A Media Career in Production: How Much Education Do You Need?

Freelance Writer

What kind of degree and experience do you really need to make it in a career in media production? Here, one author explores her academic options as she pursues her passion.

“Embrace the opportunities that come with being in school.”

This is what Antonina Guarino says to me over the phone as we discuss graduate studies in media. A graduate student in The New School’s Media Management and Media Studies program, she currently works as a marketing consultant. She has been working in communications and digital media for years and studied English as an undergraduate. She began gaining traction as a business writer and then worked for the Harvard Club in New York City, and she eventually found her communications work launched into the digital arena.

These days, many graduates may feel that a bachelor’s degree is not enough to land them a job in such a competitive market. But is it necessary in every field?

As discussed in a previous post, some careers require a master’s degree. But even beyond those fields, I’m constantly finding myself urged to pursue a master’s degree by those in my parent’s generation. I can see why. Education is never a bad thing, but I also know many people my parent’s age who do not have a master’s degree but do have lots of experience, and they’ve had a hard time with employers because of this. Plus, if we are afraid of a bachelor’s degree not being worth as much in the future, I’d better crackin’ on that master’s degree. But did I really need one?

Faced with this question, I reflected on my field, which is media production. Most people I know who have a master’s degree in media are either professors or individuals who chose to obtain an M.B.A. so they could start their own business or focus on the marketing side of media or artist relations, etc. That didn’t necessarily describe me or my situation.

Now, this is the point in my story where I need to share a little background info. By the time I was considering a master’s, I had I spent the last two years looking for a job, after being laid off two years in a row—practically to the day. To say that I became obsessed with looking at jobs, peers, qualifications, and requirements is an understatement. The only jobs I saw that required a master’s degree were some in higher ed or at a prestigious institutions that seemed to want to hire part-time audio managers who had advanced degrees . . . and then pay them close to minimum wage.

So, what’s the deal? If you want to work in producing, media management, or production, do you need a master’s degree?

When looking into new roles, Guarino found that technology and new media was a major draw. “New media was something that really struck me as revolutionary. It’s essential for anyone who wants a sustainable career.”

Guarino is currently taking classes in order to earn the graduate certificate in Media Management at The New School; she has progressed about halfway to the master’s degree. She’d like to see where the graduate certificate will take her first. So far, her feedback from recruiters and peers has been positive.

She chose The New School because she liked its startup and business sensibilities and opportunities for exposure. She still finds the online courses engaging and fascinating and has interacted with many individuals from Silicon Valley through one of her courses.

“My experience is that you don’t necessarily need to complete a full degree. In my certificate program, we learn about new and relevant concepts in digital media while engaging in and building a community of like-minded peers and mentors,” she says, though she points out that she is still doing an internship despite her years of experience. Guarino is already working in new media, but all of these stepping stones will lead her to her next platform. “Most of my classmates are working at large media conglomerates,” she adds. They all want to keep up-to-speed with creative technologies.

Accounting for experience

At this point, I’m rather curious about this notion of earning—or not earning—a master’s degree in media, so I decided to follow up with an experienced producer who did not attend graduate school.

Lindsey Cline Sutton is a Director of Production and a Producer. She has worked on music videos, visual effects, as a unit production manager, an executive producer for a post-production house, and as a Director of Production for a digital agency.

“If you are going for good paying creative jobs, then a master's is sometimes needed or warranted. It really depends on the job (and) job type,” Sutton says, referring to jobs in advertising agencies. But for other jobs in the creative and media production world?

“I think it's more important to get out and network and have work experience. Eighty five percent of the people that I meet got their jobs because they knew someone who knew someone, and job qualifications can be skewed for a good candidate that comes highly recommended, with or without the master's.”

Additionally, she has seen a lot of requests for an M.B.A. preferred while job searching. This lined up with what I had seen from media professionals who decided to go the business route after a while. However, Sutton mentioned that she has only worked with two individuals who had a master’s degree in their creative field. They did not earn more and were basically at the same level as those who did not earn a master’s but had gained more experience by staying in the workforce instead of school.

