To some, the social media manager title is a step in the pathway to becoming CMO. To a frustrating amount of others, it’s an intern job reserved for recent or soon-to-be grads. The incredibly public nature of the role has led many to believe they know what it takes to be good at it. Now, as the field gains more executive buy-in, inquiring minds are asking: should the position require a master’s degree?

Or at least, that was the question on everyone’s mind last week when an article from the Wall Street Journal prompted some spirited Twitter discourse. The debate around whether or not to pursue an advanced degree is nothing new, but applying it to the realm of social ignited strong reactions from practitioners and educators alike.

“As someone who was interviewed for the piece, I felt like the suggestion that social media managers need degrees missed the point of the article,” says Rachel Karten, social media consultant and creator of the Link in Bio newsletter. “To me, the article focused more on how this is a role that is evolving and has finally earned the respect it deserves.”

How did social marketers respond?

The question sparked a nuanced conversation. For starters, there’s the cost issue. Advanced degrees aren’t cheap, and most social media managers are underpaid compared to their marketing counterparts. Earlier this July, while researching compensation trends in social media roles, Karten found that the median salary for a social media manager is more than $78,000 less than that of a marketing manager.

“Advanced degrees really only benefit the wealthy who can afford to take on that debt,” says Karten. “I would be concerned as to what it would mean for the field of social media if we were to reward—through higher roles and higher pay—people who have that privilege.”

In a field that values the critical thinking and adaptability needed to learn as you go, adding a master’s degree to the mix can feel like a strange pause. Platforms are constantly rolling out updates, and what works one week might not work the next. “If I were to take two years away from directly working within social media, to instead study it, I feel like I’d be at a fairly large disadvantage entering back into the workforce,” says Karten.

We know social has the power to make or break a brand, but those at the helm of social strategy don’t always get the respect to match. What would a master’s degree mean in an industry where a single post can inspire strangers to campaign for your raise or ask that you be fired? For many, the risks outweigh the rewards.

Escaping the intern stereotype

Karen Freberg, Professor of Strategic Communications at the University of Louisville, knows that experienced social leaders get called interns far too often.

“We need to end the stereotypes plaguing our field,” says Freberg. “‘An intern is running the brand account’ or ‘higher education and professors are not teaching relevant trends and topics in social media marketing’ both need to end in 2021.”

Freberg teaches, researches and consults in social media. Despite working as an educator, she understands why many social media marketers would be hesitant to embrace higher education as a stepping stone in their career path.

“I’m hopeful that the bridge between academia and practice continues to grow stronger,” says Freberg. “While these programs may cover the current trends, topics and areas in social media, they also provide additional benefits that can guarantee long-term success even if the tools change.”

Freberg believes that with the proper vetting, social media managers can find a program that will make a lasting impact on their careers. Not all graduate programs are created equal, and vary in their coursework and faculty backgrounds.

“See what the professors are doing. If they are not active or known in the industry, that’s a key element to consider,” advises Freberg. “There are graduate programs such as University of Southern California, West Virginia University, and NYU that have working professionals leading courses, so they have a balance between academia and industry.”

Elevating a social media manager starts internally, not on a careers page

Before normalizing master’s degrees as prerequisites for social roles, employers need to reassess the scope and support given to their social teams.

“[Social media managers] still have trouble getting buy-in on strategies internally, and still get called interns externally,” says Karten. “I think one of the toughest parts about being a social manager is being managed by someone who has never worked in the field.”

The question isn’t “do social marketers need master’s degrees?” but rather, “are executives empowering their social teams to do their best work?” Before businesses can even consider adding “master’s preferred” to a job listing, they first need to develop a more advanced understanding of how social can impact a business.

“There needs to be more support internally at companies to really invest in their social media teams, specifically through educational stipends for things like graphic design classes or data analysis courses,” says Karten.​ “Social media teams are often asked to be experts in so many fields, I think the financial burden should ultimately fall on employers to help us grow.”

From increasing investment to using social data to inform opportunities outside of marketing, businesses are doubling down on social media. As social grows into its role as the primary communication channel for brands, businesses need to extend their commitment beyond budget and tools. They need to support their people by giving them a seat at the decision-making table, and the opportunity to test, innovate and grow.

What makes a great social media professional

Great social media marketers come from all walks of life. That’s because social media is not one skill. It’s a collection of skills ranging from copywriting and design all the way to public relations and crisis communications.

“There are so many attributes of social media managers that make them good at their job that actually aren’t necessarily ‘social media’ by definition,” says Karten. “One of my favorite brand TikTok accounts is run by a video editor. My former social coworker has a background in photography. Lots of social folks have journalism degrees. There are so many paths to get into this field, and to me those paths make people uniquely qualified to work in social—that’s the magic.”

Do social media managers need master’s degrees? In the eyes of many, perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean the conversation is without merit. This discussion brought us all closer to identifying what social marketers need to step into their power. Not bad for some mid-Tuesday discourse. 

Need a hand honing your hiring strategy? Check out this social media hiring manager toolkit for a suite of resources that will help you find the perfect social marketer for your brand.