Advice from a J-school drop-out

When it comes to breaking into print, getting a graduate degree in journalism may be an exercise in exalted futility


Lea Aschkenas
January 8, 1999 2:31PM (UTC)

Although it was a year and a half ago, I still remember in full
detail the excitement, and subsequent confusion, I felt when a professor from
Missouri's Graduate School of Journalism called to offer me a full-tuition
grant and then, in the same breath, attempted to dissuade me from accepting
it.

Missouri's program was ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World
Report that year, and with this grant, I would get to work with the school's
renowned investigative reporting division.

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"Congratulations. We've chosen you," the professor, whom I'll call
Thomas, said on that fateful afternoon in mid-May. He then asked if I could
hold a moment while he shut his office door. When he returned to the phone,
his voice was barely a whisper and he said, "But if I were you, I'd really
think hard about your decision to come here."

I asked him why he came and why he stayed on if he felt this way.
He told me that he went to journalism school at Missouri because he was
rejected from all the MFA programs he'd applied to. I had also applied to
creative writing programs and been rejected.

"It's easy to just pass through here in a daze," he told me. "And
by the time I graduated, journalism was all I knew how to do."

At the same time that the school offered him a position in its
investigative reporting division, Thomas heard from a friend in the Peace
Corps that the corps was looking to train volunteers as beekeepers in Africa.
Thomas knew next to nothing about bees.

"But these were my only two options," he told me. "And I had to ask
myself, did I want to be a beekeeper or a journalist? I thought it over
for a week, and I decided I wanted to be a beekeeper."

But Thomas was rejected by the Peace Corps. So he returned to
Missouri.

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"Don't end up here by default," he said.

Today Thomas' story still haunts me because, although I never
considered beekeeping, I know that journalism wasn't my first choice
either. It was the practical choice, but really I dreamed of living in a
cabin in the mountains and writing poetry.

"But wouldn't all the writing I'd do in journalism school help with
my creative writing and my writing in general?" I asked Thomas when he
finished his story.

"No," he said solemnly. "If you come here, stay out of the
newsroom. It kills every creative bone in you."

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I ignored Thomas' warning and my own
intuition because, after two years of poorly paid internships and
sporadic freelance assignments, I wanted to believe that there was a set
path, a syllabus I could work my way through, that would land me in a
fulfilling journalism career.

In the end, I chose UC-Berkeley because it seemed the least
traditional program of the three I'd applied to and been accepted at. I
chose Berkeley because it required writing samples, and there was no newswriting test.

During the year I spent at journalism school, I tried every
approach I could think of to make the program work for me. First semester, I took only six
credits of classes and immersed myself in an internship with the Center for
Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. I only stepped onto campus when I
had to, and even then, I barely ventured beyond the shingled exterior front
of the journalism school's North Gate Hall. Second semester, I quit my
internship, took 16 credits of classes, including two creative writing ones
in the English department. I went to campus protests and lectures even when
I was not required to write about them. And to earn money, I spent my free
time working in the journalism school's administrative office. This was not
the answer either.

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I came to the school with (unfortunately this is not a joke) more
than a dozen journalism internships under my belt. Although I didn't meet
anyone in the program and have yet to encounter anyone in life who is such
a glutton for punishment, I did meet a few other students with significant
journalism experience. But it was the people with the least experience who
seemed the happiest there, the most appreciative of these new skills they
were learning. Beneath the résumés of both these groups of aspiring
journalists and beyond circular arguments of who will get the most out of
these programs is the lingering question of whether journalism school is
necessary for anyone.

These programs bring in impressive recruiters, from places such as the New
York Times and the Boston Globe. Editors who wouldn't have returned your
phone calls before will now look over your clips and talk to you, in your
allotted half-hour slot. But what you will realize as you make your way
through these interviews is that you are one person out of several dozen in
your program out of several dozen other journalism
programs across the country being interviewed. Maybe there is an actual opening, in which
case you are also competing with professional candidates, but more likely
the recruiter has come as a PR move. During my year at Berkeley, I had
several professors tell me that, despite annual on-campus interviews, not
even the local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, had taken more than one
student from Berkeley in the past five years.

