Professional Development Begins on Campus

(The following post first appeared on the Arthur Page Society “Page Turner” blog in November 2011).

One of the four standing committees of the Arthur Page Society focuses on Professional Development. This committee oversees numerous activities, including the Future Leaders Experience, the Learning Community and an expanding program focused on mentoring. These efforts recognize the critical role of staff development shared by our members in growing the next generation of professional leadership.

As part of this commitment to staff development, we should also recognize that the effort begins with the quality of the academic programs that prepare our employees for their careers before we ever meet and hire them. One group that has worked hard to enhance the effectiveness of academic programs in the communications profession is the Commission on Public Relations Education. I’m proud to serve on this Commission, which includes leading academics as well as practitioners in the field.

The Commission’s most recent effort focuses on the effectiveness of graduate education in the field. While the full research study won’t be released until next year, a preliminary report was presented at the recent PRSA international conference and it contained some sobering findings.

The number of graduate programs has soared in the last decade, from 26 in 2000 to 75 this year. Yet these programs vary widely in what they are called, what they require of students, and what they teach. As a result, employers are ambivalent about the real value these graduate degrees offer those who earn them.

The survey respondents pointed to four critical knowledge areas on which graduate programs should focus: strategic management, business, theoretical foundations and globalization. They point to ethics as the most highly rated topic area. They were hesitant to give a broad endorsement of the graduate programs in large part because of the lack of consistency in standards, curricula and expectations of students.

Elizabeth Toth, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland and a member of the Page Society, is leading the research effort. It includes a review of all 75 programs in the United States, along with a survey of over 400 practitioners and educators and in depth interviews with 21 senior communication employers, many of them Page Society members. As Toth expressed it, “We have a long way to go before an advanced degree in our field has clear meaning and value.”

I agree. But more than that, it’s critical that we continue to work with educators to enhance the effectiveness of these academic programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. As I said in my address at the Page Society annual meeting in September, we need to work together to improve the timeliness, relevance and effectiveness of our academic programs. We need to help university administrators understand that we aren’t just the cash cow that delivers lots of tuition paying fresh faces while not costing a lot to produce.

The growth in graduate programs has come about in large part from the genuine desire of educators to better serve the needs of the profession. We need to work with these educators to help them deliver graduates who can truly thrive in our profession.

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