Career Progression and Satisfaction of Graduates from RMIT’s Public Relations Degree
I’d like to give special thanks to all the graduates from RMIT who took time out of their days to not only complete my research survey, but pass it on to fellow alumni and respond so positively to my initial contact.
As I have come closer to the end of my Communications degree, I have begun to suspect that many roles that fall under the title of ‘Public Relations Practitioner’ will not be appealing to me in a long term scenario, particularly the concept of being employed at a PR agency and working on many corporate accounts. I am aware that there is no ‘typical’ public relations career, and hope to evidence this through my research into those who have been working in the industry. Through my editorial work placement at Dumbo Feather Magazine I have become more impassioned with areas that I feel are more likely to lead to other career paths, yet still want to use the skills I have acquired through my degree to avoid ‘wasting’ the time I spent in the course.
With this research project I aimed to make contact with past graduates and discover if they may have gone through similar thought processes and if they altered their career paths. I also wanted to attempt to create a thorough image of career establishment and satisfaction levels, and peek into other passions and dreams graduates may have– my dream career involves far more creativity than a general PR career offers (and a much lower income), and intended to see if any had left a career as a PR practitioner and gone on to a more creative stream, and if yes then to what level of success and personal satisfaction.
The objective of this study is to answer the question: what are RMIT Public Relations graduates doing with their careers and what level of satisfaction does it give them? I also wish to know what graduates would be doing in an ideal world, if they could choose any career path.
There is a large amount of information available on the outcomes of graduates in Australia, and the general employment of Australians (in terms of wage, employment formats). However, to specifically gain insight into graduates of RMIT’s PR course and a greater knowledge of their career progression, satisfaction and opinions I maintain there was a need to carry out independent research in the form of a comprehensive survey allowing cohesive responses rather than just seeking quantitative data.
Four months after each semester, Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) undertake a survey of the most recent graduates in the Australian Graduates Survey (AGS). They compile comprehensive information on employment, salary, and a number of questions regarding the quality of their study. With only four months between graduation and survey completion, I believe the responses are likely to be less indicative of long term prospects than they would be if taken at a later point.
According to the GCA’s 2014 survey, graduates are facing significantly more challenging times than in the past, with a trend that can be assumed to be rising with no interference or dramatic social change. Fig 1.1 shows statistics from 1990-2014, with current levels of employment of graduates four months after graduating. Full-time employment rates are under 70%, the lowest they have been in the history of the survey. Comparatively, part-time employment is at its peak, while unemployment of new graduates has climbed back to the same level as it was in 1994, sitting above 10%. These numbers are across all graduates of bachelor degrees across Australia, not just RMIT, but give a general outlook of the environment awaiting future graduates and the existence of established patterns. From the above information it is evident that part time employment has seen an increase in conjunction with the decrease in full time employment, insinuating part-time/casual employment is more achievable for graduates while they continue searching for full time work. Some are unable to secure full-time, part-time or casual work before the 4-month mark. This number of unemployed graduates has been on a steady rise since 2008, with the GCA initially avoiding links to the after-effects of the economic recession (2009 survey), but GCA CEO Noel Edge admitted in 2014 that ‘graduate employment was still affected by the 2008 global economic crisis [but] longer-term job prospects for graduates remained strong’ (Dodd and Tadros, 2014).
(Fig 1.2, Australian Bureau of Statistics, July 2015)
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, (Fig 1.2, July, 2015) the current Australian unemployment rate is at 6.3%. When taken into consideration that the majority of students consider a degree as a means an end, the end being secured employment (Roy Morgan Research, 2009), this 4% discrepancy could be indicative of a failure to deliver education as a product, with ‘students now demanding their rights as customers in a labour market which requires advanced credentials’ (Jackson, 2013). This study will be exploring graduates from as far back as 2005, regardless of career status, so some insight into the longevity of this higher level of unemployment is a long-term factor or simply a longer transitional period between study and professional establishment.
RMIT has one of the lowest average graduate starting salaries, fitting in the bottom 20% of Australian universities (Good Universities Guide, 2015), but combined graduates from all universities (under age 25) had a starting salary of $52,500 in 2014 (Graduate Careers Australia, 2014). The Good Universities Guide breaks down RMIT’s graduate salary by degree area, with a Communications graduate earning on average $40,483 (fig. 1.3) Through my research I will be looking to map the salaries of both recent graduates and seasoned professionals in varying fields, and see whether they confirm this starting salary in a smaller sample.
