Starting to study public relations

image As the second in my “Back to School” series of posts, I’m moving on from Preparing to Study to advice for when you arrive at University or attend the first teaching session for a professional qualification (eg CIPR Advanced Certificate or Diploma). 

This is a critical phase of your studies, when you can easily feel overwhelmed – so here are my top 5 tips to help you survive the onslaught:

Realise you will receive a lot of information  – yet you will retain very little of it as you are trying to cope with a new environment, meeting new people and trying not to look stupid! 

I estimate students retain no more than 3.125% of what they hear on the first day.  This is based on a calculation: that you will hear 50% of what you are told, be interested in 50% of what you hear, learn 50% of what interests you, and retain 50% of what you have learned beyond 24 hours.   It is a shame we can’t work out what 3.125% is retained or we could all save a lot of time and effort.

Seriously, the best approach is to capture as much information as you can, then return to it when you are better able to focus.  Collect handouts, make copious notes, ask questions (as that helps you engage with material) and collect contact details to follow up with tutors and other people you meet to seek clarification later.

Build a support network  from the start – identify a study buddy, find a mentor, and identify where you can obtain academic and extra-curricular help – including administrative personnel, who are a vital source of knowledge and often the gate-keepers to key processes (such as how to submit your work or obtain results).  Join a professional body or social media group with common interests.  Studying can be a lonely challenge, so having others you can turn to – and to whom you can provide support – helps make the journey a little easier.  Ensure your network includes friends with whom you can share a joke and relax – time out is a necessary stress reliever. 

Stand out from the crowd  – I have a confession: normally I can remember the names of only a few students in my classes.  Those who are easiest to recall tend to have a point of difference.  In PR, this often means being male – as they are in the minority.  To be honest, few students make the effort to be noticeable and memorable (for the right reasons).  Ways to catch the attention of your tutor include asking questions, participating actively in class, showing an interest beyond the session, doing your homework, sharing reading, etc.  Repeat your name when asking questions or otherwise engaging with your tutors – so we can make the connection. 

Ask for advice, share your good news (if you’ve won an award or achieved a piece of positive coverage, etc), use “six degrees of separation” network to find contacts you have in common (without becoming a stalker!), or connect with tutors and other contacts using social media (but remember they may then see your embarrassing photos!) 

Attend additional lectures and other activities that relate to your studies – if your tutors are also there, be sure to say hello.  Or you could circulate a synopsis that you think they will find interesting after the event.

More personally, you can use dress and accessories to stand out, find points of common interest or relate relevant examples from your own experience during discussion (but avoid becoming too repetitive or dominating conversations). 

Prepare and follow up  Don’t just turn up to a teaching session or tutorial and hope to wing it.  If you prepare in advance (read the Unit guide or other pre-session materials) and follow up with recommended activities (ask if none are given), then you will find you engage much more with what you are learning and it will be easier to recall later.  Apply what you have learned to practice (eg cases in the news), look out for relevant television programmes or articles and talk with others about what you have studied.  Preparation also applies to assignments – do not leave these until the last minute.  Diarise key dates for submissions and plan your deadlines so that you have plenty of time for reading, seeking clarification and producing professional assignments.

Learn to reference properly  Most academic assignments will require you to detail the sources you have read using the Harvard or similar referencing style.  Learn to do this early and it will set you up correctly for all your assignments.  There are a couple of essential things to remember about referencing.  The first is that you MUST make a note of the reference at the time you read something.  Trying to go back later is a huge waste of time and effort.  The second is to write your references in the right style immediately (check guidelines and ask librarian contacts for help).  It can take valuable hours to check you have used brackets, underline, commas and so forth correctly.  If you can use a system such as Endnote (which many Universities offer) this can be a great help.  But the basic premise of such systems is that you are building a database of sources that you will later use to evidence reading, substantiate claims and back up points being made in your work. 

It is said that you only have one chance to make a first impression – but first impressions of studying aren’t always positive.  As a tutor, I try to make sure the first session is fun and interesting, allow time to talk with others and that I’ve practised what I preach with regard to preparation and being memorable.

What do you do to prepare for a new experience – and what advice can you share with those who are starting to study (or teach) in the next few weeks?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

5 thoughts on “Starting to study public relations”

  1. Last time I taught a large(ish) class a student came up to me after class and introduced herself. How simple, how obvious, yet how absolutely unprecedented. I think it’s what you Brits would call “brilliant.”

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