Post-Graduate Degrees for Professional Publishing: A Way Forward?

One of the most stimulating and pleasing roles I have, is to be involved with very small numbers of students on Kingston University’s Publishing Masters’ degree, as a supervisor of dissertations and on the advisory board for the course. There are a number of such courses in the UK, including those at City University and University College, both in London, where I have informal links to academics running the courses. I speak to them frequently about their developments.

Over the past several years, such courses have grown, drawing in students from around the world in order for them to achieve publishing qualifications of an academic character. Their numbers and popularity would certainly suggest a need that is being satisfied. Industry support and sponsorship, an important and pleasing one being the establishment at UCL of the David Tebbutt Scholarship, indicate that both students and publishing businesses are receiving value.

Generally the UK courses lead to the awarding of Masters’ degrees but the focus differs somewhat from one to another. Some lean more towards the link between publishing and creative writing, others towards the practicalities and understanding of the business and financial aspects of the publishing industry. Some deal more than others with the relevant legal issues and some, perhaps to justify their academic aspirations, spend time on the history and culture of publishing.

Personally, I’ve never been particularly seduced by the history of books and publishing, nor seen it especially as a topic for academic study. To that extent, it’s hard to put myself in the mindset of a bibliophile whose interests of those kinds encourage them to study publishing. Admittedly, much the same can be said about my ignorance of and indifference to the wizardry of evolving technology being developed to deliver content. As with cars, I like choosing, owning and driving them but couldn’t care less what goes on under the bonnet. I think that the historical aspects, as well as the story of the technical evolution ones might appeal greatly to some but not others.

I am led to believe that, not in huge numbers but visibly so, legal and professional publishers welcome incoming staff with publishing qualifications and that people with legal and similar backgrounds are studying on publishing courses in order to advance or create their careers in those branches of the industry.

In my own case, a necessary educational background in order to do my first job in legal publishing was in having a reasonable law degree. Like many such courses, mine introduced me to the main sources, institutions and personnel of the legal system and used a variety of exercises to develop relevant skills. It taught how to develop case analysis skills through practical exercises, demonstrating an understanding of the techniques of precedent, as well as how to read statutes and understand judicial approaches to statutory interpretation. I learned how to use a law library and gained effective research skills with the ability to access primary and secondary sources and value their relative authority. With these fundamentals, one was well equipped to tackle the initial requirements of a legal editor role, with further on-the-job and structured training to help grow into a specialist publisher.

Where the balance lies is open to debate but I wonder if, to some extent, we confuse education with training and mix them up in unhelpful ways. To me at least, when thinking about the achievement of a post-graduate degree, it’s difficult to put the mechanics of the publishing trade in the same category as philosophy, politics, economics or even law. One such category appears to me to have the purpose of educating and learning how to learn, while the other is about how to get and hold down a job. It may well be, however, that the position, as it seems to have evolved, results in or is caused by a diminution in the amount of structured training being provided by publishing employers themselves, having outsourced the effort and cost to potential employees, who, as with internships, pay to be trained for the jobs to which they might aspire. In my view, the excellent Publishing Training Centre in London and other similar institutions are the sorts of places where employer-funded and industry-oriented training can be provided, complementing academic education that is required as a basis for work and life. We see much about the extent to which, actually or allegedly, the major professional publishers appear to be investing less on in-depth knowledge, skills and training and the potential impact on their reputations and the quality of their output.

Another concern I have is that the M.A. (or perhaps even MBA) route for the provision of job training, to a greater extent than they provide opportunity for academic study, is that these are expensive routes to finding careers and are there primarily for the children of the richer and more privileged. While I await the voices of protest at a statement that is clearly generalist, it might be that for those with access to large sums of money and with time on their hands, a year of job preparation, possible abroad, is a pleasant use of both.

As with most things, the answer lies somewhere between the extremes and a recognition that more learning, education and training, whatever the circumstances, should be seen as a good thing, as we know the opposite to be simply wrong. Having recently attended a training day to support the process of student supervision, I was reminded strongly that the real virtue of study, whether for training or more pure education, is to prepare for life skills, for which the discipline of the structured thesis is unchallengeable. If work is the practice and publishing training is the mid-level theory, such as it exists, then the mix has to be positive.

The news of PLC being acquired by Thomson Reuters might, I hope, be encouraging for those who believe that appropriate and well-trained staff members are critical for success in professional publishing. This is an area in which particularly PLC appears to have placed emphasis and now we are seeing management changes, including the removal of a number of people. It remains to be seen, with a new boss and senior people, many from the PLC side, if they will introduce all the benefits of the innovative business, while not being over-zealous in ignoring or diminishing the familiar publishing model. Conversely, others take different views on the management of quality and of editorial resources.

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