Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Advance My Communication Career?

Mike Kohler

Mike Kohler, Online Faculty


A master’s degree is not necessary for advancement.

However, before my program chair starts to prepare a polite goodbye letter, I’ll hasten to note that this post will make a case for why a masters in strategic communications makes good business sense for Lamb School students.

Besides that, even if I couldn’t (but plan to) make a compelling business case, I could amend my answer to “No, but why not do it?”

But first, let’s look at the marketplace.

As I study evolving workforce trends, I see a movement toward skills-based recruitment and hiring at many, if not all, levels. Old-school bachelor’s degree requirements may still be the prevailing mode for job postings nationally, but perhaps not for long. More employers are becoming enlightened to the sensibility of hiring for fit in terms of both skills and culture.

Gone soon, we can hope, are the days of companies posting positions with preferences or even requirements for bachelor’s degrees or higher. In my mind, “over-posting” is a lazy, blanket approach to attracting “the cream of the crop.” Current economic conditions, featuring massive amounts of underemployment, make this a seller’s market for employers. I can understand why recruiters who want to attract the highest quality candidates seem to think a degree requirement has the desired filtering effect.

But again, I suggest that grandiose postings aren’t the answer. The degree requirement is just one of the markers in the infamous 8-second resume scan that screeners use.

The New York-based Markle Foundation is trying to move the needle toward skills-based recruitment with an initiative called Skillful, a collaboration with LinkedIn and pilot partners in Colorado and Phoenix. One of the chief goals is to enlist employers who will pledge to recruit and retain top talent based on skills. Skillful’s website, now in infancy stage, will facilitate matchmaking between employers with specific skill needs and the candidates who can address them.

So how does a skills focus help the master’s in strategic communications candidate? It depends.

For those whose participation in the program is sponsored by their employers, skill-building and expanded knowledge in specialty areas, such as crisis communications, may be the objective … or at least I hope so. I would hope that there are fewer employers demanding a “checkmark” for advancement. In those instances, any of the popular degree mills will do. But for employers who are investing in professional development, a rigorous program makes better business sense.

On the flip side, students who are building their professional profiles have a lot to gain from both the credentialing and skill-building that come from a strong, respected program. Employers seeking professional communicators are less likely (hopefully) to be satisfied with just any bullet point in the education section of the resume. A candidate with a graduate degree from a highly reputed institution starts off with a distinct advantage.

Then on the “what I bring to the table” side, more specific and highly-specialized skills will be attention-getters:

  • I’ve developed a comprehensive strategic communications plan.
  • I understand the correlation between stakeholder communication and profitability.
  • I have a sense of urgency about preparing a crisis communication plan that prepares the organization for worst-case scenarios.

These are the types of skills and knowledge that earn “a seat at the table” with organizations that demand more than a checkmark.

Does that make a degree “icing on the cake?” I don’t think so. But even so, who wants to eat cake without icing?

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Mike Kohler is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 10 courses (20 months) and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.