Considering journalism school? My advice.

A woman who follows my blog wrote to me last week asking whether she should go to journalism school.

This question comes up a lot. The pros and cons have been covered again and again and again (ironically, this U.S. News & World Report story was published in 1996 — when a master’s at Medill only cost $20K! — and the arguments haven’t changed much), so I won’t go into them. Here’s what I’ll add:

I generally think j-school is worth it — I credit Medill with helping me climb the news ladder — but only if the program is practical, not theory-based. Only if you’ll leave there with clips (published in off-campus publications) and multimedia projects, tangible products you can put in front of a potential employer to score a job.

But. Especially in this economic climate, a j-degree will not get you a job. Clips will not get you a job (though you need them). Multimedia skills will not get you a job (though you need those, too). Lots of people have all of this stuff and more.

What you need to get a job is something that sets you apart. Maybe that’s your programming skills. Maybe it’s an awesome blog that offers insight into your niche. Maybe it’s an innovative project. Whatever it is, you need to show that you’re creative, with ideas, energy and innovation that will help propel journalism forward. Pick something, and make time to make it good.

Because a j-degree will not be enough. Go ahead and earn one. But to get a job, you’ll need something more.

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18 Responses

  1. NOOOOO DON’T DO IT!
    Unless you are rich and a few years out of the workforce, plus grad school tuition, means nothing to you.
    I didn’t go to journo grad school. Nor did I take any journo or comm classes as an undergrad. So glad I didn’t! It’s just not needed. I am sure it is fun and interesting, but lots of things are fun and interesting. Unless you are wealthy, it’s a lot of debt, and you will NOT be able to pay it off by working in journalism alone. I tend to think a year or two at a small-town paper, along with diligent reading of magazines like CJR and E&P (R.I.P), will teach you everything you need to know. I’ve met MANY boring, average reporters from the two top journalism schools. And I’ve met some great ones — but I don’t believe grad school is what made them great.

    • Thanks for weighing in here, Emily! You’ve got a good argument… I’m going to pass it along to the woman who asked me about j-school.

      I may slither over into your camp in a few months if I can’t get a j-job πŸ™‚

    • Hi Emily,

      I’m the woman Alexis is talking about. Thanks for chiming in. I now have a chorus of a thousand voices, singing a thousand songs. (And you thought there were only two choices.)

      I was recently accepted into Columbia’s program, and have about two weeks left decide. Got some scholarship, but not nearly enough. I tend to feel the same as you, but I am almost 26 and just starting out in journalism. I’ve been a writer for years, but anything non-journalism means jack to editors.

      I’ve been doing some freelance work for a weekly and a small magazine and have some clips. Do you think that’s enough to get hired at a small paper? I think I’d do that in a heartbeat if it were possible. I’m a quick learner and a strong writer. I just can’t figure out how to get my foot in the door, as I’m too far out of school for most internships. Any small town papers you might recommend?

      Love your blog, by the way. Respect what you’re doing, love what you’re writing — which is why I’m being a little forward and asking for your advice. Trying to find the right people. πŸ˜‰

      • Hi simonemarie! Congrats on your acceptance to Columbia.

        Email me at esabaum (at) gmail (dot) com. I have several questions and several thoughts. But among other things, yes, I def. think you could get a job at a small paper.

      • Congratulations on getting accepted to Columbia!

        My recommendation is to be willing to hustle, to be willing to go anywhere and do anything, and to spend a ton of your own time reading up on everything having to do with journalism.

        I went to a state journalism school and graduated when I was 27, after nearly a decade of working in technology/dot-coms/web design. Through a near-miraculous confluence of hard work on my part, the depth of my techie background and luck on the part of the universe, I landed a job as an online journalist at a local 24-7 cable news station. Now I get to write and edit and report, in addition to coordinating social media for the station and developing content ideas. So it can be done! You just have to be willing to work hard and to learn everything you possibly can.

    • I agree with regards to journalism GRAD school, which to me seems more like a way to get into management and less about developing skills as a journalist.

      However, I think the industry has gotten to the point where a person would need a journalism undergraduate degree if they want to even get in at those small-town newspapers.

      • Hey Caitlin — Thanks for chiming in! Need more voices on this one.

        Actually, the grad program I did at Medill was not at all about management and entirely about practical skills. Essentially for people like me who didn’t train as a journalist in undergrad.

      • That makes sense, if you already have an undergraduate degree in another field. (What is your degree in, btw?) Also, if you can go to a school like Medill (!!!) then it would be worth it anyway.

