An honest appraisal of J-school

If you want to be a journalist, should you go to journalism school? What’s the value of a masters degree in journalism?  My usual answer is: It depends. I don’t mean to be flip or evasive. It really does depend on a lot of factors.

At the undergrad level, J-school can be a good way to learn the ins and outs of a demanding profession. Schools with accredited programs require undergrads to take a range of courses outside the major, which is supposed to ensure a well-rounded education. And they all meet minimum standards as assessed by the accrediting council. [Full disclosure: I’ve served on site visit teams for several J-schools.]

But what really counts is the  quality of the content and the faculty.  And I completely agree with Patrick Thornton’s view that any list of “best J-schools” is automatically suspect. His advice is to look for a program that teaches entrepreneurial journalism and has a faculty that gets it:

If a professor doesn’t even have a Web site and isn’t on social media, I’d be gravely concerned about whether he or she gets where journalism is headed. A quality blog is another thing to look for in a professor. I’m serious.

Dave Cohn, founder of, didn’t major in journalism as an undergrad and spent a year as a professional intern before landing a job.

Journalism is a craft and has an apprenticeship model. They say a fair percentage of students don’t get past the first year of law school. Well, think about whether or not you can get past the first year of internships in journalism. If you aren’t prepared to pay some dues and start at the bottom, then don’t start at all.

A  full-time internship–even unpaid–at a place where you can learn and actually do journalism can be a great launching pad. Experience may be the best graduate school of all, and it may be all you need if your undergrad degree is in journalism.

But what if you can’t get your foot in the door? Then it may be worth considering a grad program where you’ll gain some experience and make contacts in the field.

It also may be worth getting a masters if you think you might want to teach at the college level some day. More and more schools are requiring advanced degrees, even for faculty who bring professional experience to the classroom.

Cohn did go back for a graduate degree and says he’s glad he did.

J-school gives you the space and time to screw up without it reflecting negatively on one’s career. if anything J-school provides a buffer space to screw up and get positive feedback rather than getting fired and burning a bridge.

His one regret? The student debt he’s still paying off.  No question–grad school is expensive. Going to school full time while working part time may be one solution. That’s what I did years ago. Today, more schools offer part-time grad programs so students can keep working while going to school. Either way, make sure you know what you’re getting into and what you’re likely to get out of it before you sign up.

My colleague Deb Wenger has a slightly different take on all this:

To me, there’s a more fundamental question here – why do people go to college?  Is it simply to get job training?  Or is it to get an education in the broadest sense of the word?

These days I’m questioning whether J-schools are spending far too much time worrying about training students for specific employment.  I seriously doubt that many English, history or even accounting professors invest half as much mental energy on whether the degrees they confer will lead to a particular type of job.  Journalism is most often a liberal arts degree, just like English or philosophy or a dozen other subject areas – the goal is to provide students with critical thinking skills, research and writing capabilities, among other things.  Those skills will be valuable in scores of professions.

Even if we compare ourselves to some professional schools, such as accounting or engineering, when jobs in those industries are hard to find, I venture to say that we don’t see nearly as many people questioning the value of accounting programs or engineering schools.  The skills learned in those disciplines are also useful in many other contexts.

As for the argument that journalism experience is better than a journalism degree, I think that’s like saying spending a year in Europe is better than having a degree in European history.  Yes, you can learn a tremendous amount about Europe’s past without going to school, and yes, you can work in journalism without a journalism degree.   However, the fact remains that higher education is consistently linked to higher incomes, a better quality of life and a number of other positives.

I think the focus of this entire discussion needs to change.  If J-schools aren’t educating students, preparing them as best they can for whatever profession the students enter, then the schools have failed — no matter how many professors blog or social media seminars are created.  In the end, good journalism teachers will find a way to inspire some good students to become good journalists, regardless of the program.  The side benefit is that those same good teachers may inspire the rest to simply learn something, and I think that’s ultimately why you go to college, whatever the degree.

(In the interest of more disclosure, Deb says: “I am a journalism prof who never went to J-school; however, I do blog, Facebook and even have a few people following me on Twitter.”)

So what’s your perspective on J-school? Broad question, we know, but it’s a big topic. Feel free to weigh in.


2 comments for “An honest appraisal of J-school

  1. August 17, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I studied at one of the most highly regarded journalism schools in the UK, but when I was there in 2006, I was the only one on my broadcast stream with a blog or website (I think I still am).

    Amazingly we were also being taught to shoot for TV with three person crews (inc a soundman!).

    Other things it did better…but would it prepare students this year for the rapidly changing news environement? I’m not so sure.

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