Tips from the Trenches: Making the best of a PR education

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PART ONE: What to Consider in a Public Relations education

As a fairly recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Public Relations Certificate Program, I am occasionally asked to speak to prospective students who are looking to connect with a graduate -- and ideally, someone still working in the field. A lot of prospective applicants have similar questions and concerns, many of which relate to whether they should take the plunge on the program to begin with:

  1. What made you decide on pursuing a career in PR?

  2. What made you choose this program in particular?

  3. Has this helped you with finding a job?

My answers overlap and are highly relative to my lived experience, so instead of answering each one directly, I have compiled a few general insights.

A formal public relations education or certification may set you apart from other candidates in a job search

If you are being considered for positions in PR, communications and marketing, having a formal education in the field can give you a little boost above the competition. They will assume you have the basic toolkit needed to do the job: an understanding of how to pitch a reporter and how to write a news release, for instance. While these can be learned in the field, and while it may not land you the job on the spot, it definitely raises the chances of landing you an interview -- especially if you’ve been responsible with your time in the program and have used it to put together a robust portfolio of work samples.

Pick a program with a practicum component

Practicums are brief, unpaid work placements, usually three or four weeks in length, and may lead to contract offers, extensions of work, or long-standing industry contacts. They should be just long enough to give students a taste of what working in the industry is like, but not so long so as to exploit the student and their work. Typically, a practicum student can only offer so much to a company within that time frame. As such, ambitious students have the opportunity to shine and surprise their supervisors if they take initiative and exceed expectations.

Whether you pursue a degree, diploma or certificate, I can’t recommend them enough. I, and several of my classmates, are still working at the organizations where we did our practicum placements.

Ask to speak with a recent graduate

Most programs stay in touch with a few graduates -- particularly those whom they consider “successes.” Ask the programs you are considering to connect you with one. These will be PR pros who performed well and had a good experience with the program they went through. Be sure to ask them for what they consider best practices when going through the course and what areas to spend the most time on. Since they had a good experience with their programs, taking their advice into consideration prior to going in should equip you with some great tips.

Don’t let the length of the course fool you

CPRS has an informative shortlist of the courses offered in the Lower Mainland. Some of them, like the one offered by SFU and by BCIT, are shorter, and can be completed in as few as three months. KPU’s Public Relations course provides you with a two-year diploma and Capilano University offers a full Bachelor’s Degree. Which program you pick depends fully on you, the stage of life you’re in, and the time you have to give to your training.

If you have just left high school, many jobs nowadays hope for someone with at least a bachelor’s degree -- so perhaps Capilano’s courses would appeal to you. Applicants who chose shorter courses typically already have a writing, communications or marketing-related degree under their belt, worked in another industry, and wanted to reroute their careers towards public relations instead. I, and most of the cohort whom I studied with, fall into this second category. While I didn’t really have the money for such a condensed course, I definitely didn’t have the time to do two or four more years of school.

Be absolutely certain public relations is the career path for you

Although many of my peers (myself included) are extremely happy with our career paths, there are definitely a few who invested a lot of time and money in their courses and may not feel they have received the return they wanted. One was offered a promotion by their previous employer. One is doing well in the field, but feeling unfulfilled by the work. Like every prospective career, you may experience misgivings once you probe deeper into the scope of work. The best way to avoid this is by doing your due diligence!

Say you’ve made the decision. What do you wish you knew going in? We have some tips for maximising your investment in your education in PART TWO: SIX STRATEGIES TO MAKE YOUR SCHOOLING WORK FOR YOU.

About the Author

Ingrid Valou is a writing and PR professional with a special interest in local and sustainable business, emerging technologies, and LGBTQ issues. She holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and creative writing from the University of British Columbia, is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s public relations certificate and was awarded the CPRS Vancouver Student Scholarship in 2016. She runs a jewellery design business out of her studio in East Vancouver.