Recently, a question came in to the Kitchen from a reader. They were curious if having a Master’s in Publishing would make them more attractive to a potential publishing employer. They also wanted to understand if the education they received as part of that program was likely to make them a more successful new hire. This seemed like a perfect question to pose to the Chefs. In an effort to gain additional perspectives, we also posed the question to some guest contributors.
The question this month is: What is the value of a Master’s in Publishing?
David Thew (Executive Search and Recruitment): I confess I am a bit of a skeptic. A vocational qualification in Publishing can be of value if the course is up to date, includes both a strong digital component and a strong commercial focus and requires one or more internships where the student can gain practical hands-on experience. The challenges with any such course, however, are currency and relevance; the modern publishing organization is the sum of a complex mix of skills and the pace of change is rapid.
A Master’s can be of value as a demonstration of commitment to the publishing profession, but I think a sizeable percentage of people working in publishing come into it from other routes and I think a Master’s can be a bit of a red herring.
As a recruiter, I have rarely been asked to focus on candidates with a Master’s in Publishing, but I am frequently asked to target candidates with vocational training in specific disciplines such as marketing, project management, finance, business intelligence and sales. Often this training will have been acquired ‘on the job’, so by default it is applied and therefore relevant.
In my experience, academic qualifications are of greatest value and relevance for scholarly publishers in roles where there is significant engagement with the editorial/author community, but this is more about the specific area(s) of research than about publishing skills. Proven research experience in one or more related academic fields suggests an understanding of the research process, including getting research published, a commitment to research dissemination and the credibility to talk with authority to the academic research community. The Holy Grail for the publisher is to find people who combine these skills with the ability to engage effectively with multiple audiences, from the research community itself to senior management in-house, all with a consistent focus on business goals. Typically, those skills are acquired over time and build on natural, inherent aptitude.
Alison Mudditt: A couple of years ago I participated in a symposium for UC humanities Ph.D. students about career options outside the academy, and I’m sure that I disappointed many when I told them that their Ph.D. alone wouldn’t get them a job at a higher entry level or salary than a strong candidate with only a Bachelors’ degree. I suspect that the same can frequently be said for a Master’s in Publishing.
We receive many applications for entry-level positions (over one hundred for recent Editorial Assistant positions!) and so a Master’s might well help a resume to rise to the top of the pile for serious consideration. But here in the Bay Area this application will compete with supersmart graduates from some of the country’s best institutions. While a relevant qualification can help you get noticed, we are interviewing for core qualities such as motivation, collaboration, flexibility and openness to change. The world of work – as well as publishing – is evolving at a dramatic pace and so we need staff who can adapt and grow with us. Ultimately, our hiring and promotion decisions are weighted more heavily on these factors than they are on specific domain knowledge.
And although I have not personally hired or managed anyone with a Master’s, given how specialized our corner of the publishing world is and how fast it is changing, I would question how relevant many of the courses may ultimately be. Publishing is a business with a lot of continuous, on-the-job learning for all of us.
I can imagine that a Master’s offers many of the traditional benefits of any graduate program (networking and job opportunities through alumni, for example). But it’s a serious investment of time and money, so I would caution those considering this route to think carefully about how it would further their career goals.
David Smith: I don’t know. I must confess I didn’t know there was such a thing and I’ve never seen it listed on any of the CVs I’ve looked at over the years. Were I to see it listed in the qualifications, and were the covering letter, etc., to be appropriate, I think I would likely invite the applicant in to find out more. So I’d be asking what areas were covered; looking for in depth critique of the digital age we grapple with. There would be a bit of technical probing for sure, but I’d be very interested in the understanding of economic models at play, which ones have worked; failed; lived and then died; Come back again! I would want to know about how the program had covered modern ways for bringing products from first idea, to market. I’d want to know what frameworks of thinking the course had taught. And then I’d want to know what the applicant thought the course had given them and where it fitted in with their goals and aspirations. I’m fascinated to see what the other perspectives are on this!
Unlike other industries, like finance or engineering, there isn’t enough research done on how to improve the theory or practice of publishing. In this way, scholarly publishing is more of a trade than a science, oddly enough.
Alice Meadows: I realize this risks stating the obvious but, having taught occasional classes at both levels, a Master’s in publishing is significantly more valuable than an undergraduate degree which, in my experience, tend to result in a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing. That can also be true of higher level degrees, of course, but I think (hope!) that those students would be more mature and thoughtful about the publishing industry.
Overall, however, I’d describe myself as neutral on the value of a Master’s in publishing. On the plus side, it does show a commitment to a career in publishing, though not necessarily a career in scholarly publishing — and in fact many courses focus primarily (or exclusively) on trade publishing, which is quite different in many ways. (Then again I suspect that most of us didn’t plan a career in scholarly publishing either!)
But, as a hiring manager, I’m not sure that I’d rank someone with a Master’s in publishing above candidates with advanced degrees in other subjects. Or even a good undergraduate degree. In scholarly publishing, in particular, staff with knowledge of a specific discipline — especially at an advanced level — are definitely an asset. Mostly what I’m looking for is someone who is smart, enthusiastic, willing to learn, and a good fit for the team and organization. So, for me as an employer, a Master’s in publishing would be, at best, a nice to have.
