Do you need a degree in public relations to work in PR?

Photo Credit: Mike Adams, York College of PA

My advice to those considering an undergraduate major in public relations or communications is: don’t go there.

Don’t major in public relations or communications as an undergraduate.  These undergraduate majors are not always taken seriously in the market place, as they are perceived as less academically challenging than other majors, and will not propel you to a management level career later.

After all, you may not work in PR forever.  You may end up in law or medicine!  Also, you need more diverse and challenging academic experiences to be successful in public relations, later.

I believe students are better served at the undergraduate level by pursuing a course of studies that includes a wide variety of liberal arts subjects.  You might consider a major in English, Government, History, or some other academic area for which you have a real passion and aptitude.

However, this approach will only work well for you if you obtain public relations work experience while at school and during internships.  The best way to learn about public relations is through work experiences.  You can also supplement your knowledge and public relations skills through independent study and professional development workshops.  But I feel using your valuable undergraduate academic credits for a major is a waste of your resources.

You can always get your masters in public relations later, after you have worked at least six years,  or even better — your accreditation in public relations.

Be sure you work on plenty of writing projects, however, in college.  Developing your writing skills is essential.

Alternatively, get an undergraduate degree in business, and take some communications courses.

Whatever you decide, try to diversify your course load as much as possible — when you work in public relations, having a broad knowledge base is essential, particularly if you work in an agency, because you’ll be expected to acquire expertise on issues and industries fairly quickly, depending on the clients.

However, this is only my opinion, based on my experiences.  If you are seriously considering a public relations career, and you have not yet declared a major, ask other public relations professionals what they think you should do.

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About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on August 24, 2011, in Public Relations Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Interesting post Mary! I have Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in history. The key is to get a lot of hands-on and practical experience. My start in PR emerged out of my community activism and I wrote for a college newspaper for 3 years as an op-ed columnist. These gave me a lot of good experience in writing and media relations, and they helped me get a job at a university communications office. I moved from there to another office and other jobs, and then got accredited in public relations. I did find the accreditation process was very helpful to me at understanding how to assemble all the pieces. I also sought mentors working in public relations to learn from.

  2. Andrew N. Williams

    Mary, I hope your opinion is widely held! I have a MA and BA in Philosophy from a well ranked program, however I find that I am constantly having to explain my choice in education. Do you think that non-PR (or non-communications) students face difficulty finding a job after pursuing challenging, but less traditional degrees paths?

    • You know, honestly, I do see in a LOT of job postings: must-have requirement is a PR, communications, or journalism degree. I just think the employers are making a mistake to make that a must-have and are missing out on excellent candidates. No one can sneeze at undergraduate and master’s degrees in Philosophy. If you can demonstrate that you can do the work (through portfolio) and you have impressive academic chops like that, I don’t see how it would hold you back (or rather, it SHOULD not), but then there can be short-sightedness in HR screening…(I have a French Lit major so I can relate!)

  3. Thanks for the post! I came across this while researching graduate school options. While I am still learning and exploring my career, I wanted to share a few points.

    I find it a little disheartening that communications and PR education in this post is dubbed as ‘a major waste of your resources.’ In reality, this industry is a game of relentless ambition and skill in a highly competitive field. A communications expert nowadays needs to understand PR, social media, media relations, website development, marketing, creative and graphic design, video integration and event management. Communications is also a crucial part of any strategic planning process. They also need to know how to write for varying publications including speech writing, editorial, press release, business writing, proposals and strategies. While they may not have a multitude of experience yet, new graduates will need to know what issues management, crisis communications and brand reputation is as they begin their career with an established communications team. In addition to this, well-paying communications positions are few and far in between and many new grads will likely be competing against business students with communications majors. Another competitor are those with marketing, media, ad/PR and journalism backgrounds (typically those who transferred from a diploma into a degree) and middle management that got laid off in the recession. A liberal arts degree does not prepare students to enter this realm of competitive expertise, simply put.

