Lately there’s been a minor debate about which is more valuable for a career in public relations – education or experience. The conversation could – and will – go on and on.
At first blush, it’s no contest. The advantage goes to experience. A college degree is increasingly required to enter the work force in any professional services job, but it’s not a leg up. It’s the price of entry.
Beyond the basic degree, it’s far more beneficial to gain experience in the field, at least in my book. Public relations in particular is more of an art than a science. Persuasion theory is nifty, but how do you teach media relations? Vet campaign ideas? Learn client counsel and salesmanship? While it may be tempting to defer facing our job-challenged economy by going to grad school for a Masters degree in communications or digital studies, chances are it will be costly. Moreover, it takes funds that can theoretically be earned…on the job.
But the education vs. experience discussion isn’t so simple. The wrong kind of work experience can do more harm than good. The flipside of the debate for an untrained person is that without the right environment, mentors, and supervisors, you can develop bad habits. The PR industry probably loses many talented people because they have the bad luck to land in boiler-room-type agencies or stultifying bureaucracies where there’s no learning or inspiration, or worse, questionable or unethical practices. For those without the judgment or means to escape, it’s far better to stay in school and learn the ropes.
Conversely, there’s a vast hole in the education of many otherwise well-prepared communications graduates, and it’s one that they can easily fill during their college years. I’m talking about business and finance. Budget management, company analysis, category research, and making a case for PR’s value to the business bottom line are essential for a good PR practitioner. Yet few enter the workforce equipped with even the skills to read a balance sheet. I know; I was one of those clueless English majors who wished I’d taken accounting, or at least a business course.
The bottom line is that neither education and experience exists in a vacuum. And each requires a proactive approach. If you’re not getting what you need in either environment, you’re shortchanging yourself, but if you take matters into your own hands, you can make up for just about any deficit and enjoy a successful career.