Burying the lede

"I’m in journalism school. Am I an idiot?” That depends

This American Life host Ira Glass recently did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. “Sound_Sop” asked him: “It’s 2012 and I’m in journalism school. Am I an idiot?” Glass responded: “short answer: no. There’ll be journalism somewhere. There’ll be jobs. Longer answer: depends on which school.”

True. But even attending one of the best journalism schools in the country is no guarantee of future success if you don’t do your homework before, during, and afterwards.

I graduated from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism five months ago. Several of my classmates have gone on to exciting and fulfilling jobs in the field. Two of them went on to write essays about why their graduate school experience wasn’t worth the time (10 months) or money (a lot) they spent on it. I encourage anyone thinking of applying to j-school, especially Columbia, to read their pieces. And then to read mine.

In “My $60,000 Ivy League Degree was Just a Pyramid Scheme,” published on Policymic and the Huffington Post, Lilly O’Donnell complained about how, two months after graduation, she realized that her monthly student loan payments were so high that she’d have to forsake the “ascetic life of a creative young adult,” trading in freelance assignments and bartending shifts for “a real job — probably not even the kind of job I paid so much to be qualified for.” In between about 15 clich├ęs and mixed metaphors, her point seems to be that graduate school was really expensive and now she has to pay for it, and no one told her it would be like this. “I was assured over and over again that everyone has debt; that it’s not a big deal — often with a wink and a reassuring pat on the arm.” Instead of looking into what $90,000 in student loans would mean after graduation, she decided that “looming debt was my invitation to adulthood.” Apparently O’Donnell didn’t get said invitation the day she turned 18.

Ankita Rao wrote about her j-school experience on her personal blog, which was subsequently picked up by (and re-worked for) Quartz. I had a class with Rao, and she seemed like a self-aware, hard-working student. So I was surprised to read that she thought she would’ve been better served by taking her “Columbia money” and spending it reporting and traveling the world “Anderson-Cooper-style.” First of all, for most of us, accessing the money used to attend school — student loans and scholarships — is contingent upon matriculating. Or maybe there’s a new world-traveling, boundary-pushing loan I didn’t know about? Second of all, Anderson Cooper’s mother is heiress Gloria Vanderbilt.

You’d think that Rao, who wrote that she was too experienced to be stuck in a place for students who never “experimented with their local newspapers” would know that it’s “lede,” not “lead” when referring to the start of a story. And that maybe she shouldn’t be so reluctant to “credit graduate school for any small success I have now, or may have in the future” when I doubt she would have gotten the job she currently has without that j-school degree. At the very least, she wouldn’t have been published on Quartz, since that came to be through one of her j-school professors who works there.* Okay, now I’ll stop.

Though O’Donnell and Rao’s main points differ (Rao blames her issues with the school on her own misguided motivations for attending it; O’Donnell on its considerable cost), they do have this in common: their essays smack of the kind of naivety and entitlement that I suspect is much more to blame for their unhappiness with Columbia j-school than the school itself is. The fact that neither woman appeared to do much research about the school, the programs it offered, or how to pay for it suggests that they either didn’t want to do that kind of reporting in the first place or didn’t know how. They weren’t ready for an expensive professional school for journalism, and that’s why they didn’t get much out of it.

I’ve found that for the most part, my classmates who came into j-school knowing what it was and what it offered; what it could teach them and who would be teaching it; those who were open to criticism and different ways of thinking and writing and seeing — they were the people who left school satisfied with their investment. I developed that maturity by having some real-world experience and perspective, both in life and in journalism, before I decided to return to school. But I had several classmates just out of undergrad who were focused and talented, and they too reaped the benefits.

Columbia j-school isn’t perfect. It costs too much, as does nearly every institution of higher education in this country. That piece of paper you get at the end is not a magic pass into the halls of your desired workplace at your desired salary. You may not get to take every single class or work with every professor you want. You are expected to work hard, sometimes harder than humanly possible. But the informed consumer — a good reporter — knows this before spending the money to attend. The uninformed one writes a bitter essay that blames others for her problems and, despite having an Ivy League degree in journalism, misses the real story.

* Rao tells me she met that professor at a convention when Rao was 19 (before j-school) and they’ve been Facebook friends ever since.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: ,