Why you should study our MA Publishing

This article is addressed to graduates who have a good first degree and who are interested in pursuing a career in publishing and who are weighing up their options. Now that Student Finance is available for postgraduate study, we are seeing good take-up of the University of Derby’ MA Publishing. If you’re wondering what the benefits might be of studying this programme, read on …

You’ve already studied three years for a university degree, and on the top shelf of your wardrobe your mortar board hasn’t yet had time to accumulate even a thin coating of dust. Naturally you turn your attention to your curriculum vitae, to honing your interview skills, and to improving your cover-letter writing techniques. You google Random Penguin, peruse some jobs sites, chat to a careers adviser, and let fly a volley of applications …

Many aspirant publishers, editorial assistants and marketing executives will find success in this way. Others will gain their foothold by first securing an internship. Historically, as I note elsewhere, the latter is a well-recognised path to enter the industry. So does one need an MA Publishing to get a job in this industry? The simple answer is no. One doesn’t.

First, and most obviously, a specific qualification is not required: unlike a lawyer, a surgeon, or an airline pilot, a publisher or an editor doesn’t need to be accredited as such. No licence, specific knowledge or even documented English language skills are required to edit or publish the work of another (don’t tell authors this, by the way). And, second, the vast majority of people working in publishing don’t have any kind of specific publishing qualification (although that is changing, and most do have a degree of some sort, often in English or the Humanities). I entered the industry a third of a century ago (!), long before publishing qualifications had even been dreamed of.

So why do some students decide to delay their entry to the jobs market and choose to go on for one more year of study? Why attain a ‘Level 7’ qualification if none is technically required? Why study a Master’s in Publishing?

Funnily enough I don’t believe there is a large corpus of objective research that can give a definitive answer on the benefits of an MA in subjects such as Publishing (although some might become available in a year or two). What we have is a range of evidence – from personal narratives, individual career trajectories, and a host of anecdotal information – that can give some general clues about what a Master’s might be able to do for your career. Some aspects are fairly simple to document or quantify; others are more elusive, while yet others are almost philosophical or life-changing in nature, as we shall see.

The straightforward benefits of an MA

If we begin with the simple ones: a specific postgraduate programme in this area will ‘teach’ you industry-specific knowledge. I use quotation marks around the word teach because one of the qualitative differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study is that good Master’s programmes (such as the Derby MA, which I designed: ahem!) put student learning, rather than teaching per se, at the heart of their curricula. This quote from J. Biggs (Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2003) puts it quite well:

As we learn [at university level] our conceptions of phenomena change, and we see the world differently. The acquisition of information itself does not bring about such a change, but the way we structure that information and think with it does. … Education is about conceptual change, not just the acquisition of knowledge.

Thus, as students acquire knowledge, they change the way they think, and that’s when the real learning takes place (it’s sometimes termed ‘deep’ learning). And meanings are not merely transmitted through instruction: rather, students pass through a number of stages in a process in which meanings are constructed in relation to previous knowledge. If this is true of university study, it is doubly true of a Master’s. Read on.

Back to the straightforward benefits of Master’s study. As well as industry-specific knowledge – what publishers do; the argot and the lexicon of publishing; what an ebook is, etc. – students will, or certainly should, be taught industry-specific skills, such as how to design and lay out books in page layout software, or how to construct a marketing pitch to book buyers, or how to build and validate ONIX-ready metadata.

Such things are, of course, immensely valuable. If you arrive at a job interview with the confidence that you already know a lot about the industry, you are sure to compare favourably to a similar candidate with no such knowledge. So much seems beyond contestation or reasonable challenge.

The less tangible, yet more significant, benefits

So far, so good. But knowledge and skills are not enough and, as we’ve seen, a good Master’s education should give you so much more. An MA, for example, will only be awarded to a student who has demonstrated (objectively and rigorously), among other things, ‘a systematic understanding of knowledge, and a critical awareness of current problems and/or new insights, much of which is at, or informed by, the forefront of their academic discipline …’. (You may download the full Master’s descriptor here.) Further, you’ll be able to ‘deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively, make sound judgements in the absence of complete data, and communicate [your] conclusions clearly’; ‘demonstrate self-direction and originality in … solving problems, and act autonomously in planning and implementing tasks in a professional manner’. And you’ll have the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment that requires advanced levels of critical thinking and analysis.

