New Year, New Degree: The Road to Grad School

grad schoolWhen I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in May 2012, I couldn’t wait to be done with college. Passionate about starting my career and impatient to begin my new agency job, I was ready to leave behind tests, lectures and projects for the real world.

Exactly three years later, in May 2015, I’ll be in class again – this time, as a graduate student pursuing my master’s degree in integrated marketing communications.

Why grad school?

My decision to pursue a graduate degree was the direct result of a shift in my career path. After two years of working agency jobs – and an unexpected layoff after the loss of a client – I was unfulfilled, frustrated and ready for a change.

After much thought, I accepted a marketing position with a small liberal arts college where I focus on telling the stories of students, faculty and alumni who are doing amazing things. I assist in developing communications plans for community relations, development and alumni relations efforts. And I’m in an environment where education and the pursuit of lifelong learning are valued and respected.

Unlike the agency world, where experience is indispensable and graduate study isn’t a necessity, nearly all management and executive-level jobs in higher ed administration require an advanced degree. And, with more of their top communications officers reporting directly to college and university presidents than ever before, I’ve got my eye on the top spot and a plan to get there.

In addition, I hope to teach at the college level in the future – another position that nearly always requires at least a master’s degree.

For both of these reasons, grad school became a logical next step for me. But how do you know it’s right for you?

Is grad school the right move for me?

It’s a difficult decision to go back to school – one with personal, professional and financial implications. Before you sign up for a GRE prep class, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Will earning a graduate degree further my career? Think about where you’d like to be in your career five, 10 or even 15 years down the road. Search job postings based on those goals and look at the qualifications. Is a master’s degree preferred or required? Talk to your professional mentors and explore LinkedIn profiles. Understanding exactly where you want to be in the future will help shape your plan for how to get there.
  • What program fits my objectives? Part-time and online programs are flexible options for working professionals. MBA programs focus on business, while M.S. and M.A. programs can have professional and academic tracks. Since my bachelor’s degree is in public relations, I was looking for a graduate program that would complement my skill set while allowing me to focus on taking classes in areas where I was less versed. After narrowing down the choices, I reached out to alumni via LinkedIn and learned firsthand their experiences and how they were using their degrees.
  •  How much will it cost? Though grad school isn’t free, there are many ways to cover costs and make sure you’re not saddled with large debt in the process. Make sure to submit the FAFSA, which will help generate loan eligibility. Explore scholarships and fellowships. In addition, talk to your boss about going back to school. Many employers will look favorably upon an employee seeking education and may provide tuition assistance or reimbursement.
  • Does the timing make sense? It’ll take me a little more than two years to finish my degree taking classes part time while I continue to work full time. That’s quite a commitment. Will you be able to devote the time necessary to be successful? Each person’s situation is different; take a look at personal and professional obligations and be realistic about what you can take on.

With public relations and marketing professionals working in a variety of industries, each with their own set of requirements and qualifications, grad school may not be the right move for everyone. My best advice? Do your research. Ask the right questions. Create a plan. It will soon become clear if (and when) graduate school will fit. And, if you end up back in class in 2015, I’ll save you a seat!

Sarah LackSarah Lack is an alumna of Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She works in the communications department at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, and is the communications coordinator for Girls on the Run of Greater Summit, a nonprofit organization serving Northeast Ohio. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@sarah_lack).

Three Reasons to Get a Graduate Degree in PR

When I entered the field of public relations at the ripe old age of 22, I felt like a latecomer. I had just moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship in PR at a theater (as I thought I wanted to work at a theater, but did not know in what capacity) and quickly realized how exciting and creative PR could be. With no formal PR-focused education, I decided to take an introduction to PR class in a strategic public relations graduate program at The George Washington University, which turned out to be a great career decision.

PR is a field that doesn’t require post-graduate degrees, and professionals in the field have a variety of undergraduate majors and minors. A lot of schools do have PR undergraduate degrees, such as the Newhouse School at Syracuse, as well as PRSSA chapters. Many people, though, come to PR with a strong background in writing, speaking or community outreach and may be looking for more formalized training, which was exactly what I needed. Benefits from obtaining a master’s degree include:

Learning from classmates

Much of the knowledge I gained from attaining my master’s degree in PR came from speaking with my fellow classmates. In my introduction to PR class, filled mostly with part-time students with full-time jobs, I met people working as press secretaries for senators, account executives at PR firms, graduate interns in formal government postings, sole PR practitioners at non-profits and in a host of other positions. The class also included some less experienced people such as myself, but class conversations were more often carried by people with experience, and it was interesting to hear their thoughts. Though my classmates’ collective experience intimidated me, I appreciated being able to learn from the stories and ideas they shared.

Connecting to internship and networking opportunities

Experience is key in PR. Internships can help a new professional determine what kind of place at which he or she would like to work. (Agency? Non-profit? Government?) They can help a new pro get his or her foot in the door. Networking is also a good way to gain knowledge about the PR field in a specific area and meet people who can connect you to a job. Combining networking and the experience of obtaining a graduate degree is sure way to achieve success, and, in fact, networking and getting experience can be much easier to do through enrolling in a graduate program. Many companies may require internship candidates to be enrolled in a graduate program, such as government Student Career Experience Programs (SCEP), and university career centers often help connect students to internships or full-time positions. Graduate programs or university career centers often host helpful networking events as well, free to students. Take advantage of these if you enroll in a program.

Getting an edge on your resume

Toward the end of my graduate program, I began to look for a full-time PR position through the career center at which I worked. I found a position that required applicants to have either a certain number of years of experience (which I didn’t have) OR less years of experience and a master’s degree. Since I would had the degree, I was qualified…and got the job! In other situations, when your resume may look nearly the same as another candidate’s, but you have a master’s and the other candidate does not, you’ll come out on top.

The decision to get a master’s is a big one to make. Aside from assessing whether it will help you improve your job prospects, you’ll have to consider the cost–what program to choose (PR, communications, perhaps even an MBA), which schools to apply to, whether to go full-time or part-time and if you’ll be able to handle the work load. Try applying for a job at the school you decide to go to. After I started working full-time at GWU, my tuition costs were almost completely covered by the school. Whatever you end up deciding to do, make sure it’s something that will add to your career, that you’ll be learning new information that you didn’t know before and that you’ll enjoy the program. If you apply and get in, make sure to go out and have fun with your classmates—they’ll be your future colleagues!

Whitney GrayWhitney E. Gray, communications coordinator for CropLife America, an international trade association of agrobusiness companies. Hailing from the snowy state of New Hampshire, Gray has been working in Washington, D.C., since 2008. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in theater arts and American studies from Brandeis University and has a master’s degree in strategic public relations from The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Gray once served as the PRSA New Professionals Section membership co-chair.