Angela Cochran: I am glad to see that several universities are offering programs ranging from certificate to a Master’s degree in publishing. Publishing sounds simple but there are so many different skills required to get it right. Acquisitions is different than copyediting. Marketing is different than production. Online distribution is different than typesetting. Publishing is also a relatively easy field to enter with lots of entry level opportunities. Some of the entry level work is, quite frankly, not that exciting on the face of it. That said, I tell all new prospects that in journal publishing, at least once a week something outrageous will cross your desk. There are constant opportunities to learn. For entry level people, the main qualifications are typically can you read? Can you write an email that makes sense? Do you have an insane attention to detail? Do you have a customer service demeanor? These are some of the things I look for when filling a position.
So where does the master’s degree fit in? In hiring someone that does not have a lot of experience, having a master’s degree in publishing definitely gives them a foot up. Does it mean that the candidate knows everything and is ready to hit the ground running? No, but you don’t need to teach the basics. You don’t need to explain what a style manual is or what it means that something is peer reviewed.
Would I recommend that someone with a few years in go sign up for a Master’s program? I can’t say that I would. Once you have the basics down, it’s all about experience. There is a lot in publishing that really comes with experience: how to manage editors, how to hire support staff, knowing when an author question raises a red flag, recognizing a problem with a review, having a sense for what you can trust the author to do versus what you need to independently verify, etc. You learn these things by seeing your coworkers handle them, watching your supervisor, attending publishing conferences, reading blogs, and doing webinars.
Todd Carpenter: Advanced professional degrees provide an opportunity to think critically about the business or industry one is involved in in a methodical and detached way. Professional degrees can be exceptionally useful in providing a forum where people can learn from the experience of others, rather than having to make one’s own mistakes along the way. Of course, nothing is quite like experience, but learning on the fly can also be a risky proposition, both for the company as well as the employee. Practically speaking however, getting a degree is most likely to help someone get that first job in publishing, or support their advancement in the industry. Certainly, I think none of us in scholarly publishing should be against the notion of more education nor denigrating of its value.
Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t have Master’s in Publishing, though many have Master’s in Library/Information Science. The program of study is quite different, as is the expectation of employers. It is difficult to get a senior job in a library without an MLS/MLIS. Similarly professional degrees are required to advance in other fields. Happily, publishing is not like that. The reason I say “happily” is that the diversity of backgrounds and fields of study in publishing makes the community so vibrant. People I know in our industry have backgrounds as diverse as music, philosophy, languages, computer science, neurology, art, and geology. If everyone were required to go through the same course of study, whether that be a Master’s in Publishing or a degree in English, it would certainly diminish the diversity of thought in our community. This situation often comes with its challenges, however. Too few have a diverse understanding of aspects of publishing that people aren’t directly involved with. Marketing people (speaking as a former one), often don’t know the editorial processes. Most production staff don’t get exposed to circulation or rights issues. Companies could do a better job cross-training, but without that corporate training leadership, a Master’s Program in Publishing would give people exposure to other elements of the industry they wouldn’t normally be engaged in.
On the positive side, I personally would appreciate the time to do concentrated thought and study about our industry and the trends buffeting it. One of the challenges of advancing in one’s career is that time becomes more limited. Unfortunately, this constrains the number of people who have the time to think very deeply and critically about its role and impact. Sure, many of us consider trends and activities taking place particularly in our own organization, but few of us have the concentrated time to do research, study, and then craft visions, narratives, or histories of our community. This is one thing that participating in a Master’s Program would allow for and thoughtful consideration is always a good thing. In reviewing papers about our industry for Learned Publishing, I’ve come to appreciate the work and time necessary to provide thoughtful study of our industry. Unlike other industries, like finance or engineering, there isn’t enough research done on how to improve the theory or practice of publishing. In this way, scholarly publishing is more of a trade than a science, oddly enough. We could use those in Master’s of Publishing programs to advance the science of scholarly publishing. And we would all benefit from that.
Charlie Rapple: Working in the Oxford area, where one of our local universities offers a publishing MA, has meant that I’ve known many colleagues or prospective hires with this qualification. I recall in the early days of my career that a new colleague with a publishing MA did seem a little more knowledgeable, and easier to train in the vagaries of our environment, than new starters without that background. My assumption that publishing courses are more focused on trade is corrected by a current colleague, Laura Simonite, who tells me that her MA covered a wide range of publishing disciplines and actually had quite a substantial focus on scholarly publishing, with (for example) the editorial and sales modules quite journals-oriented, while the marketing module was trade-oriented. She credits the process of writing her dissertation (about annotation of scholarly articles) with helping her explore and shape the direction of her career, and thinks her publishing MA both helped her to get interviews when she entered the world of work, and gave her a useful grounding in publishing concepts and terminology. In part, of course, any kind of postgraduate education may give people a headstart in terms of being more mature, more used to assimilating information, than trainees coming straight from secondary or tertiary education — and Laura suspects that those who take the industry experience route may learn just as much in the equivalent time as those taking the MA route. However, in my experience, those with a publishing MA seem to have stayed in the industry longer, too, benefiting both themselves (career stability and progression) and their employers (less churn / more experienced recruits).
