Postgraduate qualifications in publishing: are they worth it?
Thinking about doing a publishing masters or similar postgraduate qualification? We spoke to a publishing MA student who shared her experiences.
Studying publishing at university is a very different experience to starting an entry-level job in the industry.
If you want a career in book, magazine or digital publishing after you graduate, you might like to consider a relevant postgraduate qualification. These allow you to gain an in-depth understanding of the publishing industry, develop your skills, gain practical experience and make useful contacts.
However, most entry-level roles in publishing accept graduates from all degree disciplines and don’t require a masters-level qualification – so is postgraduate study a good next step for you? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Read on to discover what postgraduate publishing courses involve so that you can make an informed decision.
Most publishing courses in the UK offer a broad introduction to all aspects of the publishing industry, with the option to focus more on the areas that interest you by picking elective modules. At some universities the course may be called ‘publishing studies’ or ‘publishing media’ rather than just ‘publishing’.
In addition, a small number of universities offer more specialised courses, such as:
- digital publishing
- international publishing
- children’s publishing
- creative writing and publishing.
You can do a masters degree in publishing (normally an MA but an MSc or MLitt at some institutions), which lasts a year full time. Postgraduate certificates and diplomas are also widely available; these take a shorter period of time to complete and don’t include a dissertation but will cover some of the same modules studied by masters students. It’s also usually possible to study any of these courses part time.
Amandine Riche is studying full time for an MA in publishing at University College London. She likes the broad scope of her course, and told TARGETjobs: ‘I had done internships and worked in different areas (marketing, editorial and bookselling) but doing a one-year course that covered all aspects seemed like a faster way of figuring out where my interest lay.’
Postgraduate courses in publishing usually combine a number of compulsory modules with a choice of elective modules. Masters degrees include a dissertation as well.
Compulsory modules tend to cover some of the main aspects of publishing, such as editorial, marketing, design and production. There may also be some more business-focused modules. Choices of elective modules vary more widely between universities, so take these into account when you’re deciding where to apply.
‘I chose illustration and publishing (which discusses illustrated texts, from comic books to cookery books to children’s books), booksellers and bookselling, and ethics in publishing,’ says Amandine. ‘The other modules on offer were children’s and young adult publishing, academic and journals publishing and publishing design.’
You’ll be taught mainly through lectures, seminars and computer workshops. Visiting speakers are also common. Amandine says: ‘We get a lot of guest speakers (easily every other week for each module), from alumni to industry professionals. The tutors will usually build the week’s lecture around the guest speaker, who will give us an insight into a particular publishing aspect or problem, and this might then be complemented by the tutor, either with a lecture the same day or the following week.’
Assessment is a combination of essays, reports, presentations and practical projects – and of course a dissertation for masters degrees. Publishing courses don’t normally have exams. Some courses have an entire module that takes the form of a practical project where you produce your own publication, while at other institutions practical work will be a small component of different modules: for example, putting together a business plan, marketing materials or a book cover.
‘A lot of what is taught is theory and general publishing knowledge, because learning to be a great literary agent or the details of how to open a bookshop aren’t something that can be taught in a classroom,’ says Amandine. Bear in mind that studying publishing at university is a very different experience to starting an entry-level job in the industry. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in a classroom. There are often field trips to places such as book fairs, publishing houses, printers and libraries, which will allow you to meet industry professionals and get a sense of what it might be like to work in different organisations.
Some courses include a work placement as one of their elective module options, but if this isn’t offered there are still plenty of opportunities to get real-world experience. You could undertake internships during university vacations or work shadowing one day each week, for example. Your course tutors may alert you to vacancies and support you with applications and interviews, but you should also seek out opportunities yourself through your careers service, employers’ websites and TARGETjobs.
Postgraduate study is a big financial and time commitment, so it’s important to think carefully about whether it’s likely to be a worthwhile investment for you.
There are several reasons why graduates might choose the postgraduate route over going straight into an entry-level publishing job. It offers the opportunity to:
- get an overview of all aspects of the industry, before deciding which area to apply for jobs in
- develop theoretical knowledge of how the industry works rather than learning everything on the job
- network with publishing professionals from a range of roles and organisations
- gain a recognised qualification that demonstrates practical skills and commitment to a career in publishing.
While these are all great reasons for studying publishing, it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunities offered. Listing the postgraduate qualification on your CV after you graduate will not automatically increase your chances of securing a job, but the experience, knowledge and contacts you gain may help you stand out.
Take advantage of networking opportunities and keep in touch with the people you speak to. Reflect on what you learn and how you would articulate it to recruiters at an interview. Read beyond what your modules cover and keep your commercial awareness up to date. Be proactive in applying for internships and work shadowing outside of what’s included in the course. We have more advice on finding work experience in publishing, building your commercial awareness and networking successfully.
Why it’s not essential
While a publishing course could help make you more employable, remember that it is not a requirement for most entry-level jobs and there are other ways to gain the skills, experience, industry knowledge and contacts that will give you an edge when applying for jobs. Alternative ways could include:
- independently reading up on how the publishing industry works and keeping an eye on relevant news stories – the Publishing Post is a great starting point and is free to read, or for a more detailed insight you can immerse yourself in Inside Book Publishing by Giles Clark and Angus Phillips
- watching webinars such as those run by TARGETjobs and the Society of Young Publishers (SYP), or Hachette’s Opening the Book series (new for summer 2021)
- connecting with industry professionals on LinkedIn and asking your careers service if they know of any alumni you could get in touch with
- undertaking internships and other work experience at publishing companies – across a range of organisations and departments if you’re unsure which might suit you best
- listening to publishing-related podcasts such as those produced by the SYP, BookCareers or the Independent Publishers Guild
- undertaking work experience in a related organisation such as a bookshop or library, which will improve your awareness of current book trends and what makes a book sell
- getting involved with publishing-related extracurricular activities, such as a student-run creative writing anthology or newspaper, during your undergraduate degree
- taking an online course to learn practical skills such as the basics of InDesign or proofreading, or a Get Into Book Publishing introductory course lasting one to four days
- attending publishing insight days or virtual equivalents, which have previously included Hachette’s Virtual Introduction to Publishing networking events, HarperNorth’s Northern:Lite virtual open days and Orion on Tour: Demystifying Publishing (run by Orion in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University).
Making the right choice for you
Would a publishing postgraduate course be worth your time? It ultimately depends on what you want to get out of it and what opportunities there would be to get these same benefits without doing the course – whether that’s learning about the publishing industry, developing practical skills or making contacts.
‘In my case, it was all about figuring out what I wanted to do, which is a huge step forward for me,’ says Amandine. ‘I’ve realised that my heart lies in marketing and publicity and I’m now in contact with people who do that for a living. One of my coursemates is Mexican and opportunities don’t really exist in Mexico, so for her it was about making UK contacts. If the course will provide you with something that you can’t get from some research, an internship or a conversation with an industry professional, then it’s worth it.’