So, if the most qualified journalism students aren't getting these
jobs, who is? Often it's a professional. Often it's someone whose
brother's roommate knew the cousin of the editor's wife, or something
equally random. According to the Freedom Forum's 1996 survey of the
industry, "Winds of Change: Challenges Confronting Journalism
Education," graduate degrees in journalism play little or no role in
positively influencing hiring decisions. In a survey of national newsroom
recruiters, only 8 percent of those interviewed felt that a journalism
degree was a very important preparatory step. Thirty percent said the degree
was somewhat important, 61 percent said it was not important at all, and
1 percent could not make up their minds. When searching for job
candidates, only 21 percent of those surveyed said they put out calls to
journalism schools. The majority of recruiters preferred to place
classified or trade publication ads or to contact former employees or current staff for recommendations.

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When I was in journalism school, there was an ongoing argument
among students about the meaning of the program. Some
felt journalism should be about good writing. Others thought it should be
about getting something published.

When I told a friend not versed in the politics of J-school about
this argument, she looked at me like I was crazy.

"Well, why couldn't it be good writing and publishable?" she asked.

This was something I, like so many others in the program, had not
considered. It's not that anyone at journalism school ever told us this
wasn't possible, but journalism school breeds this type of mind-set. On the
most basic level, journalism school exists because of the belief that there
is something lacking in the professional world of journalism, some
essential skill or set of ethics that could better be taught within the
university.

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But the strange thing about journalism schools is, despite the
esoteric intellectual conversations that go on there and the existence of
classes with titles like "the philosophy of journalism," journalism is not
a liberal art. It is a trade, and conflating the two leads to contradictory methods. Professors
simultaneously promote the importance of writing that strays from the
inverted pyramid formula and surface brevity of the daily newspaper story
while teaching precisely this type of writing in many of their classes. The
outreach staff works with recruiters whose publications perfectly epitomize
the type of journalism the school professes to rage against. Why? Because if one of the goals of
a journalism program is to teach you to write well, the other is to help
you get a job in a media world that, however flawed, is the only one we
have.

One of the most compelling arguments for going to journalism school
is that it is an unparalleled opportunity to work with established writers
who can give you insightful comments on your writing. You may have heard
the horror stories about these big-name writers/visiting professors who
essentially blow wind, who name drop and have more time to discuss their
stories than yours. It's true. It's also true that there are a few really
good professors out there who seem genuinely interested in discovering and
mentoring talented students. It's a crapshoot.

Toward the end of my second semester, after telling a professor of
my frustrations that I did not seem to be moving forward toward any
defined career path, on her recommendation, I contacted one of these
big-name visiting professors.

"How did you get started in magazine writing?" I asked her.

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"Well, I didn't go to journalism school," she said. "But I don't
know how to answer that exactly. It was a series of interconnecting
coincidences." She paused, searching her mind for a nugget of insight.

"OK," she said. "It's like the fog. You know those nights when
you're driving and the fog's so thick you can barely see. And with each
corner you turn, you think that it has to clear up or else you won't be
able to go anymore. But it doesn't clear up and somehow you keep going, not
being able to see the end or even more than a couple of feet ahead of you.
But you just keep moving forward or in the direction that you think is
forward at the time."

I think I grunted some snort of commiseration before asking, "And then?"

"Oh, well that's it," she said. "That's how you do it. But if you
want to send me some of your writing, I can take a look and give you
comments."

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I got together my portfolio and résumé the next day and left it in
her mailbox at school. I never heard from her again.

Last month, while reading an interview with Jay McInerney, I came
across the same story, which I'd thought was given as a personal response to
my question. But here it was footnoted to its original source: E.L.
Doctorow.

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The good thing about dissatisfaction is that it motivates you to
change. In the end, I left journalism school to do journalism. I
finished up the semester three weeks early and moved to Santa Fe, N.M., to intern
with Outside Magazine. All summer I applied for writing jobs (as I had so many times before) until one that I really wanted came through. On the way to the
interview, I nervously tried to formulate explanations for why I was
dropping out of school. During the interview, I was asked about the
articles I had written, the places I had interned, how my journalistic
ideals had changed through experience. But no one, not the reporter I
would be replacing, not the editor, not even the publisher, asked that
dreaded question. None of them, after all, had gone to journalism school.

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Lea Aschkenas

Lea Aschkenas is a staff writer at an alternative weekly in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

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