The great degree debate: journalism undergrad or otherwise?


Last Thursday, alongside those waiting for their A-Levels, thousands of 17-year-olds received their AS Level results. This brought back horrible memories of the worry and confusion that followed in the weeks after I was presented with my Year 12 results.

Obviously, if you haven’t done well in your AS Levels it’s tough to deal with and to then to decide where to go from that point. A great deal of emphasis is placed on AS Levels as many schools use them to set predicted A-Level results, which are submitted to universities when students apply to their chosen institutions via UCAS. But even for those who get the results they want, or even better than expected, the aftermath of receiving AS results can be a confusing time in which you are forced to make a big decision about what course you want to pursue.

Often this can be deciding between studying journalism or another subject. I was one such student four years ago who seriously considered journalism at undergraduate level. Knowing that I wanted to be a hack, I researched journalism courses and highlighted the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Bournemouth and Sheffield as three contenders. Incidentally, all three recently came top of the 2010 National Student Survey of Journalism Undergraduate Courses and are a good place to start if you are considering a journalism degree.

Taking Notes Journalism

However, I began to read about people questioning journalism courses and whether they were worthwhile. Weeks passed as I battled with my conscience and I began debating between whether to study journalism or English literature (which too has its critics). Eventually, swayed by my English teacher, I opted for the safer option of a well-known literature course at a Redbrick university and pledged to throw myself into the student newspaper. But it wasn’t an easy choice.

Neither is it possible to say that it was the correct decision, only the right one for me. There are many very able students who choose good journalism undergraduate courses (better than the lesser-thought-of media incarnations) and thrive on the mix of practical and relevant skills and the chance to develop your own writing style and editing skills. Such is why UCAS recently reported that they had received 17,485 applications to study journalism for entry in 2010: a rise of 22.8% on 2009.

Unable to comment on journalism undergraduate courses in detail, we tweeted a few better-qualified people to see what they thought the three year courses offered ahead of a degree in a non-journalism subject:  Here’s what they said…

Catherine O'Connor

Catherine O’Connor (@journochat), the Acting Head of Centre for Journalism BA at Leeds Trinity University College said: ‘A journo degree should mean you are doing more reporting from word go – but it doesn’t give you exclusive rights to jobs/experience. Even if you have a journo degree, you still have to expect to prove yourself against other good candidates. A journo degree can’t be your only journo activity – you have to get out there, get experience and get published/blogging. In one tweet – an editor will always pick best person for job and degree alone will not make you the best.’

Ed Walker (@ed_walker86), the Communities Editor for Wales Online and Your Cardiff who graduated from UCLan in 2007, commented: ‘Degrees are secondary, doing stories/work experience is the key.’

Mikey Smith

Mikey Smith (@mikeysmith), who studies at Sheffield and runs sheffieldpolitics.com, added: ‘For the record, I’d say Sheffield’s undergrad is well worth three years. Plenty of practical experience and room to specialise. [There are many skills:] shorthand, public affairs, investigative and relevant academic modules as well including language/political communications/ethics. Sheffield has NCTJ prelims as part of the course too.’

Laura Oliver (@LauraOliver), editor of journalism news site Journalism.co.uk, said: ‘I did a non-journalism degree and then did a postgraduate. My personal advice would be do an undergrad that interests you and get work/student media on the side.’

Jonathan Bell (@gringo_mariner), a UCLan graduate of 2009 and currently copywriting in Peru said: ‘(Journalism) is not worthy of a three-year course – it should be post-grad only and you need further qualifications just to have a chance [in the industry]. Uni times were the best but if I had my time again, would I play it differently course-wise? Almost definitely. I definitely wouldn’t change going to uni so [I would choose a] journalism post grad.’

Jonny Silcock

Jonny Silcock (@jonnysilcock), also  a 2009 graduate of UCLan and is currently working as Media Liaison at Independent Media News, added: ‘I did the same course as Jonathan and would agree to an extent, but not fully… I could have done lots more locally. I thought my blog was the be all and end all. It wasn’t.’

The moral of this story – if you have received your AS results and aren’t sure where to go next – is NOT TO WORRY.  I was in a similar situation, unsure what path to choose, and, after considering all the options open to me, eventually came to a decision.

If a journalism undergraduate course is your choice, it will offer you as much chance of making it as a journalist as any other degree. As our tweeters prove, good journalism degrees (and we emphasise good) are suited to some but not to everyone. All you can do is research the courses in detail and make an informed choice based upon what you know. Your success after that point, irrelevant of what course you choose, is down to you.

* Some tweets have been edited for ease of reading

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About benwhitelaw
Ben is Communities Editor at The Times

22 Responses to The great degree debate: journalism undergrad or otherwise?

  1. ChrisG says:

    All the best in your endeavours….I would just say I’ve tried all these routes into the mainstream, and it hasn’t worked, yet…

    Interestingly, as an aside, would love to know, which one of them thinks of themselves as the Mr Black of the journalism industry….

    http://www.plentyonyourplate.com

  2. Thanks ChrisG for the good luck! In terms of Mr Black?

    “Tried it once, doesn’t work. You got five guys all fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black, but they don’t know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way!”

