A Masters degree in journalism is not cheap. Couple that with the fact that the industry is low-paying, very crowded, and rapidly changing, and what you have is a pretty complex career path.
A friend of mine recently graduated from UC Berkeley's journalism school and is thinking about continuing on to grad school. About a week ago she wrote me an email in which she asked me this question:
Are you glad you went?
What I thought would be a snappy response turned into five-paragraph explanation, during which I realized I didn't actually have a snappy response. That email embodied the ping-pong match I've played with the issue ever since I scored my journalism Masters in 2009.
So, am I glad I went?
I'll start with her message to me:
Hey Justin! I'm going for an admitted students (i.e. hard sell) visit at Berkeley this weekend, and am still kind of grappling with the j school conundrum... Are you glad you went (to grad school)? Do you think it's worth the investment of money, of course, but also time and momentum?
Here's a cleaned-up version of the email I wrote her a few days later:
Hey! Sorry, I didn't get back to you right away. I'll break it down this way in terms of worth: Time, momentum, money:
Totally worth my time. Medill was only one year, which is pretty quick. (Berkeley is two). I knew nothing about online journalism, social media, video, etc., so everything I currently know was scooped up during that year. Much of it I taught myself, which seems ridiculous considering how much I spent, but who's to say I'd have ever opened my mind to it otherwise. (Answer: I wouldn't have). I had a whole lot of fun with a tight group of friends in small collaborative classes. I picked up a lot and had a great time.
I had very little professional momentum before shipping off to grad school. I was writing print articles for a small-town paper, which was cool, but not great for future relevancy in the industry. You're doing better than I was: Writing (really nice) stories for legit publications.
Maybe you have enough under your belt to find work in a pretty rough (and low-paying) field, but maybe you don't. I floundered around for two years after college not knowing what to do with my communications degree until I finally scored a newspaper job and fell in love with it. And that's when the job market was fine. I could only imagine the difficulty now.
To answer the question: I got a ton of momentum out of grad school.
This is where it gets complicated. I've occasionally wondered if I'd be happier without my degree (and subsequently my debt). That would also mean trading away my current job and my skill set. I wouldn't have the large financial burden I now do, but I'd also be pretty aimless, professionally.
But then again: I could afford to be more aimless, because I wouldn't have large monthly payments nipping at my heels for the next few decades.
I've asked myself this: Would I trade all of that away to live a nice quiet life on a farm, tending to a couple of animals on a small plot and growing my own food, not making much money, but not needing it either?
It's a semi-stupid question, but that little vision does sound nice and calming to me on occasion. I can't help but feel bothered by the fact that I literally cannot afford to be out of work at any time because of my monthly payments and rapidly snowballing interest. It's a bit enslaving.
Sooo, time and momentum: Very much worth it. I loved school and I'm happy with the work I'm doing now. Money... I can't answer for you, because I waver in my own feelings on it.
My inclination is to say do it. Go to grad school (unless you have a very solid and satisfying Plan B). If the choice is either Grad School or No Idea, you should probably go to school.
Plus, maybe we could hook each other up with cool jobs ten years from now!
The trouble with journalism
The trouble with journalism grad school is that you're dumping up to $80,000 into an education that won't come close to paying off financially for a really long time. Doctors and lawyers come out of school tons of debt, obviously, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to paying it off.
Journalism grads can't see that light, and yet they take on the debt anyway because the job is both fulfilling and enjoyable, and the schooling is the only way to get a firm grip on the employment ladder and move beyond the lower rungs.
Plus, it's an industry that is either disappearing or transforming, depending who you talk to. In that sense, the degree has been a savior, for me at least. If I hadn't gone to Northwestern, I'd be in an entry-level position in a field that would no longer need my old-school reporting-and-writing skill set.
By going to school, I paddled into a quickly moving wave. And now I'm riding it, and although I'm unconvinced the dollar amount attached to the diploma is completely justified, I'm happy I decided to go.
'I like being a journalist'
Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response, Justin. I really appreciate the insight. Combined with the really positive trip I had to Berkeley this week, I'm feeling good about the decision to go. I think the biggest thing for me is that I like being a journalist and I want to be better at it, you know? I realize that won't come from school alone but I think a big part of it can.
Anyways, we should totally hook each other up with sweet jobs in the future!!
Follow Justin Cox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CoxJustin