To do a masters or not to do a masters? #Publishing

Picture of Grace Balfour-Harle

Hello! I’m Grace, and the lovely Harriet invited me to do a guest blog post for her!

In 2017-18, I completed an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University, which allowed me to do some really exciting things in the world of publishing, but a question I often get asked is should they do a publishing masters – is it required to get a job in publishing? So that’s what I’d like to discuss with you today.

Before applying to do a masters (any masters, not just publishing) think about why you’re wanting to do it. What will this add to your CV that you couldn’t show in your undergraduate degree? I will clarify now that I am not speaking about a masters that you’re required to do (e.g. if you’re wanting to become a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher etc. that brings professional accreditation in order to do a job), I am speaking about one to further your career, but is not essential to qualify you for a job.

Thinking about why you want to do a masters can help, because simply getting a masters in publishing will not guarantee you a job. There were about 40 people in my year on my course, and as far as I know, not even half are currently working in publishing. And that’s one year group; there are more publishing graduates every year from all the universities offering a publishing masters and/or undergraduate. Competition for jobs is high, and you cannot expect to simply get a job by virtue of having a masters. Your reasoning for why that particular masters will add to your CV needs to be sound.

Book image cover. Text reads "turnout" and a paint splatter image of a dancer.

A masters will provide you with an overview of the whole publishing process – if you don’t have any idea about how the publishing process works, then a masters could be very useful in expanding your knowledge in job roles for aspiring publishers and what they involve. However, what I’ve found to matter when it comes to interviews, is not just having theoretical knowledge, but practical experience.

You can find that practical know-how through doing a masters that includes placements and networking events as part of its curriculum. Part of my degree was a placement module. You also were not restricted to only doing one placement throughout the year (in fact, it was actively encouraged that you did more than one). It helped ensure that you got practical experience of what happens in different publishing houses. I did three placements throughout my course, each of them building a different skillset that comes into play in my job now. But I understand that not everyone is able to do a master’s degree without a part-time job to help fund it, so may not have time nor the money to work unpaid.

Grace holding up a printed and framed full cover proof (back, spine and cover). The book is titled "The Princess and the Goblin" by George MacDonald and the illustrated cover shows a woman with blonde hair and a pink dress on top of some hills by the coast.

My masters also offered a production module where you put together your own book, of which mine eventually got printed. Which is another way of getting practical experience through a masters. So pay attention to the modules they offer and work out if it will fill in any gaps in your knowledge to strengthen your CV, or if it offers something else equally useful, but maybe less quantifiable.

Grace with her full book cover proof framed alongside excerpts from the book also framed at an exhibition.

When deciding to a masters, I chose one that would allow me to build my network of connections as it was well-placed geographically and was well-connected in the industry as a number of contacts had mentioned it to me. I studied in Aberdeen for my undergraduate and wanted to know what it was like to stay in the heart of Scottish publishing – Edinburgh. So that is another thing to consider – do you have contacts, or the ability to build contacts within the publishing industry where you are through work experience already? This can include office work – publishing companies need secretaries or office managers. If so, then perhaps you don’t need a master’s degree – you’ll learn about the publishing process by observing and asking questions within your work place. If you’re already in a job in publishing, there isn’t too much that you can’t learn on the job, or by taking shorter skills courses. So a masters would be a waste of time and money. Unless you’re super passionate about it, then by all means, go for it.

Decorative text.

However, if everyone applying for positions within publishing houses has a publishing masters, then it will slowly become essential to get a job as it’s an easy way for hiring companies to whittle down candidates by requiring a certain level of education (e.g. a 2:1 or higher bachelor’s degree). Which will perpetuate the homogenous makeup of publishing by only allowing those that can afford to complete a master’s degree to work in publishing. But that’s a separate issue to discuss that sits alongside this one.

I think in a practical consideration, having a master’s degree can help get your foot in the door for an interview, but what is going to get you the job is experience, and your ability to frame your experience in context to the job you’re interviewing for. So you need more than just a masters to get a job. Experience in any form should play a massive part in your application process. During my interview for my current role, I barely spoke about the lectures I attended, or my dissertation, or any of the theoretical knowledge I had gained. I spoke about my extra curriculars and the placement I did, then I finally spoke about my book project. So having experiences outside of publishing is useful, and will help get you a job, and can be more useful than having a masters.

While I do have a master’s degree in publishing, I do not think it should be required in order to get a job in publishing, especially at entry level. I also think that years of experience (especially unpaid) also shouldn’t be required. Having both of these should just be the icing on the cake when it comes to the job application process. Enthusiasm, passion and engaging with the industry by paying attention to trends in the markets and what is being published should be the most important things to present for an interview. But with competition higher than ever for the few jobs appearing in the industry, that’s unfortunately not the way I see the trends in hiring decisions going.

One thing to remember is that even when you have a masters, you don’t know everything you need to know about publishing. There is always something new to learn, a new skill to develop to keep you innovating and fresh. I have never learned faster than in the first year of my role, and I’m continuing to learn now, as I finish my second year. And that’s not something that any educational degree can prepare you for.

Grace graduating.

If you want to get in touch with Grace how about following her on Twitter?

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