    Nice to see a Tarrantino fan amongst our readers; Fleet Street Blues alluded to us in such a way:

    http://fleetstreetblues.blogspot.com/2010/08/how-to-get-job-in-journalism-five.html

  3. Ed Walker says:

    Feel I should expand on my tweet. I wasn’t knocking journalism degrees, I wanted to make it clear that it’s not the be all and end all.

    If you sat around for three years, think the practical element of the course gives you some god-given right to a job and then bitch and moan when people aren’t impressed by your Microsoft Word cuttings then don’t be surprised.

    Put yourself about and you’ll make your own luck. Journalism is ultimately about people, and if you’re out there mixing it up with people you’ll find stories, make contacts and that will help you get a job.

    I actually think journalism tutors should be harsher, I think they often take a lot of bollocks off people who aren’t really that bothered and that impacts on those who really want to get on and do something.

  4. Sue Atkins says:

    My 17 year old son sent me this as he is pondering how best to use his gap year before going off to Uni to study journalism so we all found this to be a very helpful article.

    It’s a balance – I suggested getting a degree ( never a load to carry and brilliant fun – late nights , hard work , great friends ) with writing his blog and doing his podcasts, developing his writng skills through articles, blogs and work experience. Doing hospital radio, working at the local paper reporting on local events and sports – to gain experience and never being afraid to ASK ASK ASK and learn from others.

    Exams do open doors but it’s ALL ALL ALL about mindset, belief, bravery and taking MASSIVE action and that’s from Tony Robbins so that advice cost me about £5,000 !! LOL but it’s true 25 A* s won’t make you happier, more successful, fulfilled or wealthy but a great personality, kindness, great writing ability and getting stuck in and taking action really really will.

    Sue Atkins
    Author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies”

    • The Intern says:

      Hi Sue,

      really glad that he found the piece of some use, I am sure The Student will be very pleased with that – please tell you son he is welcome to ask questions in the comments or to email us.

      There is lots more content coming so he should keep coming back – I’m sure The Student will drop by at some point to say hello.

      You are right, you must take risks in life, small daily ones – like putting yourself out there and asking questions and getting stuck in and bigger ones, that can change or define a career.

      We all come from a student media background – so we heavily recommend that if the opportunity presents itself.

  5. jonnysilcock says:

    @Ed I’m not sure a lot of the people on my course should have been on it.

    First year was all about getting them up to speed with what journalism was and how to write news stories. I’d already done months and months or work experience at my local rag, so a lot of that year was a waste of time really…

  6. Ellie says:

    Good blog post!

    It is all about the mindset, as Sue said.

    There’s no one route into media – especially now it’s changing – so I think it’s probably best to just look at how people around you are doing it, and what editors want.

    As for me, it was an arts degree at a Russell group uni – to make sure I could write, and make grammatical sense! – followed by fine-tuning and insider knowledge on a Masters at City. Importantly, both these degrees were supported by oodles of placements, the importance of which I can’t emphasise enough. Write every day! And take criticism.

  7. gregnewcombe says:

    I chose a joint honours course at Kingston University studying english literature and journalism but dropped the english lit within two weeks as I realised that I thought I should do english rather than wanted too. Journalism is what gives me a buzz and I feel the most important thing to consider when you choose your course, whatever the subject may be, is whether you have a passion for it. I am going into my 3rd year as a full journalism student and I am beginning to look at my job prospects so thanks for writing such a great blog, I will be following it with interest. Anyone who is a football fan may be interested in reading my blog (apologies for the shameless plug) so if you are check it out…

    http://gregnewcombe.wordpress.com/

    Thanks again and good luck to all of you

  8. The Student says:

    I’m glad people have responded to the post and have found it useful.

    I agree entirely with ellie – taking criticism, I have found, is a vital part of being a journo (and certainly a trainee one.) You have to have think skin to be in the industry as people may not like your article, your writing style, whatever. The key is not to take it personally; if you suggest an article to you school newspaper or whilst on work experience and it’s declined, then it’s not right for the paper at that moment. Don’t think about it too much or even sulk, just go and make it better/more relevant.

    gregnewcombe – Nice to hear from someone who is currently doing a journalism course. And yes, you’re right, a passion is essential; it’s what gets you up in the mornings after being out the night before and what forces you to do that essay in the evening when your friends are going to the cinema. We welcome all plugs too – I’ve been trying to plug my blog (www.popeandswift.co.uk) at every opportunity for years!

    Finally, I’m grateful for the honesty of jonnysilcock and Jonathan Bell as some people can be precious about their degree course and blindly claim that it was worth their three years. It’s only by people admitting that they’re course choice wasn’t what they expected can others learn from it. But Jon and Jonny are obviously just two voice out of hundreds of UCLan graduates so don’t take them as representative.