Research by Lounsbury et al (2004) draws the link between someone’s life satisfaction and how content they are with their career, with focus on which stage their career is in:
Life satisfaction has been found to be related to barriers to career initiation career salience, boundaryless career experiences, stress in career change, frequency of job change in early career stage, reactions to career and occupational transitions, dysfunctional effects in midcareer transition, [and] radical career change.
The above research functions on the preconception that satisfactory life experience linked to career satisfaction, and it’s outcome echoes earlier studies (Beutell and Wittig-Berman, 1999, and Wiener et al, 1992) in producing results that confirm this theory. Rather than asking unrelated questions about the respondents self perceived quality of life, the survey requests they rank their own career satisfaction. With the complementary findings of Lounsbury et al the results are able to draw conclusions as to the graduates overall life satisfaction–not concretely, but in the sense that the three supporting research documents (Lounsbury, Wittig-Berman and Wiener et al) allow basic links to be created– a respondent who is completely unsatisfied in their current role is likely to be unsatisfied in their life to a similar degree.
To conduct my research, I created a survey of 10 questions (fig 2.1) on a free survey website. Because I was contacting busy professionals, I wanted the questions to be concise and interesting, and a survey with optional expansion on answers allowed respondents to be as elaborate in descriptive questions as they wished.
I allowed participants to select whether or not they identified with the term ‘PR practitioner’ or not, expecting the majority of graduates still in the communications industry to select yes, and asked respondents to clarify if they spent any time working as a PR practitioner before shifting to their current path. This is one of the main distinguishing factors in my groupings of respondents other than year graduated, as it gives a point for analysis not based on experience or presumed time in the industry, but a completely separating factor, and one not normally expected from PR graduates.
Each question is intended to create an overall image of the graduate, rather than moulding to create an entirely quantitative research result. There seems little point of comparing a new graduates income to one who has owned their own business for any length of time. Quantitative information was gathered but is not the focus so much as qualitative results to explore the variations in paths possible from a Public Relations degree.
To select participants I made use of existing groups of alumni on social media, including multiple Facebook groups and a LinkedIn page. The LinkedIn page returned the highest results; profiles contained links to more active Twitter accounts and I was able to send requests by way of tweet, or contained email addresses which I then contacted. I requested for respondents to pass on the link to any other alumni they remained in contact with, and had great results through the link being passed around social circles. I aimed for over RMIT’s mandatory response requirement (30) to give me a wider pool of data to work with.
Although it has an alteration on the accuracy of results, I wished to avoid concern over disclosure of wages so added a ‘confidential option to the salary question, for those uncomfortable about releasing the information. Many still opted to disclose, recognising the anonymity of the survey, with only 14% selecting the confidential option.
Once the responses to the surveys had been collated, I found that many had not just listed their job position, but also the company where they worked, and, in some cases its location. For the sake of anonymity and identity protection I have removed any such descriptors from the final collation of results, avoiding any potential disagreement from participants at the final result of the survey.
The survey received a total of 42 responses, which were initially separated by graduation year into the following sub-groups:
2005-2008 | 9 respondents
2009-2010 | 13 respondents
2011-2013 | 13 respondents
2014-2015 | 7 respondents
Pre-2008 graduates were significantly less active on social media accounts than more recent alumni, and therefore less accessible, and the 2014/2015 group, being the most recent graduates, are intended as a potential basis on the outcomes awaiting current students as they graduate in the next six months.
Graduates have also been separated into PR practitioners and non-practitioners for a different investigation and comparative option:
Non PR | 18
PR | 24
And another divisive technique used is the graduates response to question 5, asking them if they have completed further tertiary education after their Communications degree.
Further Ed | 6
No Further | 36
The presence of elaborative options in responses provided extra insight into the graduate’s opinions, particularly in questions regarding the usefulness of knowledge gained through the degree, and also in the participants elaboration of their ideal career. This also lead to unexpected opinions being shared that could be a premise for further research into graduate satisfaction with specific aspects of the course structure.
Of the seven most recent graduates, 5 have acquired work in the communications industry, although one is working two volunteer communications positions in conjunction with a retail job. Two others are currently working in retail with no PR/comms position supporting, and both rate themselves below ‘satisfied’ on a scale of ‘completely unsatisfied’ to ‘extremely satisfied’. Overall, the satisfaction level of new graduates is 3.2 out of a possible 5, rating them slightly above ‘satisfied’.
