I’m constantly asked about going back to graduate school: “Is it worth it?” “Should I?” or, “What’d you get out of it?” (That’s my favorite question to answer in a casual conversation.)
If you really want to know everything I learned in graduate school, it’s mostly captured in my thesis.
After 100 pages of academic discussion on applying communication theory to online public relations, I’m left with one piece of paper and an ill-fitting gown, but grad school was worth it.
I learned a lot about my profession that I didn’t already know, and I helped the PR field by publishing scholarly research. I’m glad I went, but it’s not for everybody.
If you’re considering it yourself, I encourage you to run though this checklist before you enroll.
1. Go with purpose; do your research.
If you’re asking about “grad school” in general, without a specific degree in mind, you haven’t done enough research. But that’s not always the mentality of recent undergrads facing a tough job market. Lately, as job searches extend months past graduation, millennials in their mid-20s start thinking: “Hmm … that M.A., M.S. or MBA sure would help my résumé stand out.”
Perhaps. But standing out is only a fleeting opportunity—not to mention the epitome of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Before I signed up for grad school, I looked at the program’s required classes and made sure I’d be learning something I didn’t know. I asked professionals and graduates of the program their opinions. I knew what I was getting into—and why.
2. Know the degree or program you want.
Graduate school isn’t like undergraduate study, where you enroll first and declare a major later. An advanced degree is more specialized than an undergraduate degree, and you’ll be asked to narrow your focus of study from day one. If it’s required, your thesis or project will eventually be more specialized than the title of your program.
Even if it’s not required, you should be exploring areas you’re specifically interested in throughout your studies. If you’re going to put in the time, come out with something you’ll truly use and enjoy. Because my undergrad degree wasn’t in PR, many of the core classes were a fit, but I also sought out additional coursework to supplement my academic curiosity and professional direction.
3. Gain real-world experience.
I strongly encourage anyone looking to jump straight from undergraduate to graduate school to take some time to gain real-world experience before going back to school.
Real-world experience makes the graduate classroom come alive, more so than in the undergrad realm. What you learn from classmates and professors in graduate school is just as important as material in the syllabi. The things they’ve seen, heard, and done in the professional world provide practical context to what are distinctly more in-depth discussions about a subject. Without your own set of experiences, some of the education can be lost in translation.
This is a tip I learned the hard way. Though I had a year’s worth of internships when I started grad school, it wasn’t enough. As I attended school part-time and starting working full-time, I found that every semester the classes meant more and more to me and my understanding of the profession. Bottom line: Have at least two years of experience before going back unless there are core classes you need to get into the business.
4. Do more than just school.
Grad school will not automatically put you in a better position to get a job. You need to get involved. Network. Network. Network.
After I left Miami University with my B.A., I immediately enrolled in Kent State to get my master’s in public relations. I managed part- and full-time schedules for school, internships, freelance gigs and life. I attended PRSA, IABC, and Social Media Club events and interviewed constantly.
It took five years to get a “two-year degree,” but I walked away not being over-educated and under-experienced. I gained the tactical skills of my profession and understood my role in an organization. I also learned how to apply strategic PR thought processes to my positions.
And remember—never stop learning.
The value of continued education—both in the classroom and on the job—cannot be overstated.
Both the education and experience of grad school will serve you for the rest of your career. Never for a second would I discourage someone from going after an advanced degree. It’s important to tie this education back to the real world by pairing in-class and out-of-class learning in way that becomes ingrained in your daily behavior. Even after the degree, make sure your mind’s a sponge.
I still attend conferences, stay plugged into social media, and read as often as possible to make sure I’m still learning. I also take every opportunity to teach what I’ve learned about PR, social media, and beyond to those both younger and older than I.
In the end, my five-plus years of experience and a PR degree have left me in a great position early in my career. I had my pick of jobs late last year and landed at a place where I can continue to learn and grow, while adding value through strategic PR counsel. Heck, I can even bring a dog to work.
Chris Sledzik is a PR account executive at Marcus Thomas. He graduated in May from PRKent and can be reached @csledzik on Twitter.