There has been plenty of discussion recently about “full-stack,” or T-shaped employees: generalists who can do a little bit of everything. For digital marketers, that means you should be able to write compelling copy, devise creative strategies, code a landing page and design an email template. As nice as that sounds, the realities of the workplace often make that difficult to achieve.
Professionals naturally develop core competencies in which they excel. While we may have strengths in other areas, projects and team dynamics often force us to focus on a particular skill while our teammates pick up other tasks. Some marketers enjoy the freedom to expand their skills, but many of marketers remain focused on a particular skill for long portions of their careers.
Earning a master’s degree can reset your professional life in a number of ways.
The conventional thinking holds that earning a master’s degree shows qualities that employers love: responsibility, time-management skills, proven motivation and a commitment to learning. While those qualities are surely in demand, they’re not exclusive to applicants with a master’s degree.
Fields like SEO and digital marketing have seen explosive growth, largely through self-taught employees passionate even to explore emerging trends and platforms. The Internet is full of tutorial videos, how-to guides and whitepapers that can help digital marketers grasp the basics of nearly any skillset. Gaining expert knowledge is no longer restricted to a campus or a classroom.
However, there’s an incredible gap between being a jack-of-all-trades and a truly well-rounded marketer. Online guides can teach you how to create an AdWords campaign and a blog calendar, but fail to instill the strategic thought necessary to build a multi-channel marketing plan.
Strategy Over Tactics
Though digital marketing tactics have come to overshadow traditional marketing, many digital marketers tend to forget that the core tenets of marketing and communications strategy remain the same, no matter the medium in which we work.
- Brand Identity – Building a brand is not something that comes naturally to most people, and it takes years of work experience to understand the full scope of brand creation. Earning a master’s degree can seriously accelerate this process, allowing students to take a deep dive into every facet of branding.
- Data and Analytics – Digital marketers are almost certainly familiar with Google Analytics and some other reporting tools, but that does not necessarily engender an expertise in data analysis. Marketing and communications programs have recognized that modern businesses thrive on data, and it’s become a vital area of study. Marketing graduate students get hands-on experience managing focus groups, conducting large-scale research for real clients and more. Most young employees lack a data-driven mentality, but it should be one of a marketer’s most important career objectives.
- Ethics – Ethical thought is not stressed in undergraduate education, and, unfortunately, it’s not always a critical element of new employee onboarding. When it comes to corporate communications, however, ethics is vital. Graduate degree programs stress ethical thought, and it’s something that should show results for your entire career.
- Content Creation – Rather than forcing students to write a thesis, modern master’s programs focus on developing a portfolio through client-driven projects. Each project requires students to narrow focus, determine the best strategies and tailor their messaging. Finding success with limited resources is a great way to prepare managers to respect budgets and timelines.
- Leadership and Accountability – While undergraduate students occasionally work in teams, employers know that many young employees lack the soft skills needed in a professional environment: teamwork, communication, emotional intelligence, time management and more. That’s nothing new, but it’s also something that earning a master’s degree can help overcome. Master’s degree students must constantly collaborate on projects, seek feedback, and earn the approval of instructors.
- Entrepreneurial Spirit – Earning a master’s degree has always been a sign of a motivated, capable job candidate, but it’s also a sign of an employee who is ready to sacrifice his or her time to achieve a goal. Master’s degree programs often promote and enhance an entrepreneurial spirit in their students, and those skills carry over into the workplace.
Modern master’s degree programs are shifting from the traditional thesis model of education to curriculum focused on portfolio development and professional growth.
I currently work with the University of Florida’s (UF) College of Journalism and Communications, which has recently launched three online master’s degree programs: Web Design and Online Communication, Global Strategic Communication and Social Media.
While some graduate programs hold to traditional education, UF has realized that students will benefit most from master’s degree programs that blend professional and academic expertise. Students gain the foundational knowledge that drives marketing, along with industry best practices and new trends from professional faculty working at the top of their game.
Of course, learning from professionals is only one piece of the puzzle. The true advantage of a master’s degree program comes from the professional feedback and peer review of your work. A good master’s program will stress classmate collaboration and critique – you’re never learning in a vacuum. Successes are validated, failures are explained and corrected.
Today’s professionals can’t afford to learn from trial and error in the workplace, so choosing a master’s degree offers the opportunity to expand your horizons while solidifying your strategic foundation through ongoing education.
Putting It Into Practice
One of the graduates from UF’s Social Media master’s degree program, Lesley G., was recently hired as the social media coordinator for Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla. While the hospital had previously outsourced its social media, it created a new position for Lesley. According to her new boss, Lesley’s master’s degree was the deciding factor for her hire, as it clearly showed her expertise across the board.
Many people might scoff at the idea of a master’s degree in Social Media, but businesses have begun to realize that they need social media managers who can connect the creative side of social to the bottom-line considerations of their business.
While many professionals can set a social calendar, read analytics and grow engagement, it often takes deeper knowledge to tie social engagement with business goals and growth. 55% of marketers don’t set key performance indicators, and 51% cannot measure the return on social media investment.
Programs like UF’s teach deep analytics, communications theory, research methods and business strategy to create well-rounded professionals with the skills and knowledge to build effective social campaigns, manage a digital marketing team or build an international brand across borders.
This type of master’s degree program is making high-value education more accessible and improving the quality of job candidates by rooting that education in the needs of modern business.
For a young jobseeker, such a master’s degree can be an invaluable asset.
New Career Paths
A graduate degree can open a number of new career paths. According to Forbes, more than 20% of open jobs in the U.S. require or prefer a graduate degree, while only 11% of American workers hold an advanced degree.
Degrees like an MBA, or from the programs listed above, are incredibly flexible. They produce graduates equipped to tackle a number of business challenges, master new platforms and excel in any industry sector. Most importantly, they produce graduates who are ready to bring businesses into the next generation of marketing and communications.
Strengthening New Perspectives
On the other side of the table, there is a strong business case to pursuing marketers who hold a master’s degree. Master’s degree holders bring many things to their jobs, but perhaps the most valuable quality is a fresh approach to the workplace. While the millennial generation has seen their career outlooks suppressed following the Great Recession, their fortunes are starting to rise. Many Baby Boomers delayed retirement or reentered the workforce, which meant fewer opportunities for young jobseekers. As Boomers start to retire once again, employers will need the fresh perspectives that come with a graduate degree.
Education isn’t always a replacement for experience, but today’s graduates are uniquely suited to capitalize on the new trends we’re seeing in master’s degree programs. Companies need marketers who are not hindered by traditional methods, institutional history or company politics.
Employees with a master’s degree often represent an injection of new vision and capability into a company. Young marketing professionals, equipped with the latest research and best practices, can effortlessly connect with younger audiences. Modern degree programs are built upon classmate collaboration and strong instructor feedback, which makes young graduates ideal candidates to join or lead a marketing team.
An advanced degree is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, but it is a sign that a job candidate is invested enough in their own future to warrant your investment in them.
Unlocking Real Value
Of course, a master’s degree is only as valuable as the professional who earns it, and plenty of people will succeed without an advanced degree. However, the simple truth is that many of the highest-paying and highest-impact positions will require a master’s degree.
While it’s certainly possible to fully grasp many of the skills that marketers rely on, earning a master’s degree is one of the most effective ways to tie all those skills together. Digital marketers may be dismissive of traditional education, but earning a master’s degree remains one of the most effective ways to focus your skill set, develop new strategic expertise and to become a more desirable employee.