Advice to journalism students: Forget grad school!

While my internships post is still relatively fresh, I’d like to offer something else to journalism students who are really keen on becoming journalists — and maybe some of you in the newsrooms will weigh in as well.

Dear students:

This post is for your mom and dad, who are pressuring you to go to grad school immediately after undergrad.

I don’t know why your parents think that’s a good idea. Maybe in whatever field they’re in, it’s what people do. Like law. Like medicine. But not in journalism. Not usually.

Inside the university, we have seen a new student groupthink in the past few years — that groupthink is: “I must go to school for two more years after I get my bachelor’s degree, so I can get my master’s degree right away.”

This is sheer frickin’ madness if your undergrad is journalism — unless you DON’T want to be a journalist. If you want to be a lawyer, heck, sure, get out of here and go to law school. But if you want to DO JOURNALISM as your career, your calling, your mission in life — then GO GET A JOB. The sooner, the better.

If you did your undergrad in English, or basket weaving, or political science — then maybe you would benefit from two years in a professional journalism master’s program. That is, the kind of master’s program that is really a lot like the undergrad journalism programs. But if your undergrad is already in journalism, let me wise you up about grad school. You and your parents. Please.

Grad school programs in mass communication come in two flavors. One is a traditional scholarly program. Most people who want to become a journalist totally HATE this kind of program. And they make pretty poor students too, because they HATE their classes. A traditional master’s program is about scholarly research and statistics and mass communication theory. It is not, in fact, about how to be a journalist.

The other flavor of master’s degree program is the professional program. And guess what? It’s very, very similar to most undergrad journalism programs in North America. So you would be, duh, taking the same classes AGAIN. How boring would that be? You would be wasting two years of your life not learning anything new. For what? For a degree?

Let’s talk about how highly editors in newsrooms (print, online and broadcast) value that master’s degree.

Not. One. Bit.

Go ahead, make your mom and dad call some people who know some people. Ask a few real live editors what they look for when they want to hire a new, entry level person. This is the list: Skills, internships, clips, URLs. That’s what they want to see. That is the whole list.

What’s not on the list? Your GPA. No one in any newsroom anywhere will EVER ask you what your grades were. NO ONE CARES out there in the world. (No one except the grad school admissions people, that is.)

And guess what? Salary-wise, that master’s degree will make absolutely no difference in any journalism job. In fact, the other 24-year-olds will be making more money than you — yes, you, the dolt who stayed in school for two extra years.

Grad school has value in other situations. For example, after you have worked in journalism for five or 10 years, you might actually know what you what to study next — maybe political science, sociology, criminology, database design, public health, international policy, or another subject area that would make you a better journalist in a specialization. It takes a while to discover what you like in journalism. Most 21-year-olds don’t know yet. They might think they know (and some do), but give them five years and then ask them.

(I went back to school for a master’s degree when I was 30, and it was fantastic. I took six credits in computer animation, learned about guerrilla documentary video, studied human-computer interface design, and read British media studies scholars and French deconstructionists. I would have hated most of that stuff when I was 21, believe me! But everything’s totally different when you’re 30 — my whole approach to school was different.)

I know you love your parents, and they’ve taken good care of you all these years. But this time, they’re wrong. They’re wrong because they have not spoken to any TV news directors or newspaper editors or online managing editors or producers. If they had, they would be hearing what I just told you (and them): No one in a newsroom will respect your master’s degree, and what’s more, there is no reward at all for having it. So why do you want it? Now, when it won’t do you a bit of good? Later, when it would mean something, you won’t want to go back and get a second one.

Journalism is not rocket science. You don’t need a master’s degree to know how to do it, and you won’t do it well until you haul yourself out of school and into a working newsroom. Journalism is learned on the job, and if you’re not prepared to go out and do it after four years in undergrad, maybe you should just give up on it — and go to law school instead.

66 Comments on “Advice to journalism students: Forget grad school!

  1. Pingback: Is a degree in journalism really necessary? —

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  3. Richard Tomkins writes: “I never went to journalism school so my view is admittedly biased.” But isn’t this (one of) the reasons why journalism grad programs are held in such low esteem? The people doing the hiring don’t have journalism degrees and therefore don’t value them.

    I’m biased too: I’m currently enrolled in a journalism grad program. I didn’t study journalism in college, and I’m glad I didn’t.

    College helps give you a framework for thinking about the world. Study history, political science, English. Learn how to read well and write well. I’m skeptical of our tendency to jump into “pre-professional” programs at the age of 18.

