Grad school for journalism? Your mileage may vary

Grad school for journalism? Your mileage may vary

I was 10 when I figured out that I wanted to write for a living, but was halfway through college by the time I realized that meant journalism.

My university didn’t have a journalism school, so I majored in English and decided to figure it out later.

Later = working as an editorial assistant and trying desperately to get a job (or an internship) (or a chance to make coffee) at a magazine.

Interviewers immediately asked to see my clips, but I had none; I wanted an internship so I could get clips. I spun in this circle for a year. Then I gave up and decided to go to grad school.

A year later, I graduated from the University of Maryland with a master’s degree in journalism. I got my first newspaper job three months later and have been working as a reporter ever since. Attending grad school remains the best professional decision I’ve ever made.

But I’m in the minority.

Just 21.4 percent of reporters have an advanced degree, which is maybe not surprising when you consider that as an industry, journalism generally tends to value experience more than education. I loved grad school, but if I’d had any experience beforehand -- if I’d majored in journalism, worked for my campus newspaper or managed to land internships or an entry-level writing gig -- I don’t know that I would have chosen it.

Sean Bueter did. He’s a reporter at WFDD who majored in broadcast journalism as an undergraduate, then headed to grad school at Syracuse. He graduated there in 2008 with a master’s in television, radio and film.

Sean spent half of undergrad focused on broadcast production skills, and attended grad school to plug what he saw as potential holes in his basic journalism education. Nine years later, he’s not sure it was the best decision. 

“Between my undergraduate coursework and the public radio internships I pursued, I think I probably had the skills I needed to get an entry-level journalism job once I graduated,” he said. “That’s not a knock on my professors -- I think I misjudged my own situation.” 

My grad-school mentor might have agreed.

“When prospective students come to me, and they’ve already got decent experience and I think they can get decent jobs, I tell them to go work for a couple of years,” said Rafael Lorente, director of the master’s program at Maryland. “If at that point, you still think you want to go to grad school, call me then.” 

By then, you’ll have a better idea about what you need to learn, Rafael said. Maybe it’s in-depth data reporting, or investigative techniques. Maybe you’re interested in learning to shoot video or how to utilize social media. There’s a place for that in grad school coursework now, he said. 

“All these things that 20 years ago didn't exist all of a sudden are really attractive to somebody with a couple years of experience,” he said.

But if you don’t have that experience, grad school can be a great option.

My former classmate Jennifer Bogdan (now a statehouse reporter in Providence) was somewhere in between -- she’d majored in communications as an undergrad and had worked on her school paper, but didn’t feel prepared to tackle a full-time reporting gig after graduation. After earning her master’s at Maryland, she was ready.

“I got hired directly out of grad school at the Observer-Dispatch in Utica, N.Y. with a portfolio of real clips from UMD's bureau semester,” she said. “But I've relied on the connections I made at UMD far beyond the first job. That's the great thing about having journalism professors who've been in this field.”

Collectively, would we recommend grad school? Ultimately, it depends on your situation.

“It’s a really personal decision,” Sean said. “If you’re coming from a background that included no journalism training, it might make sense...but I think an internship at a shop that would take you on could provide some of that education, too.”

Jenn votes yes, mostly for the long-term resources it can provide.

“I think the biggest perk is having a network of professors/mentors who have been in the trenches and can give you practical advice when you're starting out,” she said. “For anyone considering grad school I'd say the most important things to look for are faculty who have done this job and classes that offer hands-on experience.”

My take: Journalism desperately needs dedicated, smart people who are passionate about the job and interested in learning how to do it. Grad school can help make you one of them -- without it, I wouldn’t be here -- but it isn’t essential.

 Bottom line: your mileage may vary.

Editor's Note: a PR pro recently asked this same question about grad school for public relations professionals. Check out her take here.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a government reporter in Greensboro, North Carolina. If you’re going to go to grad school, she recommends picking one with a good mascot.

Photo via Pexels

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