Career Commitment: Make a Healthy Choice When Considering an Advanced Degree

June 4, 2013

Increasingly, PR professionals with decades of experience in health care are considering returning to school to obtain master’s degrees in communications — degrees perhaps planned for earlier days before families and clients.

With the advent of online and distance education programs, universities have made it more realistic for PR professionals to study for a master’s while still earning their paychecks.

“Our program does indeed draw students who are well into their careers,” says Dr. John Lammers, director of the Health Communications Online Master’s Program at the University of Illinois. “In fact, that makes them the right students.  They are not seeking a new career or trying to decide what to do with their lives; they are committed to a career in some aspect of health care and fairly well aware of what our program can do for them.”

For mid- to late-career practitioners, there are seven items to consider before investing $35,000-$45,000, which is what a degree like this commonly costs.

1. Be clear about your goals.

For younger professionals, the common maxim — and one that universities widely proclaim — is that a master’s degree will help advance your career. That’s true for people in their twenties, but for older PR professionals, an advanced communications degree will not necessarily lead to a promotion.

With that said, we all know that the PR field is ever evolving and yesterday’s cutting-edge approaches are tomorrow’s boring old tricks. Graduate communications degrees allow people to look at the communications arts in new ways and challenge assumptions that may have congested their work for years.

Graduate study may help people narrow their focus in areas such as public policy and health care, or understand how marketing communications now intertwines with public affairs and policy.

For instance, health care — particularly pharmaceutical public relations — is evolving from a traditional “consumer pull model” (with special events and celebrities) to a model in which public health strategies, integrated marketing and pharmacoeconomics are increasing in importance. The Affordable Care Act will accelerate this trend, with its emphasis on outcomes research and data analysis.

It’s important to study the curriculum before making an enrollment decision.  While programs may sound similar, the emphasis may be different between schools.  Make sure to discuss this with an enrollment advisor. Better yet, ask to speak to a current or former student.

2. Discover if you are comfortable working in an online atmosphere.

While some part-time programs require weekend or weeklong attendance on campus every semester, many popular programs are totally online.

For older students who may not feel comfortable watching a lecture on a computer screen or who want to engage in a spirited face-to-face discussion with a professor, online learning might not be the best option. But for most, adapting to the pixels is not a problem. Some may wonder how robust a program can be if you never meet professors or fellow students, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

“The most pleasant surprise is how easy it is to build an online community of scholars,” says Steve Quigley, associate professor of public relations and co-director of Boston University’s Online Master of  Science in Health Communication program.

“Contrary to what some think, online learning is anything but isolating. The discussions between students and professors are as robust as anything I’ve found in a BU classroom and, sometimes, students are even more thoughtful and provocative  when they communicate online.”

3. Be realistic about the time commitment. 

Admissions counselors suggest that you set aside 25 hours per week for studies in an online program. While some courses may require less, there aren’t any shortcuts for serious students. If you can’t make the commitment, then it’s better to enroll at another time. 

 “A successful student must learn to manage his or her day so that work deadlines are met, term papers are written beautifully and children don’t feel short-changed,” says Kajsa Haracz, who is wrapping up her online master’s in journalism and mass communications at Kent State University. “That means less television, less socializing and, perhaps for me, less sleep.  I just keep reminding myself that the goals are worth the sacrifice.”

4. Make school your client.

Successful students are disciplined students.  You should approach schoolwork as you would a client assignment. Organize your time to finish assignments ahead of schedule and with the clarity and precision that a client would expect. It might not be fun to wake up at 5 a.m. to finish a term paper, but remember that you likely wouldn’t hesitate to get up early for a client.

As you would with a client engagement, you should go above and beyond what’s expected with class projects.  Add your own commentary — supported by facts — to demonstrate that you are not simply completing an assignment, but also thinking about the issue or problem at hand. Often, you will find that you can discretely apply real-life client situations to your schoolwork.

5. Ensure that your family and your boss are behind your decision.

Online education means spending some time after dinner and on weekends doing readings and written assignments. You need to be sure this is the right thing for you, but the support of your partner and your children is vital as well. 

You also have to assess a program’s impact on your professional life. Can you continue your daily responsibilities while tackling school? Most employers are supportive, but it’s worth double-checking before embarking on this adventure.

6. Be a mentor, not a know-it-all.

It’s possible that in one or two classes, you will know more about the subject than the professor. Be careful about that.

Graduate programs are designed to let ideas fly and for students to thoughtfully research topics and express their views with clarity and organization. It’s OK — and expected — to challenge assumptions, but it isn’t in anyone’s best interest for the veteran professional to hint,  “I already know that.”

Sometimes exams can be exasperating and assignments are reminiscent of what you wrote decades ago. But remember,  you are in school to learn, not to prove how smart you are.

PR pros who return to school can be great mentors to younger students. Online programs attract people with a range of interests and experience. So the younger kids will invariably love having your expertise and will rely on your wisdom with challenging class problems.

7. Be part of a global community.

Finally, you should be comfortable being part of a community of scholars, with students hailing from across the United States and other countries.  A key attribute of online learning is students’ close collaboration on case studies and class projects, regardless of distance.

Barbara Noble, a 2011 graduate of the BU master’s program, underscored this, saying her fellow students were not only a great help in studying for exams and working together on group projects but also “helped keep my morale up when things got rough.  I made a lot of friends through the BU program and while we don’t see each other often, their support helps me even today.”

An online degree is not a hobby or project to tinker with when you have one or two extra hours to spare. It’s a massive commitment that will doubtlessly change your work patterns, sleep patterns and weekends for 18 months to two years. However, a graduate program can enrich your life in countless ways, giving you new energy, new perspectives and a fresh approach to your PR career.


Michael M. Durand
Michael M. Durand is a veteran public relations and communications expert and former head of the Global Health Care Practice of Porter Novelli. Presently he consults with a range of health care clients and is an instructor at New York University.


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