Journalism grad school is beating me down

For the first time in my life, I'm bad at school: Does this mean I'm not cut out for journalism?

Published September 23, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I got a scholarship to a great graduate journalism program, but now that school has started, I'm miserable. I double-majored in art and philosophy as an undergraduate, and it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do for my career. After working at dead-end office and customer-service jobs, I applied to grad school for journalism since I love writing and critical thinking.

Ultimately, I want to work at a website or a magazine, but not hard news. I'm having a really hard time in school, because it's more work than I expected, and I'm not good at it. In college, academic writing came so naturally to me, but now, I fumble trying to write a short lead or news brief. All my assignments come back with red all over them. I feel like I'm walking around in the dark, bumping into things and not really getting anywhere. For the first time in my life, I'm not good at school. I've always been on the honor roll and even received academic awards in college. But now, I'm getting low grades and struggling to keep up with my workload. I try my best to be motivated, but the classes that are required this first year focus on writing in which I'm not interested, namely broadcast and newspaper reporting. I don't have much motivation because of my lack of interest, but I do all my assignments. I feel overwhelmed and discouraged by how badly I'm doing, and I have the added pressure of maintaining good grades to keep my scholarship. I'm not sure if I'm just having a hard time readjusting to school and a new environment, or if I'm really not cut out for this program or even this profession.

I break down and cry at least twice a week and feel hopeless about my situation most of the time. I want to at least try and see if I can finish this. But I've started to fantasize about quitting. It would be a huge step backward. I'd have to start to think about "what I want to do" all over again. I mostly enjoy writing about arts and culture, and I still want to do that. But I question if this is the right path to that. Everything about this program feels unnatural. I dislike the hectic and fast-paced nature of it, which again makes me question being a journalist in the first place. It feels like they're trying to cram everything into such short amounts of time, so I don't have time to get a grip on what I'm trying to learn.

My schedule is so packed with obligations and assignments that I feel like I have no freedom or personal time. I work part-time, go to class, do homework and readings, contribute to the school website, and still try to spend time with friends and my boyfriend. I'm a machine. A sad little machine. I spend so much time and energy on things for grad school, but none of it makes me happy. I do find a little joy in the stories that I write for the school news site, but at times, it feels like another thing on my to-do list. I don't know what to do. Other people in my program seem stressed out, too, but I've always been an especially fragile, sensitive person. Today, after I had a stressful day at school, I started crying while waiting for the bus.

I thought grad school would be an exciting time for me that I would enjoy even if I was working hard. But instead, I'm emotionally and physically exhausted from the stress and rarely even smile.

How can I enjoy what I'm learning and doing if I feel so rushed and have a million things to do? I know that journalists have to deal with deadlines, but it feels like this is an extreme that I can't handle. Am I being weak? Should I just try to get through this? I don't know how to make this situation better for myself. I'm feeling hopeless and depressed, wondering if I should have even started down this path.

Hopeless Grad Student

Dear Hopeless Grad Student,

Master these basic skills. It won't be easy. But you can master them. It is mechanical. It is a new way of thinking. It will hurt at first. But you will master these new skills. You will learn how to write a concise lead. You will learn how to spell it "lede" and then you will realize you don't need to spell it "lede" anymore just to be cool and then you will be done and can go write about the arts again.

Just get through it. Get your degree. Maybe journalism grad school is a contradiction in terms. Maybe you should be sitting through school board meetings and learning that way. I'm not sure about journalism school. I minored in it. Then I did grad school in creative writing. That didn't help. I never got very good at writing news stories but I know it's important. I know a good lede if I see one even if I can't write one.

My grad school in journalism was working on the copy desk at Salon. The dean of my grad school was named King Kaufman, Copy Chief.

Journalism is a good job. You get to learn things and go places and talk to people.

See how I'm writing in short, declarative sentences? I used to hate them. I used to hate Hemingway. We had this old grizzled drunk journalism teacher who acted like Hemingway. I thought he was dumb. Big deal. So what. Journalism beats most other stuff.

What you're doing is developing skills you don't already have. If you had them already it wouldn't hurt so much. It's like developing muscles. It hurts. You feel weak at first. Then you keep doing it and you get the muscles. Then you can do things you couldn't do before.

It will always hurt a little. If it doesn't hurt a little you're not doing it right.

But it doesn't have to make you cry every day. Just some days. And not at the bus stop. Mainly in bars and at home.

See how some of those sentences are short but they're not even sentences? You can't do that in journalism. At least you shouldn't. But if you were writing ads. You. Could. But. That. Sucks. Too.

Just keep doing the assignments. It'll come to you. Maybe you won't turn out to be the world's greatest news lede writer. Who cares? It's just a skill you need, and doing it adequately is adequate.

Then go do what you're really good at.

Creative Getaway

Citizens of the Dream

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By Cary Tennis

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