The earning positions of RMIT PR graduates within 18 months of graduating are lower than the average graduate salary, but fit largely within the Good Universities Guide wage estimate for communications of $40k, with 71% of respondents earning between $21-45k per year in their role. One graduate earns in the higher wage bracket ($46-70k), whilst one earns less than $20k. The satisfaction levels of this group are superior for those whom have already secured communications positions, all labelling themselves as very satisfied or higher.
In the next level of graduates (2011-2013) the satisfaction levels rise significantly, with all rating themselves satisfied or higher with the exception of one who cited themselves as ‘fairly satisfied’, summing a mean level of 3.7 out of a 5. 38% in this subgroup claim to be ‘very satisfied’ in their current role, with 3 respondents in this subsection selecting ‘extremely satisfied, it’s perfect’ in the rating system. All are working in the communications industry, varying from positions in advertising to running a high-profile blog, with 76% considering themselves to be Public Relations practitioners. This group of graduates are also earning a higher salary than their newer counterparts, with 55% earning in the $46-70k bracket. 15% earn above this amount, and another 15% below (in the $21-45k range), whilst the remaining 15% opted to keep their salary confidential.
In graduates from 2009 and 2010, job satisfaction rises once more to total 4 out of a possible 5, with over 50% of participants very satisfied, and another 25% marking their role as ‘perfect’. The average wage also rises in this group, with all earning over $46,000 per year, but a discrepancy becomes evident in these numbers. 11 respondents in this group disclosed their salary, and of these 11, 36% are earning over $86k per year whilst 45% earn between $46-70. The other 19% earn in between these two numbers. Three quarters of those earning the highest pay grade do not identify themselves as PR practitioners, leading to a deduction that whatever role they are in lends itself to a higher earning power than the practitioner equivalent.
The final sector, graduating between 2005-2008, sees a much more evenly balanced group in terms of wages. 2 respondents withheld their information, but between the 7 remaining 29% earn in the $46-70k margin, and another 29% in the $86k+, with the remaining 42% sitting between at $71-85k. A larger number of this group identify as PR practitioners also, with only two rejecting the title. However, these two non-practitioners list their satisfaction levels in their respective positions as the highest possible. Two respondents claim to be ‘fairly satisfied’ with their position, while all other respondents are either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ satisfied, leaving the average at 3.8 out of 5.
Out of all 42 respondents, the most common wage bracket was the $46-70k (Fig 3.1). If this information is reduced to only those who identify currently as Public Relations practitioners (a total of 24 out of the 42 respondents), the mode stays largely the same (Fig 3.2), which can be taken to be in line with the starting and senior salaries provided by Open University (Fig 3.3), with an average salary for a PR practitioner listed at $61k per year. For the remaining 18 who do not claim to be
practitioners, this figure is distributed more evenly, although there are a higher percentage of higher wage earners (Fig 3.4).
(Practitioner only salaries, Fig 3.2)
I was interested to see if there were significantly higher satisfaction rates for those earning more, but the difference is only slightly above the general satisfaction level, at 4.2 out of the possible 5 compared to the general 3.75. Those working as PR practitioners are significantly more satisfied than their other-careered counterparts, with 4.04 (very satisfied) to the non PR 3.4. This wider gap could potentially be reasoned to the newer graduates working in retail who rate themselves as below satisfied, but these respondents offer a variant view. Whereas other PR graduates have finished their degree and then moved away from the public relations field, with 39% working in the industry for some time before making a switch, these more recent graduates have not been able to make their first entry into the PR workforce. One 2015 graduate describes themself as completely unsatisfied with their retail job, and views their degree as having ‘a very small impact’ on their career.
I wanted to find out if graduates with established careers (in any industry) had any secret passions that could potentially offer alternative career paths for them in the future. I also hoped to discover if any had taken steps towards moving towards anything relating to their passion or had made a move away from PR after a period of time in the industry, and if they had, then how financially successful they are in their newer profession.
Responses to this question were completely varied, ranging from the realistic to the slightly more whimsical. Two respondents wished to move into media communications roles in the AFL, one wished to be a make up artist, two were interested in architecture, and one yearns to be a ‘heli-snowboarding guide’. A total of 9 respondents feel they are already a part of their ideal career, and a further 6 require only small alterations to their current job to consider it perfect. These alterations are largely based around the flexibility to travel, but also involve the ability to work away from a desk, join an in-house PR role and focusing their communications skills in an arts-based position. A total of 6 graduates identified their ideal position as a business owner or entrepreneur, insinuating that for a significant number of graduates, flexibility and the ability to define their own roles is important.