    As Mary mentioned, most job descriptions in the communications field require a communications, journalism or public relations undergrad. This is becoming increasingly more common as advances in the industry and technologies require more skilled employees. So, you need to consider what your next five years will look like. Do you want to work agency or in-house? In corporate communications or in digital communications? Do you want to manage issues or work in media relations? Additionally, most employers hiring for entry level positions (what I like to call ‘workers bees’) require applicants to be a ‘master of all trades.’ Technical competencies including Adobe Creative Suite, social media, creative design and an understanding of website and video integration will set you apart from your competition. If want to get into marketing communications, then I would agree with Mary and pursue a business undergrad with a communications major. However, if you want to get into PR, I would disagree with taking a liberal arts program. Many students I know who have taken these programs found it increasingly difficult to find work in any field, let alone a communications field. A couple reasons for this are 1) market segmentation 2) competition.

    While liberal arts programs are profound avenues for further academia research, writing, and other industries, they lack the principals and tactical skills that communications professionals need to do their job. You are more likely to get a job right out of school if you take your undergrad in the industry you want to get into. A liberal arts degree may fuel your passion, but you will likely need to pursue further specialized technical education almost immediately after graduating to get a leg up, or a foot in. I would suggest sticking with a communications degree. It’s general enough to open a ton of doors for you but specialized enough to give you the skills you need. Then, choose to further advance your skill set with a graduate certificate, short courses, accreditation and/or a master’s degree. Most MBA’s also accept a communications background with a GMAT. This will open another realm of possibilities as you advance your career.

    “These undergraduate majors are not always taken seriously in the market place, as they are perceived as less academically challenging than other majors, and will not propel you to a management level career later.”

    While it’s true that additional training, such as business finance and accounting, will spearhead you into most management positions, a communications degree is taken very seriously in the market place, more so than a liberal arts degree, especially if you pursue corporate communications.

    Above all, PR is about relationship building and this is easily managed through volunteering and joining professional networks along the likes of IABC, CPRS, and PRSA. To become involved with them, it’s a good idea to understand their lingo. If you are chatting away about Shakespeare and they are talking about crowdsourcing and content curation, you may have a slight disadvantage in meeting a potential employer. As Mary pointed out, it is a good idea to get work experience. Volunteer for not-for-profit community initiatives and special events to gain this experience while you are in school, or while pursuing a career in PR. While I agree with Mary on diversifying your course load, I have a strong opinion against pursuing a liberal arts degree if you want a career immediately in PR and communications. If you want to be a communications pro, then you need to start thinking and acting like one right from the get go. This begins with education that is geared for your future career. In the least, become immersed in the culture. Read a TON of publications and books, watch the news, and start to follow industry trends and emerging practices.

    This is just my opinion and based on my personal experiences. You can find me on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/kelseyaman.

    • Kelsey, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I am going to agree with you that if you are trying to get a job in PR these days, having a PR, communications, or journalism degree will be beneficial, as HR professionals are skewed toward preferring these degrees (which I think is a mistake, on their part). I don’t think it serves people well in the long run, but yes, it does give you a leg up on that very first job.

      Why I say it is a waste of resources to study PR or communications at the under-graduate level is for three reasons:

      1. You will not find these majors at the most academically rigorous colleges. For example, there is no communications or PR department at the University of Virginia.

      2. I am underwhelmed by the quality of instruction provided by PR and communications professors I have encountered (and taken courses from, in some cases).

      3. PR skills and knowledge can be acquired through self-study, the APR process, and professional experience. So I think it’s a shame to take out school loans and pay $300 to $400 a credit plus books and expenses to learn these skills, usually from someone who does not work in the field or has not worked in the field for some time, when you could be taking courses that give you more bang for the buck.

      But I agree with you, if you know at 18 or 19 years old that you want a job with a PR agency right out of college, perhaps based on knowing someone well who works in PR (such as a relative or close family friend), a PR degree will help you get there.

