Caity Rogowski reached a point in her career when her undergraduate degree in journalism and integrative arts wasn’t enough. “I had a strong foundation in writing and telling stories,” she says. “But I didn’t know all the strategies, tactics and tools I could use to tell a story for a company, and that’s where I saw a gap in my own education.”

Since she wanted to gain knowledge specific to her chosen industry, she enrolled in Georgetown University’s master of professional studies (MPS) program in public relations and corporate communications. “With MPS degrees, you learn how to do something and then you do it,” says Rogowski, 26. “It makes it easy to build that muscle memory to feel confident in what you’re learning. It’s really clear how to go from point A to point B and then across the finish line.”

That kind of clarity of purpose is one reason why master of professional studies degrees have been growing in popularity. They combine the academic mastery of a subject typically associated with graduate degrees with the practical knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a certain industry. According to a report published by the Education Advisory Board this year, master’s degrees will account for nearly a third of all degrees awarded by 2022, and much of that growth will come from MPS programs in areas like cybersecurity and data analytics.

“As the economy and technology continue to move very fast, we will see the necessity for more and more degrees that give people sophisticated knowledge and skills in a particular area that may be fast-moving or emerging,” says Charles Caramello, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, which offers 10 MPS degrees in subjects like applied economics, geospatial information sciences and industrial organizational psychology.

The basics

Traditional M.A. and M.S. degrees typically provide students with a broad base of knowledge in a specific discipline. They tend to be research-focused, with an emphasis on prepping students for Ph.D work.

MPS degrees, on the other hand, take a much narrower approach, often focusing on subsets of specific disciplines and providing students with hands-on learning opportunities.
“MPS degrees prepare people not only with content in a particular field but also the ability to apply that content to particular problems in practice,” says Kelly J. Otter, dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University.

Georgetown offers 14 MPS degrees. These types of degrees are so focused that the school has three related to communications alone: the public relations and corporate communications degree Rogowski got, along with degrees in integrated marketing communications and global strategic communications. It’s truly specialized rather than just general knowledge.

For Rogowski’s degree, for example, students take courses in ethics and communications planning, similar to what you might find in a general communications master’s program. But they also work with real clients on classroom exercises and projects that provide actual workplace experience in that specific type of communications.

While the student population can vary from program to program, MPS degrees tend to serve students who know exactly what they want to do with their degree. These professionals are often interested in advancement in their current field or looking to switch to a career in an emerging field.

MPS degree programs are created with working professionals in mind. Some are online programs, some are hybrids and others offer on-campus classes during evenings and weekends. “They’re designed to account for the professional aspirations as well as the lifestyles of the people pursuing them,” Otter says.

The payoff

Because MPS degrees respond to emerging needs in the marketplace — and in some cases to specific employer input — graduates can often quickly feel the impact of the degree, whether through a promotion or by landing a job on a new career path.

“Does the outcome justify the investment?” asks Caramello. “We track people after they graduate, and what we’re seeing in this economy is that typically the answer is yes.” After a few semesters in her program, Rogowski knew she wanted to transition from the nonprofit world in which she was working to a PR agency. Using the connections she’d made with faculty and classmates and the experience she’d gained up to that point in the classroom, she was able to land a position as an account supervisor at Edelman before even finishing her degree.

“When I had the opportunity to interview at Edelman, I created a portfolio of assignments I had done so far,” she says. “Even though my resume didn’t have professional agency experience, I was able to make the case to be hired at a higher level because of my schoolwork.”

Finishing her degree while settling into her new job also proved beneficial. “I was able to take what I learned at night and apply it directly the next day and continue to grow at a really fast pace,” says Rogowski. “I feel a lot more confident knowing that I have this degree.”

The questions to ask

A master of professional studies degree is for students who want not just a general understanding of their field, but the specific skills to succeed. Considering an MPS degree? Here are some things to keep in mind as you check out programs:

  • What are your career goals?
    “Look at the mission of the program and make sure that what you want to accomplish is consistent with the design of that program,” says Kelly J. Otter, dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University.
  • What kind of education will you get from the degree?
    “Consider the quality of the university offering it and the quality of the faculty teaching in it,” says Charles Caramello, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland.
  • Does the degree provide you with the specific skills needed in a certain field?
  • What is the demand for people with those skills?
  • How will this degree help you in your current position? “Have a conversation with your employer about the kinds of opportunities this kind of degree could open up within the context of the place you’re currently working,” says Robert M. Augustine, senior vice president at the Council of Graduate Schools.

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