Do you really need a degree to be in publishing?

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Claire Maxwell works at Icon Books as their Publicity Manager. She has previously worked in journalism and bookselling, and she blogs at Here, at the age of 23, she tells us how she’s worked her way up to this role, without a degree.

‘You’re not going to get anywhere without a degree’ was one sentence I heard often, and got sick of quickly, while I was desperately trying to work out how my adult life was going to pan out at the age of 18.

I wanted to get into publishing but I didn’t want to spend another three years in education, racking up huge amounts of debt and putting off the inevitable. I wasn’t sure that publishing was an industry – like medicine or law, for example – that needed three years plus in a classroom, and decided that for a year or two, depending on how miserable I became, I’d make the most of having parents who lived near London and try my best to get into the coveted world of books.

While there is no fool-proof way of getting a job, you don’t necessarily need a degree. No matter how many people at school or on your internships tell you you do. That is what I want to argue.

I, in fact, don’t even have good A Levels, let alone a Bachelors Honours in English Literature as so many of my (very talented) colleagues do. I left school at 16, did two A Levels via distance learning due to ill health and gained grades I don’t particularly want to include on job applications.

However, I did do a couple of work experience placements at Hodder & Stoughton and worked in a bookshop for a short time, which turned out to be an invaluable asset to my CV. I eventually got my first full time job at a newspaper at the age of 21 – the other end of the phone to where I find myself now. I worked on local news stories by day and by night I built up a reasonable blog and social media following; reviewing books, waxing lyrical about what I was doing that weekend and taking pretty pictures of latte art.

When I came to leave my job at the newspaper, aged 22, and start seriously looking for a job in PR in a publishing house, I told myself I had everything a recent graduate had, if not more. It helps to give yourself a pep talk before a stressful interrogation, but it was also true. I’d had a year or so of stellar hands-on experience in the real world of work, media and PR. I’d created something successful from scratch and effectively promoted myself and my work via social channels. I wasn’t a high school drop-out with no prospects, as I was made to believe at the naïve and terrified age of 18, I was going to be just fine.

I believe that while there is a place for higher education, a lack-of is not to be scoffed at. Encouraging people not to go to university encourages a more creative approach to early career progression and a wider variety of experience within the companies these people end up working for. There are other, sometimes more effective, routes.

I’m still only 23 years old, but I’m now on my second job in publishing as the publicity manager at a thriving independent publisher in North London. And in my last round of job interviews I was not asked once about my lack of degree.

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  1. I got very good A-levels and then went to uni but dropped out in the second year because it wasn’t the right course for me. I then went on to work in a corporate law firm and had quite a good job, however, I always felt like I was missing something and felt inferior because I had not completed my degree. I went back to uni aged 26 and completed a degree in journalism. I do think it’s possible to get a good job without having a degree, and I don’t necessarily think degrees are for everyone, but at the same time I don’t think young people should be actively discouraged from going to university. It gives you a solid foundation of knowledge, and a recognised level of education and shows potential employers that you have the dedication and staying power to stick to a subject for 3 or 4 years. I think there are several things going wrong in the UK HE system; firstly the fees, they are astronomical and do not reflect the quality of courses, and also the expectation that a degree equals a job. Actually, education does not guarantee you a job at all, and that should not be its purpose. Education should be valued in and of itself as a personal and academic enrichment. Education and work experience are two different things, and although both are valid I don’t think work experience takes away from the value of a good degree. I don’t think that one success story like Claire’s should serve as a rule for young people to forgo HE. Not everyone will be as lucky or as persistent or capable of getting a good job like Claire has.

    1. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, I suppose what I want to argue is that a degree is not everything – especially for an industry like publishing. Young people who don’t want to go to university shouldn’t be scared into going. There is of course merit in going to university if the individual feels that it is right for them, but I don’t think it should seen as a necessity. Everyone has it within themselves to get to where they want to be with a bit of determination and creativity.

  2. Agreed, degrees should not be a barrier to getting jobs, and it would be great to see more people rejecting them, in favour of shorter courses that provide meaningful qualifications for the job they want, or pure experience. English degrees, especially, are very nice but neither a vocational nor professional qualification for doing anything.

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