This is an extract from How to Get a Job in Publishing by Alison Baverstock, Susannah Bowen, Steve Carey (A & C Black, 2008). Click here to buy a copy of the book.
Taking a postgraduate qualification is an increasingly popular route into publishing, and there are new courses springing up every year. What's happened has been a form of educational inflation. Once upon a time the traditional, and maybe even the best, route into getting a job in publishing was to take a secretarial course, put up with being someone's assistant for a year, and then you were on your way.
These days only the very senior staff have the luxury of their very own personal assistant, and you have to find some other way of differentiating your application from all the others. Hence the temptation to take a vocational Masters degree as a way of getting to the head of the pack.
And of course taking a postgraduate course gives you the chance to explore whether publishing is for you - and lots of useful skills to take elsewhere if you decide it is not. (In addition to publishing, graduates end up working in PR, internal communications, museums, arts marketing and many other jobs that need the same skill set.)
Even so, you should bear in mind that the sudden availability of dozens of Publishing MA courses is market rather than industry driven. Taking one doesn't guarantee you a job in the business, and neither does the availability of all these courses imply that there are enough jobs for all the students taking them. What drives the courses is not the need for students with those degrees: on the contrary, it's the desire for students to have those degrees.
You should also consider how up to date the course you're considering really is. The media are evolving at a very fast rate, and although some traditional skills will always be needed (editing, writing, production), the ways in which those skills are used tomorrow will certainly be very different from the way they're being taught today. Be wary of courses, lecturers or universities that strike you as not having woken up to this fact.
Here are half-a-dozen tough, smart questions to ask when you're being sold hard by a university. Ask them of every institution you're considering, and record the answers. Give each a score.
1. Are your lecturers full-time or part-time?
The ideal is lecturers who are also doers, and who are thus continually refreshing their knowledge; thus if the course is delivered by part-time staff who are active within the industry, it's probably a good sign. What you want are lecturers who are active in the market they teach. This means they'll be fully up to date with what is happening in publishing right now, rather than what went on in 1980.
2. Who arranges work placements?
Some universities boast about their work placement programme as a key part of the course ... and then leave you to organise it.
3. What activities/facilities do you get access to?
Are there programmes of guest speakers to which students from across the faculty are invited? What about trips and opportunities to see relevant organisations?
4. What is the employment history of previous students?
How many had a placement? What percentage of these opportunities turned into full-time jobs?
5. Is there a buzz?
Do the staff you meet ask about you and your aspirations? Do they talk about the course and students with enthusiasm? Or do you, perhaps, get the distinct impression you're helping them make up the quota of students they are required to recruit?
6. When was the course put together?
Long-established doesn't necessarily mean well-organised. Newer courses must necessarily have been put together more recently; older institutions may be trading on their reputation rather than the good experience they offer. Ask questions, and switch on your antennae.
If you have your heart set on working for a particular employer or type of publisher, of course don't assume that the best way in is to stay well away from them and spend years and years and piles of money studying. Some publishers, especially those in the magazine world, really don't see the value in postgraduate degrees. Nose around the section of the industry that you're keen on first, ask other employees how they got there, take the temperature of your (hopeful) employers to be. If the consensus is that an undergraduate degree and a bit of editing your student newspaper won't do the trick, and you quite fancy finding out more about the different roles in the industry through some more study, then a postgraduate degree might well be a great option.
But if your favoured section of the industry universally sneers at postgraduate degrees, and you feel happy with your skills and experience base, consider saving yourself some time and money and jumping straight in.
Copyright Alison Baverstock, Susannah Bowen, and Steve Carey 2008. Click here to buy a copy of How to Get a Job in Publishing.
Alison Baverstock teaches on the MA in Publishing at Kingston University, and is also the author of How to Market Books (click here to buy online - 25% discount for SYP members) .