A number of participants have taken or are taking steps to move closer to their ideal career– 14% have undertaken further study after their Bachelor of Communications, ranging from postgraduate and diplomas, Master’s, graduate diplomas and TAFE certificates. Some undertakings are in complementary disciplines to Public Relations, such as marketing and public policy, defining and broadening their career options, but other graduates have returned to tertiary study to gain skills for a more radical change, including graphic design, broadcast technology, and psychology. One participant completed a Bachelor of the Arts degree previous to their Communication’s at RMIT, majoring in criminal studies.
Graduates who have changed paths and obtained further formal education rated the impact of their public relations degree on their career as an average of 5.5 out of a possible ten (having helped on a medium level), only slightly lower than those who completed only one course, who averaged 6.2. Hannes Zacher’s research cites career adaptability as ‘an important […] resource of employees in a time of more unpredictable, diverse, and global careers’ (2013). Those who don’t identify as PR practitioners would be expected to view their PR degree as of less importance to their career, as they have adapted their goals and career from the same starting point as all other graduates. The gap between opinion of impact is only .9 difference– 5.6 compared to the higher 6.5, showing that the degree still has value to graduates regardless of their ultimate position. 5 graduates viewed their PR degree as essential to the current state of their career, even 1 whom no longer considers themselves a practitioner, but worked in the industry for 6 months after graduating.
Graduates were also asked to estimate with how much frequency they still utilise the knowledge gained through the course of their degree, with opportunity to elaborate. 69% claim that they still access knowledge daily, with a further 21% stating that they don’t use their degree at all. The remaining participants maintain that they do use the skills and knowledge from their degree, but not as often in day-to-day life. 16% specifically credit the quality and usefulness of the writing components of the degree as having a positive impact on their career, although 21% mention that the majority of skills learned are through ‘hands on’ real life experience in industry, including internships and ‘on the job learning’, with one respondent crediting spending ‘time with people who had experience’. This preference for active learning rather than classroom theory is synonymous with a long held ideal that nothing is a substitute for active participation, with a U.S. study of PR professionals claiming ‘25% said that internships are among the most important aspects-often the single most important part of any PR education.’ (PR News, 1995). One respondent reflected on their course and said that they wish the degree ‘was a little more hands on’, and another pointed out the negative impacts their degree had in causing them to be overly cautious in all of their dealings, and felt the degree lacked emphasis on the importance of networking and creating relevant connections in industry.
Two respondents raised a point of the mandatory ‘contextual studies’ minors that have formed part of the degree in the past, a stream of Popular Culture, Cinema Studies, Philosophy and Literature, Asian Media and Culture or Politics, Economies and Communication. They did not feel it held any relevance to the rest of the degree as a whole, and requested the mandatory minors hold some ‘relevance to the industry’. These minors were not mentioned by any other respondents, who instead focused intently on the more oft-utilised writing techniques they acquired while at RMIT and other things they felt relevant (Fig 4.1)
Some results of my research were not in line with what I had originally estimated- I had predicted, in line with the Lounsbury’s findings, that not only would there be a correlation between career satisfaction and life satisfaction (identifiable through the amount of people who identify their ideal career as the one they are currently in), but also an obvious correlation between wage and career satisfaction; with a higher wage influencing a much higher satisfaction rate. However, this was not confirmed by my research, with only a .3 difference between the average rate of those earning above $70k (4/5), and those earning under (3.7). I agreed with points made by graduates regarding the mandatory minor stream as part of the degree, having been frustrated by it and struggled to understand it’s relevance in the place of electives that could be used to expand career expanding skills. All over, I believe my research was successful in its goal of creating an image of what graduates are doing post-study and their satisfaction levels. Comparing the new research to pre-existing studies, I maintain that the short 4 months between graduation and the undertaking of the AGS is not an effective measure of graduate outcomes and accomplishments. I am still unsure of precisely what career path I intend to embark on, and am nervous about entry into industry but the knowledge that past graduates have been successful in whatever career they select is reaffirming to me, and the knowledge that career satisfaction grows once graduates establish themselves in a position (post-first 18 months past graduation) provides me with further motivation to locate my own ‘ideal career’ and work towards it.
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