The Right (and Wrong) Reasons to Get a Master's in Communications
If you want to advance your career in communications, you may have toyed with the idea of getting a master’s degree. It’s a tough job market out there, so any extra edge you could get on your resume would be a great thing, right?
Well, yes—but that extra edge isn’t necessarily a grad degree. Before you sign up for two years of school (and tuition), it’s important to make sure that getting an MA in communications is the best move for you.
Here are some common reasons—both good and bad—for going back to grad school, and some perspective on them that might help you decide.
3 Good Reasons
1. You want to acquire specific communications expertise
Many students pursue a master’s in communications hoping it will give them a competitive advantage—since a graduate degree can help you stand out among your peers by acquiring new skills and experiences. And if you’re looking for a specific promotion and know that you don’t meet all of the requirements, going back to school can be a good way to move beyond that barrier. You’ll learn about best practices in your field and gain tangible experience in everything from project management to research and writing (more on that later).
However, there are other ways to acquire new expertise without going back to grad school. Asking to take on projects outside your expertise, seeking out mentors, and even volunteering can also help you gain new skills. These opportunities offer practical, hands-on experience in a way that academic study may not, so be mindful of the skills you’re trying to acquire and determine where you can learn them best. If it’s grad school, that’s a great reason to go.
2. You’d like to enhance your research and presenting skills
On that note, there are a couple of key skills an MA in communications is uniquely designed to help you gain—namely, research, writing, and presenting skills. Most (though, not all) communications graduate programs will require you to complete some form of original research project, through which you will learn how to develop a research question, investigate that question by collecting relevant data, and articulate your findings. You’ll work one-on-one with an advising faculty member, who will teach you about the intricacies of executing research and help you learn how to defend your claims orally.
These research and public speaking skills are particularly useful if you’re working in marketing, public relations, organizational communications, human relations, or other business functions. If your career will involve researching your industry’s practices or programs and sharing your findings, an MA in communications is perfect experience.
3. You want to learn to write effectively for multiple audiences
In order to complete your thesis (as well as many other program requirements), you’re going to have to learn to write for both specialist and lay audiences. Theses are written for other academics in a given field, but you’ll also learn to translate your research into nontechnical terms to apply for grants, awards, or even just to write home about what you’re working on.
These writing skills are very relevant for a career in communications, too. If your job involves communicating about your organization both internally and externally, you’ll need to be able to bounce between professional and lay language with ease. And master’s-level coursework will help you learn how to do just that.
3 (Potentially) Bad Reasons
1. You want to be a journalist or work in media production
While having a specific career goal may seem like a great reason to get a graduate degree in communications, many programs do not offer coursework in these topics—those classes are instead found in separate journalism, film, or media production departments.
So before applying, make sure to look carefully at the curricular emphases of the programs you’re interested in. If you want to be a journalist or work in production, you’ll need to figure out if your schools of interest offer training in these areas. And if they don’t? You might want to look into getting a degree in journalism or your specific field of interest instead.
Advertising, public relations, and marketing are other fields that are sometimes situated outside of communications departments. Spend time determining if a master’s in business administration, advertising, or applied communications might be a better fit for you.
2. You feel stuck in your current job
If you’re unhappy in your current job and looking at grad school as a way out, be honest with yourself. Will changing fields really fix your problem? Are you going to be happier in grad school? Remember, it’s still hard work and still in the communications field—it’s just done in a library or lab rather than in a cubicle. Going to grad school won’t necessarily fix the issues you have with your current job or career path, and school is a costly way to stall decisions about the future or avoid “the real world.”
Step back and ask why you’re thinking about going back to school. If you want a change of pace or position, consider joining industry associations, finding a mentor, or upping your networking efforts to meet people to help you transition.
3. You’d like to earn more and increase your standard of living
While grad school can help your earning potential, it also comes with a price tag. Tuition and fees will vary—depending on program length, university, residency status, and whether or not you have dependents—and that’s only one piece of the expense. You’ll also forego your full-time wages while you’re in school. Plus, student loan budgets assume a moderate lifestyle, so you may need to re-evaluate some of the spending habits you’ve gotten used to as a professional.
If your degree will only slightly increase your earning potential, be aware the years of lost wages while in school may not be “worth it” from a purely financial standpoint. Many communications positions don't require a graduate degree, so you may not see an earnings bump in your first position after your master’s.
As you’re considering getting a master’s in communications, think through your reasoning, and talk to others about their reasons, too. Going to grad school can be a great way to advance your career—just make sure before you go that it’s the best path for you.
Tell us! Do you have other reasons why or why not to pursue an MA in communication?
Photo of grad student courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Tamara Powell is a lecturer in Communication Studies at California State University, Sacramento and a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego. Tamara lives in Sacramento with her husband and enjoys running, gardening, and brewing kombucha. Connect with her at www.tamarapowell.com.