Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Publishing degree programs: Worth the student debt?

cartoon of a woman wearing a mortarboard


My cat is catching the day’s last rays of sunlight on the sill, and the open window lets in a soft breeze, the occasional seagull scream, and the wail of an ambulance (ah, beautiful Boston). Summer is almost here, and that means my second-to-last semester as a publishing grad student at Emerson College is over. Come September, I’ll be embarking on my last semester and, hopefully, beginning a career in the industry.

I count the knowledge I gained in Emerson classrooms as mostly valuable. I had the opportunity to do some great internships and will continue to work at a few more before graduating. Overall, my experience at the college has been quite positive—although listening to many of this year’s graduating class, it seems that feeling isn’t universal. Students questioned some of their teachers’ methods, the wisdom behind exploring theories of editing in the face of a profit-minded industry (man cannot live on chapbooks alone), the necessity of studying literature, or learning how to write HTML (badly).

Even my feelings for the program aren’t all sonnets and stardust sometimes. Each semester, I sign myself away for yet another ten grand in student loans (all unsubsidized now—thanks, looming student loan debt catastrophe!). And in my head, like a refrain, I keep hearing the question a great editor asked me in 2010.

At the end of my first semester as a publishing grad student I was fortunate enough to secure an informational interview with an editor I really admire, who’s now the publisher at a great indie press. My .edu email address might have stirred some sympathy, because the mastermind behind some wildly successful books agreed to chat with me on the phone. After answering my questions about his job, his background, and publishing in general, he turned the questions on me.

A publishing program? He’d started to see those on resumes for internships and entry-level positions at the press. “But… what’s the point of those, anyway?” he wanted to know.

(English major. Typical.)

Honestly, though, he’s not alone. It’s not as though publishing degrees have been a long-established part of our liberal arts departments. People like me, who have loved reading and books their entire lives, usually end up English majors. The publishing industry is full of people who worked their way into the profession from other means, and I’m sure to them the idea of studying the industry is baffling.

And maybe it is. Especially when digital is shaking things up, it’s hard to pin down why the business works, and how it will continue to do so. But the programs keep on appearing. As many of our readers know, this blog grew out of a class at Emerson College, which offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in publishing. There’s also the publishing M.S. program at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. There’s the publishing program at Portland State University, affiliated with their English department, which allows students the opportunity to learn about publishing by working at Ooligan Press. The University of Houston-Victoria advertises their M.S. in Publishing on Google. And, since Google creepily reads my email, they somehow know I’m interested in publishing grad programs and have advertised umpteen others to me in my Gmail inbox.

The publishing program appears to be gaining real traction, and just when the print publishing establishment seems shaken to its foundation. Are these colleges just hoping to ensnare hapless unemployed English majors? My personal experience says no. Like I said, I’ve had a good experience. I really enjoyed learning how to use the design software and even revisiting HTML and CSS (I have come a long way since Geocities, baby). I’ve taken classes from some very successful editors, publicists, and writers, who all have great professional insights into the industry. I’m not just learning about publishing from an English professor. I’m learning about publishing from people who work in it.

But if I’m really, brutally honest with myself, the most valuable part of the program hasn’t been the classroom experience I’ve paid for. It’s been the internships I’ve done for free. Granted, I wouldn’t have been able to get these experiences without being a publishing student. And on the days when my shoulder got tired from stapling press kits or my fingers cut from compiling hundreds of mass mailings, I may not have felt like I was learning much or getting something impressive to feature on my resume (“Proficient in Adobe Creative Suite, experienced with HTML and CSS, efficient at stapling”).

Considering that I hold my internships as the most valuable aspect of my Emerson education, I wonder about students in Texas, in cities that aren’t associated with the publishing establishment, at schools that don’t have an Ooligan Press.

What do they learn? Who are their professors? Are they getting jobs, and do they find it difficult to get interviews in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia? Do publishers think we have valuable skills? Or do they think we’re pursuing unnecessary degrees? I’ve heard apocryphal tales of publishers refusing to interview grads from my program. Do we think this is real?

If anyone has any thoughts on this matter, I’d love to hear them—and if you’re uncomfortable posting in our public comments section, feel free to email any reactions to appazoogle[at]gmail[dot]com and we’ll keep them anonymous.

4 comments on “Publishing degree programs: Worth the student debt?

  1. Pingback: Crowdsourcing: Can it change the publishing process? « appazoogle

  2. Monica
    September 23, 2012

    I am looking to apply to grad school for publishing next year! Thanks so much for writing this. I was a little concerned if I was making the right decision, and its nice to hear someone like me (English major) who is doing so well 🙂

    • Claire Schulz Ivett
      September 24, 2012

      Well, thanks for reading! Seriously, it’s all about the internships. Make the program work for you!

  3. Absoluter toller Artikel. Werde jetzt öfter reinschauen Vielen Dank und Grüsse aus Bonn

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