Higher Education vs. Real-World Experience in PR

A common decision that college seniors must make is whether to continue on to graduate school or to look for a job in the field they wish to pursue.

With the economy slowly recovering, it’s no surprise that many students are deciding to enroll in graduate school instead of jumping into the job search. This growing trend, especially in public relations, has made me think: what is the value of graduate school without any on-the-job experience?

Let me preface by saying that I am currently completing my master’s degree in PR and corporate communications at NYU – so I definitely see value in higher education. I chose to pursue this degree because my undergraduate degree is not in PR, and I decided that further education would be the best way for me to understand my new profession.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a full-time job in PR while attending classes, and I now realize that my education would not have been nearly as helpful without on-the-job experience to supplement it.

Listening to a professor tell you how to interact with the media or compile a strategic communications plan is one thing, but it’s not the same thing as doing it yourself.  One component to my degree, which I think should be included in all public relations programs, is to work with an actual company to develop a strategic communications plan.

Too often I’ve heard stories about fellow students who tried to develop their plans strictly following the textbook, recommending components that will work in an ideal scenario, but would have little chance of success in the real world.

Think of it this way: I studied political science in college. I read books upon books about political science and listened to classroom lectures, but I did not participate in the student government. Does the knowledge, but not the experience, make me a politician? In the case of PR, if I read books about PR but are not practicing in the field, can I truly say upon graduation that I am a PR practitioner?

I’ve realized that it’s extremely valuable to be taught by your coworkers along with learning in a classroom. This is especially true when a PR student wants to pursue a very specific field, like business-to-business technology (in my case). Professors can teach you the general PR skills that every student should know: how to write a press release, build a PR plan, communicate with the media, etc. However, a practitioner can only learn the intricacies of their field from colleagues.

In business-to-business technology, would we advise for clients to have Facebook pages and target consumer publications? Not likely, but these are tactics taught in the classroom and are important PR basics. Would a classroom student learn how to interact with industry analysts and how to successfully staff a trade show? Doubtful, but these are skills that are necessary in some specific PR fields.

There is value in graduate-level PR education. Having a master’s degree on your resume can never hurt, and students who studied other fields in undergraduate classes can learn valuable PR skills to help them succeed in the business. However, we need to realize that classroom learning can’t do it all. Especially if students want to pursue a specialized form of PR, they need to supplement the classroom with on-the-job experience to become a valuable consultant.

What do you think? Is it more important to get more education in PR, or are you better off getting more on-the-job training? What do you value most?

About Ashleigh Egan

Ashleigh Egan is a member of the account execution team at New York City-based Articulate Communications Inc. Prior to Articulate, Ashleigh was a senior account executive at Metia, a technology PR agency with offices in the U.K. and U.S., where she was a member of the global teams for many of the agency’s financial services accounts. Ashleigh graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in politics and a minor in English and journalism from Fairfield University in Connecticut and is a candidate for a master’s degree in public relations and corporate communications at New York University. For more information on Articulate Communications, please visit: http://www.articulatepr.com.

22 Comments

  1. A builder can tell you how to build a house, or a plumber can tell you how to change a washer in your faucet but until you actually do it you just don’t get it. Nothing beast real world experience. After your undergraduate degree, work, then you will get immensely more from your graduate studies.

    • Well said Joe Gallehugh! School can prep you for the real world, but it won’t give you all the tools needed to help with real world PR situations, i.e. the Toyota crisis, Tiger Woods’ drama, etc.

  2. I love this topic from our new guest blogger Ashleigh.

    For me, real-world experience has always been more valuable. A lot of the stuff you learn from professors in school is the direct result of their real-world experience. You can be the teacher when you learn more on the job.

    That said, I wouldn’t be able to learn much at all in the real-world without a solid PR education. I’m a big proponent of that. I think the best mix is both – more education and more experience. For me, that means I always have a fresh book on the night stand, and I do my best to learn more through researching and writing about topics I want to know more about.

    I think you learn the most from the people you interact with and the books you read. Whether this is in a formal education environment, or on your own through the work you do, you can’t go wrong learning something new everyday.