        I’ve just noticed in my own working experience that all of the people with master’s degrees also tend to be the higher level editors and producers. The rest of us just have BAs.

  2. I have an MA in economics and the one thing I regret during grad school was not getting a summer internship. However, maybe my subconscious was telling me something because I hated econ (and I wasn’t a very good economist). Looking back at my schooling, I should have gone into journalism after my BA in International Relations, but I wanted the $$ instead. Well, it all backfired on me. I never used my econ degree, went on to PR (for those who are considering public relations–don’t do it. It’s a horrible industry and brings out the worst in everyone).

    I always knew I wanted to be a writer and I had to pay my dues. I started with book reviews to get clips, then a small regional pet magazine and lifestyle magazine, and now I am the online editor of an art magazine. There’s still a lot I have to learn. My weakest area is interviewing. I rely a lot on email interviews, and I have a difficult time coming up with questions. So if anyone has any pointers on how to conduct a great interview and come up with good questions, I would love to hear from you!

    • Hey Rebeca,

      Interviews are all about practice. Research the person beforehand, come up with a few questions, but then treat the interview like a conversation so you can take it wherever it leads you. If the source mentions something interesting, ask her to elaborate on that. Treating it like a conversation with make BOTH of you feel more comfortable.

      Also, act confident even if you don’t feel it. I find that’s the trick to nearly everything!

  3. Alexis, I would tell the woman you are having coffee with it to go for it, but only if she is absolutely passionate about journalism.

    This is the other thing – a journalism degree is not only useful when you want to work in journalism, but if it turns out that you can’t find a job in journalism or you don’t like it as much as you thought you would (which happens a lot, I think, as it is not really as glamorous of a job as many seem to think it is), you are still very well prepared to work in public relations or media relations or corporate communications or any number of fields. A solid journalism degree will give a person experience that can be used in a variety of jobs.

    (I feel like such a career counselor right now.)

    • You’re totally right here. That’s why I chose j-school — because I figured the degree would be useful even if I decided not to pursue journalism. Of course, then I got sucked in, loved it, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else!

    • I am going to disagree here a bit. It’s NOT a solid journalism degree that gives a person skills that can be used in a variety of jobs. Journalism EXPERIENCE does that. These helpful-in-several-professions skills aren’t built by getting the degree, though they can. They can also come from spending a year or two working in the field full-time.

  4. On Twitter, I asked: Having coffee today with a woman considering journalism school. What should I tell her?

    A few of the responses:

    @joyfc: Tell her that 80% of what she sees in the media now is not journalism. Be objective. Tell the story – don’t BE the story.

    @ideasyncratic: Ask her what her goals are and suggest night courses at Gtown vs a full-time program.

    @Padraig_OMorain: It’s a tough business to get into so only do it if you want to. But if you want to, do it.

  5. I think it is a hard call. I agree with Emily in that the experience the woman lists really fits in with being able to get a job at a small paper or with online venues but the job market for journalism is so bad right now. I know too many people who have been laid off.

    Another venue to think of, however, is to look at doing web content or producing for a TV station without grad school experience. I think someone else mentioned doing some TV type work.

    I did an MFA in Creative Writing and loved it but it really only qualifies me to teach and even with that it is all about getting published and with journalism the publication thing is just as true.

    Good luck with making the choice! I’ll be paying back my 20K in MFA debt for a long time but I don’t regret it, but I went in knowing it wasn’t a career choice it was just something I always wanted to do πŸ™‚

    great discussion going on!

  6. Well I can tell you getting my journalism degree was a complete waste of time and money. I graduated with a degree in journalism six months ago, and I am working as a reservations agent a Disney World. To be honest I hate life right now! I am so angry that I managed to make such a huge mistake in choosing to get a degree in journalism.

  7. I’m late to reply here, but Alexis just tweeted a link to this post on June 5, so here I am.

    Everyone here has given good advice, so I only have one little thing to add. IF you are considering going to grad school for journalism, DO YOUR RESEARCH very carefully!

    Medill and Columbia are two well respected options, and both are very, very expensive. They are NOT the only options. BUT not every grad program in journalism is practical, or professional based. Alexis mentioned this, but it seems to me that far too many people apply to a master’s program without thoroughly examining exactly what courses they will be required to take — and what courses are available.

    Look at UC Berkeley, for example. They have tons of practical, hands-on courses in all kinds of professional areas — documentary video, multimedia, investigative reporting, and more. Compare what Berkeley offers to the actual courses offered in another program (chosen at random), and you might be quite surprised.

    So don’t assume that all master’s degree programs in journalism are the same. In fact, they vary in huge ways.

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