The Day-to-Day Life of a Publishing Graduate Student

Cincopa video hosting solution for your website. Another great product from Cincopa Send Files.

collegeoutreach_Dave Herholz_flickrcommons_1When you’re deciding whether or not to enroll in a master’s or certification program in publishing, you have to weigh the pros, like networking opportunities and the chance to master print or ebook production software, against the cons—like making a major investment of time and money for a chance at a low-paying entry level job.

Every publishing professional has a different opinion of or experience with grad programs, as this previous article on their pros and cons illustrates. What I’m here to tell you is what to expect if you do enroll in a grad program: what you’ll actually have a chance to learn in class, what opportunities you need to take advantage of outside of class, and whether the coursework will leave you sweating or yawning.

As a recent graduate of Emerson College’s Master’s program in Publishing and Writing, I’ve witnessed firsthand all of the perks (and pitfalls) of furthering your education before jumping into the industry. Here’s what you can expect:

Go East, young publisher

To start off your career as a publishing graduate student, you’ll need to get yourself to in New York City, Boston, or wherever your chosen program takes you.

For me, this was an amazing perk from the get go. As a Californian undergrad with a love of books but little industry experience, Emerson’s program was invaluable in transplanting me to the East Coast, giving me two years to pursue internships and connections in a publishing hub instead of moving there without a plan or applying for jobs from afar with no relevant experience.

That said, if you already live where you plan to work, you can pursue career opportunities with publishers without needing to pay a college for a safety net.

(Unpaid) internships or bust

When you wake up on day one of your program, you’ll have plenty of time before class starts. At Emerson, almost all graduate courses have you attending class once a week from 6 to 9:45 pm; your program might vary slightly, but it’ll likely also keep to a night schedule. If it doesn’t, then you won’t have the freedom to pursue job or internship opportunities alongside your classes.

I learned a great deal from my publishing courses, but I felt I needed to prove that I could take that abstract knowledge and use it to become an effective employee. So when Emerson held various internship fairs in my two years there, I managed to find internships and freelancing opportunities with Ploughshares, Perseus Books Group, MIT Press, and HarperCollins, citing projects from my Emerson coursework as proof that I could hit the ground running in each position.

Without these internships, I could not have qualified for the position I have now. Of course, without them I could also have found regular paid work to pay for Emerson’s tuition without large loans.  The number of positions in our and other industries that provide experience but no pay for your valuable work is frankly inexcusable. Ideally, an internship would lead to a paid, full-time position, but that’s not something you can or should expect, which means lots or roaming between publishers looking for the right fit until you garner enough experience to qualify for a full-time gig.

My internships also meant I had 7am to 11pm days of nonstop work and class, which were SO fun.

Informational interview boot camp

In between your internships and coursework, you’ll have the chance to take advantage of any on-campus activities your program provides. For me, that included attending editorial meetings at Emerson’s lit mag Redivider and serving as one of the student officers for the Graduate Students for Publishing organization. For the latter, we would organize meetups and panels with local publishing professionals so students could ask them questions about their work.

As a pretty introverted person who breaks out into a sweat at the words “informational interview,” these organized meetings were a great way for me to overcome some of my phobias about contacting random strangers to take up their time with questions. Since then, informational interviews have been a great way for me to cultivate professional networks and friendships, so I’m grateful Emerson gave me the chance to hone my craft a bit.

Slow and steady wins the race?

It’s finally time to go to class! Unfortunately, things might start out a bit slow for you. Emerson’s degree requirements, for example, stipulate that you take two to three classes a semester and suggest you start out with general foundation courses in all three areas their program covers: book, magazine, and ebook publishing.

In my case, this mandatory breadth of coursework was valuable. I went into Emerson’s program with a vague notion of becoming an editor. By the time I graduated, I had taken valuable courses in copy-editing and developmental editing, but I also had the opportunity to study print production and design, learn ebook coding and website design, and master software like Adobe Creative Suite. This jack-of-all-trades approach enabled me to cast a wide net in my job search to multiple publishing departments, with a diverse portfolio of skills.

Yet for many of my colleagues who were committed to specific career plans, this meant their first year was taken up with four-hour classes that taught them skills that wouldn’t ever come up in their jobs, before they could graduate to specialized courses. And because of the 12-person-maximum class sizes and priority given to second-year students, I couldn’t get into popular classes until my third or fourth semester, classes that would have helped me decide what internships or additional coursework to pursue.

By graduation, I had actionable evidence of my publishing experience, including a sample book report, several hand-coded ebooks and a website, financial plans for an independent publishing company, and printed books and magazine layouts designed in InDesign, among other projects. (Some of my peers placed more emphasis on magazine publishing, sales and publicity, or rights and contracts, depending on their interests.) Ultimately, I was able to show off my ebooks to my future employers at Norton as proof of my coding skills.

Final reflections

As your hypothetical future self drifts off to sleep after a jam-packed day of classes and events, you wonder if you made the right call coming to this program.

Personally, I still ask myself the same question regularly. Emerson’s program clearly gave me a lot of advantages that I was able to turn into an awesome job—two years and thousands of dollars down the road, for entry-level pay in an expensive city (see this YPG article on entry-level finances for a look at the hard numbers).

Talking to colleagues who found a job straight out of their undergraduate programs can be both galling and demoralizing, though I remind myself that not everyone has such an easy time of it. Still, considering my colleagues are perfectly qualified for their positions and easily learned the ropes on the job, it makes you wonder if publishing programs’ broad classes—non-specific to any one publisher’s day-to-day operations—are really that effective.

Only you can decide if you want to dive right into an internship and hope it leads to something long-term, or if you can afford to take the safer, pricier route. Personally, I’m glad I went to Emerson, and feel my experiences cultivated great friendships, shifted my career track in exciting ways, and could be helpful in future managerial roles that require broad publishing business knowledge.

This article was contributed by YPG member Michael Hicks. For more information, visit our Contributing Writers page.

Post photo by Dave Herholz.

Post to Twitter

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.