Broadcast journalism MA graduate Dan Kilpatrick weighs up the value of postgraduate degrees…
Whilst I agree that there is no substitute for experience, I’ve heard it suggested that work experience is for the committed, while journalism courses are for the undecided.
In other words: postgraduate courses are a great way to test the water and decide whether or not a career as a Hack is really for you.
I strongly disagree with this; I would only recommend enrolling in a course if you are committed to a career in journalism. Courses are highly vocational and are not the place to discover that the industry isn’t for you.
If you have some half-baked idea that you want to be a journo, try as hard as possible to get some experience before deciding on a course. It would be better to realise that you can’t stand broadcasting whilst working as a runner at Sky than halfway through a heinously expensive journalism course.
While it’s never awful to have an extra qualification, the skills attained on the course are only transferable to a limited number of other industries – PR for instance – and you may find yourself pigeon-holed. In a moment of despair recently, I sent my CV to a number of financial recruiters but they all said the same thing: I was trained for a career in journalism, not finance.
Finding a job
There is little doubt in my mind that completing a course will help you take the first step towards a career in journalism. I have friends who claim that only work experience matters but I see job adverts daily stating a qualification in journalism is ‘preferable’ or even ‘essential’, as employers seek to dilute the pool of applicants.
I also have a friend who was employed at a leading tabloid but told to do an intensive NCTJ-recognised course before she could be considered for promotion.
Both jobs I’ve had since finishing my MA have been a direct result of it. Kelvin MacKenzie, erstwhile editor of The Sun – a fine and honourable man – claimed he would close down all the journalism colleges, suggesting it was ‘a knack’ rather than a profession.
Strangely, he employed me and 11 others, all of whom had some form of postgraduate journalism or broadcasting degree, on his new TV channel.
My second job, as a writer on an investment magazine, came despite having shown utterly no interest in finance until then. Not even an economics GCSE or A-Level.
The editor was simply looking for someone who had learned the necessary skills and could write; knowledge of finance would come later.
As a general rule, the more creative or specific the form of journalism you want to get into, the less important the qualification becomes. When applying for sport or fashion roles, you will need to be able to show a demonstrable and passionate interest in the field.
Few budding hacks are able to demonstrate a passionate interest in finance or business for example, so securing these types of roles will depend more on your qualifications.
Providing a framework
While I am loath to agree with MacKenzie, the man has a point. The course won’t make you a journalist but it will provide a framework to help you along the way.
Shorthand, if offered, should be learnt at all costs (there are very few shorthand teachers out there and this is one thing you’re unlikely to learn on the job). Other skills including interview technique, filming and editing are also likely to prove useful.
However, many of the subjects covered – news writing for instance – can only be perfected with experience in a working environment. It took over a month of writing three to four investment news stories a day before my editor was happy that I had it sussed.
My course did encourage me to write regularly but budding journalists should be doing this anyway. Ultimately, the two most important things I took away from the MA were increased confidence and, ironically, the realisation of how essential work experience is.
It is not enough to simply complete a curriculum. In order to be a success, you have to be constantly poking around for stories, thinking of original ideas, seeking work experience where possible and writing.
Simply no substitute
I’ll say it again: there is simply no substitute for experience. I find it hard to believe that had I managed to get a job as a tea boy or runner at a broadcaster or newspaper, rather than enrolling on the course, I’d be worse off than I am now.
The two main tenants of journalism – as I see it – are talking to people and writing creatively. With online blogs and the advent of smart-phones (with recording/filming technology) it has never been easier to do both these things. If you are committed to a career in journalism, all you really need is a computer and enough determination.
That said, journalism has always been a difficult industry to break into and today the entire job market is more saturated than ever. In such an environment, employers – including turncoats like MacKenzie – are increasingly recognising the value of such courses.
Ultimately, if you are fully committed to being a hack, a course will teach you skills helpful in the workplace and may give you the edge in finding a job – but it won’t turn you into a journalist.
Dan Kilpatrick is a Wesminster University Broadcast MA graduate and freelance sports journalist