of the field, which is what you will work on in a master’s program,” Brown said.

Brown received his bachelor’s degree in journalism at The University of Tennessee. He took a restaurant manager position during his senior year and later became head of marketing and promotions, a title he kept for nearly four years.

“I got the impression that if I wanted to move to the corporate headquarters and do PR or marketing for them, I would have to get a master’s degree,” Brown said. “I decided to go back for the professional track degree, but later realized it was actually teaching that I was interested in.”

For this reason, Brown advises students to pursue a graduate degree only if they are truly passionate about the area, especially in a field like public relations. Brown said, “It is a lot of work, and you have to be self-motivated to get through the program.”

According to his spotlight page on UA’s website, Brown anticipates graduating in May 2012. After receiving his doctoral degree, he hopes to become an assistant professor at a Research I or Research II institution.

In this debate, Jack O’Dwyer, publisher and editor-in-chief of O’Dwyers PR, has similar feelings to Rullman. He explained that a master’s degree could be useful in a corporate or organizational environment, but it isn’t necessary for agency jobs — regardless of current economic conditions.

“The big learning experience with PR is press relations or lobbying,” O’Dwyer said. “PR firms are often the best place to start.”

In addition to his advice, O’Dwyer posted a poll on the site’s home page, asking what route upcoming PR grads should take upon graduation. Of visitors who participated in the informal survey, 38 percent believed graduates should immediately enter the job market. Twenty-five percent of participants responded that PR grads should seek a job in media, and another 25 percent said they should take any job at all. Only 13 percent of respondents said grads should first obtain a master’s degree in PR.

According to studies published by the U.S. Department of Labor, a PR practitioner with a master’s degree can earn anywhere between $10,000 to $20,000 more per year.

Contenders who do not have appropriate educational background or firsthand practice will encounter the most difficulty, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Opportunities should be greatest for college grads who combine a degree in public relations with another communications-related field and additional work experience.

While these opinions and tips reflect many of those in the 2007 article “Post-Graduation: To earn an M.A. or to Work,” Platform wanted to revisit the topic and explore how factors, such as the economic downturn, may or may not have affected more recent decisions.

In recent years, which route do you believe is the most beneficial in advancing a PR graduates career?

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