    I don’t know how every program is run, but mine is practical in nature. We do no theory at all. We’re given assignments, sent off to report, return to class and have our professors (who are not professors but practicing journalists who do this on the side) tear our copy apart. We do learn digital skills, and we learn how to shoot and edit video.

    This grad student is learning a lot: what I’m doing isn’t worthless, and the newsrooms should pick up on it!

  4. i majored in tv production in undergrad and now have 7-8 years experience in a/v & multimedia under my belt. i’ve been thinking about a multimedia/journalism grad school program to merge the two, but your posting has given me second thought – i’d really like a short-term seminar/refresher program rather than a two year commitment. thanks for the perspective!

  5. @aisha – There is a reason why someone with your experience would want an actual master’s degree: To teach. Nowadays the bigger universities require even the adjuncts (sessionals, in Canada) to have a master’s degree.

  6. You need a master’s in the subject area – or a master’s and 18 credit hours in the subject area – to be an adjunct at community colleges in the orlando area. Proof of the M.A. is required pre-interview. And this is for jobs that pay about $1,600 per class, for a 16-week session.Adjuncting is a dead end. For less than $100/wk. you can look elsewhere.
    Does not usually lead to full time instructor job, tho they will string you along saying it “might.”

  7. @N. Jean – Adjunct work might be a dead end as far as whether it leads to a full-time post at that institution, but working as an adjunct (or “sessional,” in Canada) has two benefits: (a) You can find out whether you like teaching, or not; (b) You get to add higher-ed teaching experience to your resume.

    The latter can be important if you apply for a full-time position as a lecturer or professor. If you lack that experience, you might not get the job interview. I worked as an adjunct for two semesters at NYU, and that experience definitely contributed to my being offered a full-time position.

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  9. And when you get laid off from your journalism job, because last hired/first hired, you will be thrilled you have that master’s. You can teach English at a community college. In this horrible economy, especially for journalists, have a back-up plan. Ira has a job and would be paid to give speeches if he lost it. What’s your backup plan? GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL.

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  11. I also did not see any reason to go to journalism school. I did contemplate law school and grad school for a bit… The pay was tempting, but the lifestyle would have been mind numbing.
    I did my undergrad in English (Writing! not LIT!) by the way. Lots of people see English major and assume you just read literature books, this is not the case. I only took one lit course. Taking 10 writing/editing/rhetoric/etc courses as the major core vs 10 literature courses is a big difference… Along with a writing internship.
    I also did a minor in Communications (4 classes), in which I took media law and ethics courses. Combined with another 3 courses in Political Science (writing heavy, 5 in Philosophy (writing heavy), 2 in History (writing heavy), and the remaining liberal arts requirements in econ/history/etc, what more would a J School possibly do for me outside of paying for a job connection and going over the same material.
    As somebody who does not have rich parents, J school was simply a non option.
    My UG did not offer a Journalism major.

  12. I got in to a Master of Journalism program at UBC and a graduate diploma at Concordia. UBC’s program is two years and Concordia’s is one. Do you know which one is better? If I want to teach one day, will the Master give me a leg up? Right now I’m leaning towards Concordia, because it’s shorter and I prefer Montreal to Vancouver

    kind regards,


  13. @Joel – I do not know which one of those two programs is better, but in general, speaking for the best U.S. master’s programs, I think the two-year programs are usually better.

    You learn more because you’re not trying to cram everything into too short a time frame. Also, students who need to work while in school (to put food on the table, for example) can manage to do so in many two-year programs, but in a one-year program, you’re not likely to get the full benefit of the courses if you’re also trying to work 20 hours a week.

    You need to look carefully at WHO is TEACHING in each program. Look at their professional experience and also how up-to-date the courses are. Today’s journalists need to know a lot of stuff that some j-schools still are not teaching.

  14. There is a reason why the better journalism schools are only 9 months long like Medill and Columbia… it’s b/c, you aren’t really learning that much. It is a SPRING BOARD and JOB CONNECTOR for prestigious jobs, and not much more. You would learn the same thing in an actual job if you can get it. If you can get the job, just get the job. If you go to Medill for Undergrad
    Also, many schools require you to double major anyway… and many do, so there goes the whole “you should major in history/political science things and save journalism for grad school” …NO! Most undergraduate j-school graduates ARE doing this already.

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  16. See I beg to differ. I have an undergraduate degree in Communications and Journalism and have not at all been able to find a job anywhere! And I’m from New York city, a place where there is supposed to be great job opportunities. Now I live in Atlanta georgia… guess what? Still can’t find a job in journalism or something related. So I’m now looking to get a masters degree in a different field because I feel like I HAVE to. If I could go back I would not do journalism.

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