By Barbara B. Hines, Ph.D.
Thinking about graduate school? Not sure what to do next? Students graduating with a liberal arts degree are often faced with a major decision: Get a job or head for graduate school?
In the communications industry, there’s no prescription to insure success. And often, the answer depends on who you talk to, your long-term career goals, and the many variables that affect an individual’s lifestyle. Graduate degrees in communication are popular: the National Communication Association reported statistics from the U.S. Department of Education that 5,605 master’s degrees were awarded in 2000 with general communications being the most popular focus of study, followed by journalism.
The field of mass communications embraces many disciplines including, but not limited to, advertising, broadcasting, journalism (for the web, magazines, newsletters and newspapers), interactive media, public relations, photojournalism, media design and film. Colleges and universities, large and small, public and private, on site and online offer undergraduate degrees in communications. Students often ask, “If I have an undergraduate degree in communications, should I study something different at the graduate level?”
No Clear-cut Answer
Graduate programs in communications offer a professional or academic track. Some do both. Many programs become well known for their ability to deliver a concentrated program at the graduate level with limited time on campus or via distance learning.
The first decision that needs to be made is the kind of graduate program desired. Do you want to follow a more professionally-oriented degree program versus the academic program? How do they differ? One program tends to prepare its graduates for immediate work in the field in a particular specialization. The curriculum usually includes a major project or creative activity and can be completed in one or two years. The academic program focuses on a critical analysis of mass media. It allows students to examine the mass communication process where students write a graduate level thesis. Both tracks enhance strategic thinking skills and leadership values.
At Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, students are advised that the graduate degree can provide a strong foundation, particularly for teaching or becoming an expert in a topic. Arlene Morgan, associate dean, often tells undergraduates and high school students that earning a graduate degree in journalism depends on the undergraduate background.
Mahmoud Braima, head of the Department of Mass Communication at Southern University, Baton Rouge, encourages student to refocus at the graduate level in areas of specialization like reporting, production and photojournalism. At Southern, students may take courses across the university to supplement their graduate-level skills courses.
Constance Cannon Frazier, senior vice president of the American Advertising Federation, the ad industry’s trade association, says a student’s career choice dictates whether a graduate degree is necessary, “Brand managers need an MBA or other graduate specialization, as do those who work in research. The extra education adds value in those areas.
“However,” she says, “an undergraduate degree for entry-level media or account management positions is fine.”
At Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, there are graduate programs in Integrated Communications: Advertising and Public Relations, Spanish-language Journalism, Student Media Advising and Business Journalism.
Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, FIU dean and professor, advises students that the master’s degree gives them new and advanced insights into the professions they will pursue. “At FIU, many students are changing careers, and the master’s allows them to pursue that new career path. Because the communications fields are changing so rapidly, students need to pursue new specialties and broaden their knowledge of the field so they can move up into leadership roles in those fields,” she said.
At what point is a graduate degree appropriate? Some students prefer to enter graduate school immediately after completing the undergraduate degree. Others prefer to work for a few years and then enter a graduate program.
All agree that there are merits to additional education. Donna Renella, vice president/talent for Constituency Management Group (one of the Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc., and a leader in hiring for the public relations industry, says that graduate education adds “maturity,” while the AAF’s Frazier says it “helps with strategic and analytical thinking.”
Degree seekers should look at the diversity of curricula available. As technology continues to evolve, the field broadens, as do the opportunities for additional study. Some corporations, like the Washington Post Company, Edelman PR and McGraw Hill (publishing) offer tuition remission for employees who want to continue their education while working. There’s added value to a job that provides tuition supplements as part of the employee benefits package.
Programs at the universities of Alabama, Kansas, Kansas State and Syracuse in community journalism challenge students to hone their writing and editing skills. At Northwestern University, the master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications was one of the first to broadly focus on advertising and public relations. At the University of California at Berkeley, specializations in New Media, Documentary Film, and Magazine Writing are particularly popular. American University offers specializations in Film, Media and Public Communication.
Students can study on weekends, evenings and, with the advent of the Internet, 24 hours a day. Online programs at the universities of Memphis, Nebraska, Maryland – University College, Missouri and Louisiana State give new meaning to the notion of a flexible education. Extended learning and continuing education programs are geared to the working professional and may be packaged with a certificate program (generally 15 hours) that gives added value to completing a degree at a particular university.
Increasingly, campuses are offering more interdisciplinary programs that partner communications with international affairs, business, management, public affairs, health and other disciplines.
Hot topics of study for the future: health communication, political communication, digital technologies, public diplomacy, arts journalism, communications management and strategic leadership. As the communications industry increasingly becomes a major employer and trendsetter, there is a greater need for employees to develop key management abilities.
At the master’s level, the academic (or research) degree appeals to students who want to develop their understanding of a distinct body of knowledge. Often, students who elect the academic degree plan to continue their education and earn a doctoral degree. The academic degree requires a thesis and helps students better analyze, interpret and critique. For this degree, the student works with a faculty mentor who may share an interest in the student’s research area.
How does the graduate degree in communications translate to dollars? Unfortunately, at the beginning of a career, the effect may be minimal, depending on the industry you pursue. The real payoff is later in one’s career when the degree helps you to move up the ladder in the management hierarchy.
If you are making an investment in graduate education, be passionate and focused. Don’t expect a program to provide all the answers. Understand that you are entering a field that may give you more questions than answers. Be able to look at the big picture, and keep an open mind as to ways your program can interface with others.
Develop a list of programs that meet your needs. Prepare for and take the Graduate Record Exam. Develop a resume and personal statement. Because the field is communications, be an effective communicator!
Once in a graduate program, make yourself known to the faculty. Learn about each faculty member’s area of expertise. Take advantage of opportunities to expand your horizons. Most communications programs offer special job fairs, seminars and industry immersion programs. Be prepared with an updated resume that you can mail,
fax, or email on demand. Have business cards to show you are serious about this field.
Finally, understand the field. Read widely about the business of communications. Be conversant about the changes in the industry. If you want to get into a graduate program, pursue it aggressively like you would a job. Finally, use your communications skills as your major selling point.
Barbara B. Hines is professor of journalism and director of the graduate program in Mass Communication and Media Studies at Howard University, Washington, DC.