Pippa Smart (Editor in Chief, Learned Publishing): Looking back after longer than I care to remember in publishing, I frequently question the value of qualifications, although recently I was asked if I had a Ph.D. (Really? Seriously, who cares?). But, if I don’t care for myself, do I think a Master’s is valuable for anyone else? And if so, then to whom is it valuable?
To the individual? Well certainly, it could raise their likelihood of employment above others with similar first degree qualifications, so yup, I’d have to say a master would be of value to them.
Is it of value to the employers? Possibly. Here I have slightly more hesitation since it really depends on the content of the Master’s. Publishing and information science are pretty big fields within which scholarly publishing is only a very small (sorry, niche) part; so while a Master’s qualification may be of some value in providing someone with a general overview and basic understanding of the scholarly publishing environment, alternatively it could be so general as to lack immediate relevance (and by the time it might be of relevance the likelihood is that it will be out of date!).
However, perhaps the more important question is whether a publishing Master’s is valuable to the publishing industry. Then yes, definitely. As an industry we are unregulated, unqualified and struggle with job titles and easily understandable career paths. If we want to help career progression and increase professionalization then we need more formal qualifications (before and during career progression). I read once that publishing was an accidental profession — one that few would identify when asked at school. If we want to get the best of the best interested and competing to enter our industry, then we need to make it a career that people elect to follow, rather than fall into because they don’t want to end up as a lab rat.
Many years ago I was involved in the UK’s initiative to increase skills in the media industries, but the initiative failed to agree on any qualifications because we (as an industry) were so hung up on the uniqueness of each publishing position. If we want Master’s to be of real value then we need to work with academia and cultivate the Master’s qualification to meet our sector’s needs — to bring real value into our industry.
Barbara M. Ford (Publishing Consultant and Educator): Some of us, having had unique experiences over decades, feel quite fortunate to have achieved three critical vantages within the world of publishing: context, community, and leadership. Given that on the whole most publishing experience is gained through an apprentice training-like fashion, the modern day academic degree programs are the primary source to build a strong foundation to achieve those three advantages within a much shorter time frame.
- Context in terms of process – When hired into a publishing operation for the first time one normally lands on the lowest rung of the ladder. Time is spent learning the responsibilities and required skills of that particular position and then those above it. How information flows from author to reader providing an awareness of the entire process not just your piece of it is rarely a part of any initial orientation or training. For example, in the editorial workflow an individual managing the peer review process rarely knows much about the levels of editing. In a degree program one learns not just how a manuscript is vetted but also what the different levels of edit entail and what happens with the manuscript throughout the remainder of the editorial function and onto the steps in production, marketing, and distribution. And one is encouraged to develop relationships across functional areas such as the interactions between editorial and marketing.
- Historical context – Awareness of what came before to better understand the why of how things developed and how that affects the way things are done now is rarely gained through one’s work in a present-day publishing program. But through the course of an academic program one learns about the historical occurrences which influenced how publishing professionals approached the task of applying technology. From the slow-moving rate of innovation in the first few hundred years after Gutenberg through to those days when current elders in publishing found ourselves grappling with not just starting to use computers in the process but then rushing to accommodate advancements happening at an ever-increasing frequency and sophistication. Degree programs provide what few individuals in just one publishing house could offer.
- Context in terms of scope – Like many other professionals, publishing has moved into an age of specialization beyond just format. For the most part someone spends a career focused on one, maybe two, types of publishing such as trade books, special-interest magazines, academic journals, digital resources. Oftentimes this translates into limited knowledge of the many different kinds of publishing in terms of format, genre, content, publisher, and audience that now exist to a greater extent than ever before. Through a degree program, the world of publishing is explored and many students who come in thinking solely of book publishing find themselves drawn to other options, studying the basic concepts, and honing skills to work with publications they hardly knew existed.
- Community – We all know that the publishing community has relied heavily on personal interactions from the days of the guilds to the establishment and growth of associations and societies serving the industry and increasingly now through social media networking. But becoming a graduate of an academic program takes a person beyond such memberships and open networks to a special bond akin to an extended family as each year’s cohort adds another branch. Just as we experience such special bonds with fellow or former staff from a particular organization that unique sense of community holds true for graduates of the publishing degree programs.
- Leadership – Another important aspect of graduate publishing programs is the support given to students in terms of their professional development: 1) to excel on a personal level within their own organizations (many students want to “punch that union card” to achieve the next management rung and 2) to give back through their roles as thought leaders across the commercial, academic, governmental, and independent sectors of the global publishing community. Graduate programs intend not just to teach but to inspire. This is no less true for those programs supporting the future leaders in publishing.
Now it’s your turn. Add your opinions and experiences to those of the Chefs and our guests!
What is the value of a Master’s in Publishing?