What's a master's worth?

Douglas Quenqua finds that experience is often valued above a master's in PR.

Douglas Quenqua finds that experience is often valued above a master's in PR.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to getting a master's degree in PR. One says don't waste your time. After all, it's not going to help you find a job. Get out of the classroom and start learning how to make media contacts, deal with clients, and get stories placed. And if one day you decide to get a master's, first consider an MBA or a degree in public policy - something that will enrich your understanding of your chosen sector and make you more attractive to potential employers. The other school believes that 12 months spent in an ivory tower pondering social theory, research methodology, strategy, and management techniques is infinitely more valuable than five years of making cold calls and proofreading press releases. The education will help mark you as a professional in a field of serial amateurs. It may not inflate your starting salary, but it will greatly accelerate your climb up the management ladder. And at the end of the day, you'll be the best PR pro in the office, because you'll have the firmest grasp on the theory behind the practice. Here's the catch: Graduate PR professors largely fall into the "don't waste your time" group. "I tell my undergraduate PR students all the time, 'We think you have a dvery strong foundation in PR. If I were you, I would not get a graduate degree in PR. I would go out and work for a while, then maybe I would consider what kind of advanced degree to get. Maybe an MBA or a political-science degree,'" says Maria Russell, professor and chair of the PR program at Syracuse University's SI Newhouse School of Public Communications. And she's hardly alone. Truth is, few PR professors seem to endorse using the MA in PR as a tool toward getting a job - at least your first one. "The ideal graduate student is somebody who has had an undergraduate education, then worked for a few years to get to know what's going on, what PR is, and what they need to know," says University of Maryland Professor Jim Grunig. "Then they should come back and get the degree, and go back into a managerial position." Surprising? Listen to what their former students say. "You don't need a master's in PR to build an editorial calendar," claims Hannah Blackwell, who earned her graduate degree from Syracuse University just two years ago. She's now working as an account representative at Boston-based hi-tech firm Greenough Communications, and she credits the degree with getting her a starting job at slightly above entry level. But she still warns against seeking an advanced degree as a means for getting that first job. "I think it's valuable in general, just not necessarily at this point in my career," she says. Can a master's work against you? Her advice is borne out in the experience of fellow Newhouse alumnus Keith Romero. Now a public-information officer at the University of Illinois, Romero found that his MA in PR actually worked against him when he went looking for that first job. "I thought that the master's degree would illustrate that I was serious about establishing a career in PR, but it didn't work like that," he says. "A lot of doors were closed because I had a degree, but no agency experience." In addition, Romero had student loans to pay back. "The investment I made in getting up to speed and getting some more training in PR wasn't reflected in the entry-level salaries I was being offered," he remembers. And he particularly warns against being unemployed and over-educated in a down economy. "It makes you hard to place. When you have two candidates - one with good, solid experience and one with an advanced degree - you know that the person with the advanced degree is going to demand a little more salary." But more than 10 years after getting his degree, Romero says that it's now paying off. "It gives you insights that other people in the profession don't have, and others pick up on that. Even if I don't tell people I have a master's, they can tell." It's experiences like these that have PR educators encouraging their undergraduate students to forgo earning an advanced degree until they've had some work experience - even in a down economy. In fact, the master's programs themselves are increasingly designed for PR professionals looking to give their careers a shot in the arm. Christine Martin, dean of the School of Journalism at West Virginia University, is finishing work on a fully online master's program that, based on extensive research, caters almost exclusively to mid-level professionals. "When you go into the field," she says, "obviously you're learning more in one day than you could learn in a whole semester. But there's no time to discuss the things that didn't work, to look at the things that did work, or to share your information with your peers. Having time to sit back and just reflect with a professor is such a bonus." The University of Maryland's Grunig concurs. "Someone can have one year of experience 20 times, doing the same thing every year. There has to be a qualitative experience at some point," he says. Enrolling in a graduate program after several years in the business - once you've learned what it is you need to know - is the right way to do it, he believes. "I think a lot of the students who come back for a master's do it because they get stuck in the same job and have gotten tired of pitching stories," says Grunig. "A master's degree can sometimes be that thing that helps lift someone in their own organization." Of course, when it comes to getting hired in any economy, a master's degree is only as valuable as employers say it is. If the guy holding your resume thinks a master's in PR is a joke, all the education in the world won't land you the job. Jean Allen, who runs a specialty corporate communications group at recruiter Whitehead Mann, says her clients have expressed no interest in finding candidates who have earned their master's degrees in PR - and she doesn't expect they'd be very impressed if one showed up. "I still think you're a stronger candidate if your background is in journalism or business," she says. "Generally, clients want someone to bring a perspective to a situation. I don't see [the degree] as being a particular advantage." Suffering from old-school thought While Syracuse's Russell is realistic about the attitudes of potential employers, she believes this is "an old-time kind of thinking" that is holding back the profession. "I have a lot of people who still say to me, 'A master's degree in PR? Why would you need that?'" she says. "But a lot of people who are saying that are my age or older" - Russell is 54 - "who came out of a journalism background, who see only the artistic side of PR, and are not really owning up to the fact that PR these days is based in social science. That's an old-time kind of thinking that's not going to move the field forward." Romero's job-search experience lends credence to Russell's explanation of the matter. "I think there's a backlash against people who are getting graduate degrees in PR," he says. "It's not considered a serious discipline, even by many people in the industry. They come from the journalism model, and so the older practitioners say, 'Look at how I turned out, and I don't know what they're doing in these programs.'" Russell may be right, but for every PR professor claiming that the graduate degree is the future of PR, there are a dozen working professionals who scoff at the idea. "Anyone interested in furthering their PR credentials can attend workshops, follow news events, and learn from fellow practitioners. Those who cannot write a clean lead or a compelling subject line are doomed," writes Andrea Butler, media relations director at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. She's the former director of PR for US Airways, and the original VP of communications at Priceline.com. "When I hire, I look for writing skills and intellectual curiosity - the same skills reporters need. Tactical and strategic PR experience can be learned under good guidance on the job. To that end, I think a graduate degree in PR is not necessary." ----- Alternatives to on-site PR programs Online and distance-learning master's programs are a rising trend in PR graduate work. One of the most respected programs was developed eight years ago by Professor Maria Russell of Syracuse University. "This is for mid-career, working professionals," she says. "You have to have a minimum of five years' experience to get in, but most have been working for 10 to 20 years." Whereas the traditional campus master's is a "straight PR program," says Russell, the distance-learning program concentrates much more on teaching management skills, combining courses from three schools. The Newhouse school teaches PR, communications, and new technologies; the school of management provides accounting, finances, strategic planning, and marketing; and the Maxwell school provides leadership courses, such as negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation facilitation. Seton Hall also offers a distance-learning program. Director Patricia Kuchon describes it as much the same thing: an interdisciplinary course load that prepares mid-career professionals to "look at the human side of leadership, and determine how one running an organization or department uses communications to identify the vision of an organization or its goals." Both programs require the students to physically work together on campus at least a few times. But West Virginia University's plans to unveil the first fully online program - something its dean of journalism Christine Martin says is highly anticipated among the PR people responding to her school's research - could start a new trend. Russell, however, takes issue with the idea. "When we ask the students what they think about going totally online, they say, 'No way. This is a key part of the relationship-building. It helps us stay connected,'" she says. "They stay connected with each other for years, and many of them help each other find jobs."

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