Think about it. These are precisely a) the attributes that only a Master’s is specifically designed to help you develop; b) the attributes that every single employer in the world is looking for; and c) the attributes that will help you not only get a job but advance your career quickly once you are in post.

How, specifically, will a Master’s help?

A Master’s should help you get an interview

Many employers will say – not unreasonably – that they shortlist based on an applicant’s overall CV, and that a Publishing MA in itself does not guarantee selection for interview. On the other hand, there does appear to be fairly strong circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to suggest that an MA a) shows your strong commitment to your chosen career; b) shows that you have achieved a very high academic standard; and c) the work-related experience on your Master’s improves your portfolio and your CV. On balance, if you hope to have a successful professional career in publishing it is not unreasonable to assume that a good professional qualification will be of benefit.

A Master’s should help you during the interview

Of course, this is difficult to prove. … Some people do better at interviews than others. However, a good Master’s programme of study will give you so many opportunities to hone your skills of communication and oral presentation that it can hardly fail to be of benefit. Further, you will know the industry and will immediately understand when the interviewer asks you searching questions about medium-term business strategies, or the impact of Moral Rights legislation, or digital piracy, or DRM, xml, blah, blah, blah. And you’ll remain calm, and answer assuredly, because you not only know about such things, but can also apply your Master’s-level skills of analysis and critical thinking to impress your new boss! (A few hours after this blog post was first published the Times Higher Education published this article which gives some strong support to the concept that a higher level degree is of direct benefit to students.)

A Master’s will help your career take off

Strangely, perhaps, I feel on more certain ground here. Research does need to be done to confirm whether this really is the case, and to quantify its extent, but I’ve heard of so many MA Publishing graduates being promoted quickly that it must have a basis in fact. Think about it: as a new recruit you are asked to perform a task and, instead of doing that task without question, you do the task efficiently and then do some thinking (Master’s-level critical thinking, naturally) and a little research, and then compose a nicely worded email to your boss outlining your idea, all carefully referenced and argued, for a new way of accomplishing said task more efficiently. That is the type of thing that leads to the promotion fast-track.

A Master’s will help you attain a professional-level job

Recently some research was published that reinforces the point that a Master’s will help people attain higher positions. Figures from 2015 show that ‘87 per cent of master’s graduates currently obtain “professional level” jobs, compared with just 68.2 per cent of their first-degree counterparts’.

A Master’s will prepare you for life

A Master’s is a higher level degree and, as we have seen, it expands your horizons in many different ways. A good programme should do more than ‘teach you things’ to get you a job. Rather, it shows you how to learn for yourself; how to research and analyse; how to be objective and professional when forming opinions about the issues and questions you encounter; how to be quietly sceptical until you see hard evidence; how to be reflective; how to be an independent learner and thinker; how to identify when something you hear or read ‘doesn’t sound quite right’ and how to investigate it in more detail for yourself.

What all of this also means is that once you have followed a good Master’s programme of study, you will be much better qualified for a much broader range of career paths, such as setting up in business rather than working for an employer, or working as a consultant, or as a freelancer (of which there are godzillions in publishing). It will also help you change path mid-career because you’ll have that solid core of criticality and analysis to fall back upon.

If you have a good first degree then you will already have begun to acquire all of these attributes, but the very nature of a Master’s programme will develop your skills and attributes to a whole new level.

I graduated with my Master’s (St Andrews) in 1980. At the time my father, who had left school aged fourteen at the outbreak of war, strongly questioned the value of my university degree. But, hand on heart, the way in which St Andrews changed the way in which I thought about the world – the conceptual change noted above – was the most important learning experience of my life.

So yes, a Master’s may well help get you an interview; it will probably help you perform better at interview; and it almost certainly will help your career progress.

But it will also set you up for the rest of your life. Whatever you decide to do as a career.

Alistair helped develop and validate the new MA Publishing for the University of Derby, and during that process researched, discussed and reflected on the questions outlined in this article.

Feel free to comment or email the author at A.Hodge@derby.ac.uk