  3. Ashleigh:

    First, let me say more education is never a bad thing. I would seldom argue against getting an advanced degree in any area of study. However, that said, there is no substitute for real-world experience. But here’s the thing. In the scenario you outline above, where people are heading back to school because they can’t find jobs, I’m wondering if those people have really exhausted all their options. I’m not saying finding a job in this market is easy. But, have those people thought about donating their time to a local not-for-profit? Great way to build *real* skills while helping a noble cause (not to mention, a great way to meet very influential people–remember, the folks who sit on NFP boards usually come from major corporations in your market). Are those people involved with their local PRSA or IABC chapter? Usually you can find ways to hone your skills by volunteering for a committee or two (and meet people and referral sources in the process). I think sometimes people use grad school as an excuse. I can’t find a job, so I’ll get an advanced degree. That will make me more marketable. In today’s marketplace, where more people than ever before have advanced degrees, I think that logic is flawed. I think what makes you marketable is a unique skill set. Can you obtain that by getting an MBA? Sometimes. But, more often times than not, you can obtain that unique skill set through real-world experiences. Internships. Volunteer projects. Relationships.

    @arikhanson

  4. As a comm professor, I tell my students to wait at least five years before pursuing a graduate degree in comm. A graduate degree, especially in public relations, is most useful when you are refreshing a skill set or switching specialization.

    That being said, I do object to your “real world” vs. education frame.

    First of all, any PR program worth its salt has students working with clients. Even my undergrad intro to PR students work with non-profits in a semester-long project. And that is true for most of the professors I know.

    More importantly, college is just a real as a job. The habits you build in class work are exactly the same habits you carry into the workplace. The mindset that there is a “college-world” and “real world” is damaging. Students fall into the trap of believing they will be different people after graduation and that leads them into bad habits.

    And how do you know that your professors wouldn’t be your colleagues as well? Many PR professors are also consultants or have spent decades in the field. You can’t assume that there is a wall between the academy and the industry.

    So while I agree with your fundamental point, you should question your assumptions with a bit more attention. That is lesson one in any pr class.

    • As an adjunct professor & working professional, I believe that anyone who equates the sheltered world of college with the demanding world of work has either spent too much time in academia or not enough in that “real world”. While education can provide the foundations for a career, we truly learn our trade by encountering the lessons of the work world. These lessons frequently teach us that the “ivy tower” theories taught in the classroom need to be discarded as unrealistic or impractical. Granted, the more practical experience a professor has, the more students benefit. However, the longer a professor is out of the work world, no matter their “decades in the field”, the less relevant is the experience. Ashleigh’s post clearly states the value of both education & experience. She does not need to question her assumptions “with a bit more attention”. Maybe some in academia need to become less defensive.

  5. I don’t think this is specific to just PR. If I have a choice between someone with an undergrad and 5 years of REAL experience vs. a MBA and 2 years experience in the REAL world, I’d take the undergrad every single time. I don’t need theory, I need the ability to actual work in the real world. This FedEx ad sums it up best: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcoDV0dhWPA

  6. If finances are available through savings or scholarships or fellowships, any sources other than accumulating debt, I suggest that students obtain the degree instead of entering the current job market. If graduate school financing is not available, I still suggest that students pursue a Masters at night or online.

  7. Thank you to everyone for providing some thoughtful comments. Some important points have been discussed, in particular:

    Arik – Thank you for highlighting some alternate ways that young professionals can build their skills. Volunteering and becoming involved in industry associations are great ways to not only build some real world skills but also meet people in the industry who may be able to help in finding a job. I think these are two avenues that young graduates may not pursue as much as they should.

    Kim – Some good insight from a professor in the field. Not having taken communications classes as an undergraduate myself, I was not aware that undergraduate programs involve their students with clients. This is a great way to experience working with a real client while taking college classes. I’d also like to point out that the assumptions in my post are purely based on my own experiences as someone who studied topics other than communications as a undergraduate, and I appreciate you providing your viewpoint as a educator.

    Happy to hear some more thoughts on the topic.

  8. Great post!

    Currently, in Canada, if you want to work in PR, you must complete a university-level BA, then follow-up with a 10 month course specializing in PR at a community college. This is a far cry from when I graduated back in the 80’s and learned PR on the job.

    Do I find these students ready to hit the ground running in the real world? Well, these courses give them a great foundation; but, when it comes to a being a great PR pro, I firmly believe you need to have the ‘it’ factor. You either have ‘it’ or you don’t.

    You can’t ‘teach’ how to have a nose for news. You can’t teach how to pitch. You CAN teach the formula of how to develop a strategy, but you still need the smarts on how to mold the formula to the situation.

    Many of these students also still think PR= parties. Yes, there is a place for that – but it’s limited.

    I do agree with @arikhanson; more on the job experience will take you farther vs a post-grad degree in PR. I’ve yet to see a post-grad degree PR pro outshine someone with great experience.

  9. As someone who sort of “fell into” PR I learned the basics on the job. And that was great and I did just fine. I eventually went back and got an MS in integrated marketing communications and I’m so glad I did. Learning the theory behind what I was doing, getting stronger at planning and being proactive, gaining time with adjunct professors who were absolute pros – all these things helped me become a much more strategic consultant. And consequently, I can charge more and the projects I work on are much meatier.

