Pros and Cons of Earning a Bachelors Degree in Journalism

In May 2013, The Guardian’s Rebecca Ratcliffe  hosted an online discussion where professional journalists weighed in on whether or not getting a Bachelor of Journalism degree is a wise choice.

For the article, “Journalism BAs: are they worth it?”, experts were chosen to answer questions on forging a career in journalism. They shared their insights in the comment thread.

The conversations had, and advice given, is a must-read for anyone interested in pursing an education and/or career in journalism.

The experts chosen by the Guardian to answer user questions are all journalism stars in their own right:

  • Raziye Akkoc has an MA in journalism from Goldsmiths University, and at the time of the web chat had been accepted into The Telegraph’s graduate trainee program.
  • Matthew Caines earned a degree in history and started a site to help journalists called WannabeHacks. He now works for The Guardian.
  • Ami Sedghi has a journalism BA from Westminster University and works as a data researcher/reporter for The Guardian.
  • Rhian Jones is a news editor at Music Week. She decided to drop out of university when she became established freelance journalist, Janet Murray’s apprentice.
  • At the time of the web chat, George Berridge, an editor at WannabeHacks, had just completed his junior year of his BA in Journalism. He was attending the University of Winchester and was serving as chief reporter for the schools’ online news outlet.
  • A successful veteran of the field with approximately 25 years working with national newspapers, Terry Kirby is a journalism lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and started the school’s first BA in journalism program.
  • John Jewell directs Undergraduate Studies at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.
  • Jacqui Miller is principal lecturer in Liverpool Hope University’s Media and Communication Department.
  • Anthony Cawley is a Lecturer in Media for Liverpool Hope University’s Media and Communication Department.
According to the 2013 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrolments report:In 2013, 475 Bachelor’s degree in journalism & mass communications programs were offered in the United States(there were 225 Master’s and 51 Ph.D. journalism programs offered).198,410 students enrolled in undergraduate journalism/mass communications programs for the fall of 2013. This represents a 1.0% enrolment decrease from the previous year.

However, the researchers noted: “None of the program administrators said there was any discussion of elimination of their programs” AND “Journalism and mass communication programs continued to engage in a number of strategies to update their curricula to reflect changes in the media landscape. More than nine in 10 administrators reported their programs taught skills such as: writing for the web, using the web in reporting, and using social media.”

The research was conducted by Lee B. Becker, Tudor Vlad & Holly Anne Simpson (James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, University of Georgia).

When Rebecca Ratcliffe posed the question “could everyone state whether they think journalism BAs are worth it, and why?” it raised various points of view reflecting the pros and cons of undergraduate journalism degrees.

Some of the comments that came from online users included:

From User “Uncle Zippy”:

the short answer is ‘no’. I would advise anybody to seriously consider getting into the sciences or an area where there’s actually a demand. Also avoid anything with ‘media’ in the title. Then, if you still want to be a journalist, write from that angle, you can always branch out later.That way you have your employment opportunities multiplied…”

User “elliekp” wrote:

I graduated from Kingston University last year with a degree in journalism. I then went into a temporary job…(unrelated to journalism) until April this year, when I was offered a job at a London-based private equity magazine. I now absolutely love my job and know this is exactly what I want to do for a long time…In my third year at Kingston I took the business module and knew that that was my field. Journalism degrees offer aspiring journalists more than just the basic skills needed to break into the industry…the journalism tutors at Kingston made sure that a broad spectrum of the fields in journalism were covered to allow students to find their desired path in the industry…”

Some of the panel experts’ responses included:

Matthew Caines:

Hi all, I’m Matt and I’m a journalist and community manager for the Guardian – I work on the Culture and Media sections and have been doing so for almost two years. I guess what I can say is that I didn’t do a journalism degree (or a postgrad for that matter) – I was one of those people who didn’t know what they wanted to do after my A-levels, and it wasn’t until my 3rd Year that I decided that what I do now was for me. I’m not saying that a degree in journalism is a wholly bad idea, but I will say that it’s not the one and only way to make it in the industry, or get started for that matter.”

Rhian E Jones: 

“I think a degree can be worth it for certain people who will learn important life skills during those three [UK] years away from home, but I always questioned doing a journalism degree – why pay to study something that I’m going to have to use my initiative for for the rest of my career? I think an employer would benefit far more from giving someone a job who has heaps of practical experience (and therefore be able to jump into the job from day one) but no journalism degree than someone who has a degree but little experience. Unfortunately, someone without a degree is unlikely to get past HR when applying for journalism jobs – especially at national newspapers.”

Terry Kirby:

“…having a degree gives you the confidence, contacts, context and, most importantly, experience, to make the most of what you have…Yes, you can get a job without a degree and for some exceptional people it is not needed, but, as I have seen throughout my career, those with degrees are often the ones who have the edge to rise faster….”

 Dr. Anthony Cawley: 

“One piece of advice I would give to students interested in pursuing a career in journalism is that, increasingly, you need to be comfortable working in a cross-platform environment. Traditional boundaries of being a print or broadcast or television journalist are either in the process of being or have been eroded. A mix of communication skills is necessary to reach audiences through online and offline media. The value of a degree to a journalist is not just in developing such practical communication skills but also in sharpening critical skills: making judgments on what are the crucial questions to ask of a source, filtering the quality, integrity and importance of the information being provided to you, and presenting issues to audiences in engaging and innovative ways.”

John Jewell:

“One of the key things to consider is that a degree in journalism – and related courses – will stand in you in good stead for a variety of different careers. It’s not like 20 years ago where the degree may have led you into the conventional spheres of television and newspapers. Now, in the digital and social media age, all major (and many not so major) have PR depts, communication strategies and the like. It’s actually, comparatively speaking at least, a very good time to be a media graduate.”

(You can read all of the comments discussing the value of undergraduate journalism degrees here: www.theguardian.com/education/2013/may/30/journalism-bas-are-they-worth-it)

John Jewell summed it up very well. While the journalism industry is most definitely changing rapidly, that does not mean there are no career opportunities.  While positions at newspapers, TV stations, and even established online publications may be incredibly competitive, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get work elsewhere.

When earning a degree in journalism, you should consider industry changes, and alter your degree accordingly. Completing courses related to “cross platform” or multimedia environments, as Dr. Cawley noted, is one way to tailor your education to the evolving field. Minoring in journalism with a complementary major, or vice versa, is another alternative.

Giving up on something you love because it’s undergoing a transition however isn’t necessary. If you love what you do, are good at it, and work extremely hard, you will find your niche, whether it is in a conventional or unconventional journalism occupation, or a related field. And with dedication and extremely hard work, you could possibly land one of those ultra competitive positions you are aspiring for.

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