  9. jonnysilcock says:

    @The Student I don’t think either mine or JB’s comments in the blog post are aimed specifically at UCLan’s journalism course – more journalism degrees generally.

    Think I can speak for both of us when I say that we had a whale of a time there, the content of the course – in third year particularly – was relevant and very helpful and I’m using a lot of what I learnt about social media from digital yoda Andy Dickinson in my current job.

    We’d both encourage people – if they want to do a degree in journalism – to go to UCLan, we’re just not sure if a degree (from any university) is the *best* path for them. Not sure that came across in your comment.

    • The Student says:

      jonnysilcock – You’re right, my comment wasn’t particularly clear. I certainly didn’t mean to say that your comments were directed at the UCLan course. I only put UCLan in there because I didn’t want people to dismiss the course there just because of your comments.

      All I was saying was that I was grateful for your honesty, in the same way that I would be grateful to anybody being up front about their course or institution. Apologies for the confusion

      • Ellie says:

        Well. While we’re all being upfront I guess I ought to say that the City Masters is outrageously expensive. Not to say it’s not worth it.

  10. Pingback:   The value of a journalism degree by andydickinson.net

  11. gregnewcombe says:

    Talking of postgraduate study, I have a few questions. How did you raise the money for the course? And, Jonny, what alternatives would you suggest if you feel a degree may not be the best way into the media?

    • The Student says:

      It’s a good question Greg.

      Personally speaking, knowing I wanted to go to City since before uni, I worked in my first and last year of my undergrad to try and save some money to put towards the course. It didn’t get me anywhere near the full fee but I knew it would help. I also applied for several bursaries (including the Scott Trust one, which I didn’t get) so will be getting a part time job this year too.

      I’m not sure what Ellie did, maybe she’ll chip in with what she how she got the money together…

      From what I’ve heard, the finances (and location – some people just cannot afford to live in London) are often a sticking point for people. But it shouldn’t put people off, there are many bursaries and, if you want it that badly, always companies who might be able to fund you. It’s just about being organised enough and passionate enough to make the dream a reality, however hard it may be

  12. Really pleased that this blog is picking up steam, keep it up guys.

    Speaking as someone about to start their second year of the aforementioned undergraduate UCLan course, I have a few points.

    1. Most of the things I was taught in first year haven’t really helped me. They helped streamline me a bit, and helped iron out a few queries I had, but I haven’t had any great learning as such.

    2. But a lot of learning has taken place outside the classroom that simply wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t studying there. Student newspapers are common with all universities, and I’m involved with that. However, things like guest speakers (one of which got me work experience at the Times) and the availability of speaking to former students led me to take over editorship of Blog Preston when I got in contact with Ed Walker.

    3. The fact that it is such a narrow area of study does have its pitfalls. I found I had to check myself occasionally, to make sure I wasn’t just learning about ‘the meedja’ but that I continued to pursue my other interests which would help inform my writing, far more than knowing the latest ABCs or the structure of a news story. But then the fact it’s kind of niche has its benefits as well. It means that you can meet people who have the same common goal as you, which can make collaborative projects slightly easier than if I was on an English Literature course with people who wanted to do a whole range of things when they left university.

    I guess its early days. I can’t say I’m not slightly disheartened by some of the comments above which scare me slightly, but I guess that’s reality. I’ve still got two years to go, and hopefully what I’ve done so far and in the years to come will count for something when graduating.

  13. Pingback: Best of both worlds « Rosie Niven

  14. Andy says:

    As the ‘old lecturer’ I just wanted to say that the debate here, along with the honesty and reflection, is one of the things that gives me huge confidence in where journalism is heading. Not because anyone is right or wrong but because the debate is happening. The mixture of digital understanding and passion is exactly what the journalism industry needs.

  15. Matt Wiggins says:

    This is a great blog guys, I am a regular reader and in fact have been inspired to start my own blog here after reading this and a couple of others. Keep up the good work, I hope you are all successful.

    I am someone who can claim to have been through a journalim degree as well as the NCTJ preliminary exams and my first post at http://nctjandbeyond.wordpress.com/ looks at the difference between the two and their pros and cons.

    Like Greg I studied at Kingston Uni but I found that the uni course to much of a broad rane of subjects without giving you enough tools to take potential employers by storm.

    • The Intern says:

      Hi Matt,

      thanks for the comment, it’s great to think we have already inspired someone in some way and we are looking forward to seeing how the project develops. I have had a look at your blog and its a great start – we will be adding it to our ‘Resources’ section soon.

      I am sure this is a debate we will revist as the lads start their MA on the 20th of September – we are also thinking about some podcasts and other bits and pieces.

      Please stay in touch, keep commenting and spread the word about WH.

  16. Matt Wiggins says:

    Thanks for taking a look and glad you liked it. Thanks for the offer of linking to NCTJ and Beyond on here as well and I would certainly be keen. Once I work out a bit more about wordpress I will definitely return the favour.

    I’ll keep an eye out for all your new projects and posts.

  17. Pingback: Browne Review could see shift towards NCTJ short course « Wannabe Hacks

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