  10. Fascinating topic Ashleigh. I completed my undergraduate degree last year and faced the decision outlined in your article title. I did not have a degree that immediately linked my education to the PR industry, but I did have a few internships in local PR boutiques. And I had a few classes of communications and PR related coursework under my belt.

    Ultimately, I choose to try and get the real-world experience first and then pursue an advanced degree when I needed it to move up in the ranks. I think the experience vs. education debate must be personalized. I learn better from hands on work, so I marched into the job search determined to find work. Luckily, I found a position working in digital marketing/PR and learn everyday.

  11. Great topic of discussion. The question of graduate school is what I will be facing next year and at the moment I am leaning towards grad school. I have been working three jobs while going to school and personally I feel that the real-world experience has helped me with skills more beneficial to my career. I am huge supporter of education though. Reason why I am considering graduate school is because I am new to communications and I would love to learn and educate myself as much as I possibly can in numerous areas. But without the work experience I have had I wouldn’t have even considered heading into the area of communications. I do believe having a mix of work experience while in school can greatly help shape you as a future employer. Reason why internships are usually required by many colleges to graduate with a undergrad. Again great post.

  12. Hi Ashleigh! Thanks so much for this post as this is something I have been struggling with lately. I am a senior Public Relations major from Georgia Southern University and personally cannot wait to get into the field. I have been taking PR classes for nearly 6 semesters now and this semester, my final semester, has definately been the most educational. Not because I am taking more hours or engaging in more difficult courses, but because I have an internship at Savannah magazine. I cannot tell you how helpful it is to work in the field three days a week and then go to class and be able to apply what I am reading to the company I am working with. I would love to go to graduate school eventually but I would only do this if I could do it just like you have, with a full-time PR job at the same time!

  13. Thanks for the great post Ashleigh! I am currently working in PR full-time and I couldn’t agree MORE that real-life experience is invaluable. However – I WOULD love to pursue a masters… but now that I’ve been in the real job-market for 2+ years, going back will definitely be a challenge!! Thanks again for the great thoughts.

  14. I don’t care if you have a BA/BS, Masters or Phd in PR, if you cannot or will not pick up the phone and pitch a reporter or talk to a complete stranger than you need to seriously consider changing professions. There are certain fundamental traits that you need to have in this business and learning all the theory in the world won’t help you if you don’t have them and/or don’t feel comfortable doing certain things. Masters degree or not, if you’re just out of school and come knocking on my door for a job I’m still going to lump you in with the other entry-levels until you get real-world experience. My best advice is to work in the PR world for 5-10 years and THEN go back for your post-graduate work. Employers will love your real world experience combined with the advanced education.

    • Tom I couldn’t have said it better myself re picking up the phone. So many people think PR is about writing and “strategizing” when so much is just good solid sales techniques. I too went back and got my masters after about five years working in the field, and it was just as you said, a perfect combination.

  15. This is encouraging. I will be graduating with my M.S. in Journalism with a PR concentration from Ohio University in June. I was a Dance major in my undergrad life, and hope to work in the arts. It is encouraging to see those of you who made similar decisions about goign back to school to learn PR after having another life in a different subject1

  16. This post definitely resonated with me in a big way. I too completed a BA in Political Science, and unsure what to do with that, I decided that I would enroll in a Post-Grad program at a college in Corporate Communications. This experience was invaluable, the hands-on learning that we experienced through working with current industry experts as our instructors, ensured that we were exposed to the realities of the job instead of the text book definition. The completion of this 8 month hands-on crash course gave my classmates and I a distinct advantage when competing for entry level jobs, as employers did not have to teach us the basics of how to write a press release, etc. A huge advantage of this program, was the 4 month co-op placement that provided us with actual on the job experience out of the classroom. Now that I have graduated from the college program, and I have some “entry” real world experience under my belt, I have decided to go back to school to complete my MSc in Public Relations, on a part-time basis. Although I’m confident that my education will enable me to progress in my career faster, I know that without the real-world experience that I obtained from my first jobs in PR, my education may have been wasted.

  17. I am 1 of the many who pursued higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree. I am currently pursuing a doctorate degree in the psychology field. In the last year I have learned a lot about a public relations through some on the job experiences. My hope is to somehow find a correlation between educational psychology and public relations. But I have appreciated being able to be educated and to learn on the job.

  18. I’ve read through a number of the articles in your website , and I love the way you blog. I included it to my favorites blog site list and will also be checking quickly.

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