Is a Journalism Degree Worth Pursuing?

It’s a question that I’ve heard many times.  What are the pro’s for pursuing an advanced degree in journalism compared to toughing it out and hitting the pavement with a notebook and pen in hand and forging your own path?  Well, the answer ultimately depends on what you are hoping to accomplish. 

Each option has its benefits and its shortcomings.  There’s no guarantee that either choice you make will determine the success of your career, but knowing what you’d like to achieve will help you make the final decision.

To be fair, my opinion may be biased as I’m a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, but one can only speak from personal experience.  I can tell you that having finished my degree, I would make the same decision again if I were to be spontaneously thrown back in time.  Going back to school opened up a whole new network of colleagues, both students and professors, which I wouldn’t have necessarily met otherwise.  With the help of professors I was able to get in touch with editors at respected publications, and through school I was able to work a handful of internships at ‘big name’ outlets.  For me it was the right choice.

After receiving my Bachelor’s degree in English, I knew that I wanted to start my writing career.  I spent some time trying to develop a professional portfolio of freelance work after building a network of connections with local editors.  After nearly two years, I still found it hard to pay the bills and most entry level positions I applied for still wanted past years experience, something I still don’t understand.  An entry level position should be just that, entry-level, but that’s a topic for another time.

I had started a Master’s program in marketing, a field that I thought would allow me to work my creative muscles, but it wasn’t the perfect fit for me.  After some number crunching to see if I could afford the transition, I decided to try out a master’s program geared towards journalism.  I had the expectation that it would be an opportunity to network and get some good clips in the process, I was right.  What I didn’t expect was the amount of exposure to other journalism platforms that I would get.  Instead of just writing, I learned how to tell stories through photos, radio features, videos, and longer form narrative.  The breadth of experience I received while at school is something that I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to receive in the same amount of time at an entry level position.

The curriculum is rigorous.  We were told not to work while going to school and I could see why.  We worked regular 16 hour days, seven days a week.  We produced radio features, short documentaries, blog posts, long form features, and photo projects week after week, juggling many stories at the same time. 

I started school with the intention of focusing on my writing career but soon realized that I had a real interest in radio and video work.  This exposure most likely wouldn’t have happened if I had taken a reporting job at a small publication, as I would’ve most likely stuck to writing.  Due to the strenuous hours and the constant feedback from multiple editors (professors) I think that my work became much more professional.  I was working with full-time employed editors from TIME, The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc.  Without school it would’ve taken me years to even get on those editors radar, if ever.

But there are downsides.  The cost to go back to school can be defeating on its own.  With programs offered by respected schools like Columbia and New York University, you could end up paying upwards of $100,000.  Also, as much as advisors tell you that your experience in journalism school equates to years on the job, employers don’t always agree.  Many of them would rather see that you worked for a big name organization getting coffee than producing stories in multiple platforms for a grad-level course.  But you’re not going back to school for them, you’re going back to school for you.

If you view this life decision as personal development, not necessarily professional, you’ll see a tremendous amount of success.  Through school I was able to craft my work and decide which career paths are best for me.  I freelanced, and like I mentioned before, worked internships throughout school to build up my resume.  I would encourage anyone considering the change to ask themselves what they are looking for in their career before making the investment.  For those who are taking reporting jobs to fill your time before you find your true passion, it may not be for you.  School is perfect for those who truly want to become a better, more thorough reporter, writer and storyteller.  

About Sean Flynn

Sean Flynn is a recent graduate from City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared in The Buffalo News, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times 'Fort Greene Local', The Daily Meal, and FoxNews.com.
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