  4. Mary,
    I am currently a student at Penn State wanting to study PR. I read this and it really got me thinking. I was thinking about majoring in Economics through Liberal Arts. Do you think this is a good choice of major for wanting to go into PR?

    Thank you,
    Ashley Laird

    • Ashley, if you can swing a major in Economics, you can aim higher than PR as a career choice, plain and simple. There are career options for you that have better pay and advancement options than PR, such as finance or investing, or even law or management consulting. Fast-track, high earning careers. I recommend you speak with the Economics Department staff at your university and ask them about typical career projectories and post-college educational options (like an MBA or MA).

      If I could have tackled Economics, I sure as hell wouldn’t be working in PR 🙂

      If you want to be employed and get an internship in PR, and you know that now, Kelsey is right that a PR degree or a communications degree will get you there (I just don’t know how useful it is in the LONG run). Those people are going to get the first cut in hiring and internship offers.

      After that, the degrees of preference will be journalism and English. These are really, really different areas of study from Economics. You have to be true to you.

      Your Economics major will be valued higher than my French major 🙂 by a PR firm or corporate communications department or govt. agency — but only if that firm is focused on finance and investing clients, and even then, it will be a hard sell, and your best bet would be to capitalize on any connections you may have to get an internship and snag a lot of PR experience and contacts. You’d be getting in your own way.

      BUT, girlfriend, I’m telling you. Aim higher! If you’ve got the head for Economics think “CFO” as a career goal. Talk to some academic advisors and see what they tell you.

  5. This continues to be one of my most viewed posts, so I want to add another thought to the discussion. There is a high correlation with job earnings and choice of undergraduate major, and the gender gap presents early.

    Majors that are selected primarily by women tend to correlate with lower paying jobs (ref: Federal Reserve Bank, NY, study).

    More than 80% of students graduating from college with public relations majors are women. There is almost NO undergraduate major that has that big a gender discrepancy (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_290.asp), including female-traditional roles such as early childhood education.

    You really have to ask yourself why that is. Why so few young men choose to major in public relations.

  6. Hello, I came across your article and it has me thinking. I am a Psychology major and they really don’t go hand in hand. However, I know an individual that needs a PR for business. The college I attend does not offer this course BUT it does offer communication. I am currently doing my research on what it is exactly that a PR does and some things were helpful, others were not. My question is, does it necessarily matter if I have a degree? I do understand the importance of the diploma but if I am doing my job, why should it matter if I took classes or not. Now don’t get me wrong, I know PR’s tend to have to write A LOT and to be honest that doesn’t bother me. I love to write, anything!

    • You don’t need a degree in public relations to work in PR, but it does help you get an internship or a job in public relations, now, more so than when I was in school. A journalism background (with actual experience writing for a paper) is also valued. You can sometimes get by with an English major. I didn’t have any communications or PR classes at my college but I did write for the college newspaper and I worked for the college communications office, and did a lot of studying about PR on my own. That helped me get my first internship (a PR internship is really critical). But it is a very competitive field. If you’re majoring in psychology, you should pursue a career path in psychology.

  7. I’m currently studying Public Relations at college.I am not sure what to study that relates to Public Relations so I need your advice because I am confused.

    • 10 years ago I would have told you to study what interests you most, and try to broaden your knowledge base as much as possible. I think that’s what college is for. But now, with the economy and job market like it is, I would probably revise that advice to obtaining marketable skills and knowledge sets. Sad to say that you have to plot a career direction so young in adulthood. But maybe that is the reality now. Anyway, as much as you can, I think you should explore the subjects in college that fascinate and intrigue you. I admit that I don’t think much of PR degrees but on the other hand, a PR degree will help you get a job in that field. So it really is an individual decision, one only you can make.

  8. dear Mary you are a great person ,you are giving some priceless advice and it is really helpfull for us i am a moroccan lady and i am interested to the PR cources i have beeing working in the hotels industry for 3 years and for now i am working with BMW as a delivery specialist most of my work experince is dealing with customers ,do you think it is going to help me if i would study PR. PLEASE Miss mary can you help me.

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