“I think because of the skyrocketing costs of college, that you will see more certificate classifications being offered and taken. I think that in the next decade there will be a slight decline in people getting their master's, because there are always career students,” she says.

“To add one other thought,” she later added through e-mail, “Project Management Certification is being asked for a lot too, in the creative field. That's been big for the last five years and continues to be so.”

“Do I or don’t I?”

Schools like New York University, The New School, Boston University, and MIT all have graduate degrees where media is at the forefront, and these programs are catching on to the need to train producers and media managers in an ever-changing digital world.

“I was drawn to study and work in media because it's become a platform where anyone—everyone—has an equal voice. In the past 20 years, technology has dramatically changed how, when, and what people communicate,” explains Emily True, a former coworker of mine who chose to return to school for her master’s degree. We had both been working in interactive media production and producing. She wrote that she chose to go back to school to understand trends in the new media landscape and where opportunities for business innovation exist.

True completed the Media Ventures graduate program at Boston University, saying that she was drawn to it for three main reasons.

“First, it was incredibly hands-on; our thesis requirement was to create a business plan and launch strategy for a media company. Secondly, the program was 12 months. The timeframe allowed me to take a short break from work and retool, without going into too much debt. Finally, the network BU offers—especially through the College of Communications—is phenomenal. I wanted to learn from people shaping the evolution of the media industry, and the bicoastal program (Boston and Los Angeles) offered opportunity for that.”

Since True had worked in media before, I wondered how the graduate degree impacted her career path. After all, this is the big “do I or don’t I” that would-be graduate students fear. Do they need the graduate degree to advance their career? “I chose to go back to school to retool, gain intellectual and creative confidence, and accelerate my career growth. I definitely feel like the year was a personal success; it helped me focus on what and where I wanted to be professionally. After graduating I started in a product role with a company I'm thrilled to be a part of. In some sense, it feels like a continuation of school because I continue to build upon what I learned everyday.”

Why does True think so many media production professionals go to graduate school for either business or emerging technologies? “I would have needed to change my job function several times in order to acquire some of the skills I learned through my master’s program,” she says. “I think this is a compelling reason for many people to go back to school: to learn about aspects of an industry that are outside of one's own day-to-day. It's easy to get tunnel vision when you're working in a specific role on a project team, and school helps refocus and see a bigger picture.” Emily True is now a Project Partner at One Mighty Roar, a digital product company.

The bottom line

If I do a quick LinkedIn search for individuals who have “master’s degree” in their educational experience and “producer” as a job title, I get over 100 individuals in my network alone. If I look for a producer without the master’s degree, I get over 19,000. However, the search tool on LinkedIn does not, to my knowledge, accommodate those looking for individuals with master’s degrees. Furthermore, a producer is one small segment of the media industry and can also mean many things outside of the media industry.

For instance, if I search for jobs on Indeed, use “media” as a keyword, and also indicate a master’s degree as a keyword or qualification, I get a vast range of job type. Media channel specialists, video architects, vice president of media, digital media managers, director of media, the list goes on.

The bottom line seems to be that the media industry can be volatile . . . or it can change caterpillars into butterflies rather quickly. The combination of technology and creativity makes it less black and white. And who can really say or even imagine the types of jobs that could exist in this field in 20 or more years? Another individual I spoke to, who has focused on business and music and now works at an audio company, advised not to pursue an M.B.A. or master’s until I’d gained more work experience (I graduated in 2009).

Overall, the feedback I received seemed to indicate that educational requirements varied based on jobs one hoped to attain, not so surprisingly. Media professionals focusing on management may want to pursue a master’s, but it was not yet a requirement. Individuals who want to stay up-to-date on tools and technology but not necessarily steer the business end of a media company may be fine with professional experience, or perhaps some additional classes or a certificate. Individuals who want to stick to editing or sound design may want a master’s if they would like to pursue teaching. As for me, I still need to figure out where my career path is pointing along this educational spectrum!

Where do you want to land? How do you think your current experience will help you migrate? And do you anticipate needing a graduate degree to get there?

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