Columbia Journalism School Is Worth Time and Money Even Though It Won’t Make You Rich; There, I Said It


Every August, just before Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism school year begins, the shitstorm of trite comments about why anyone would ever waste their money on an unnecessary, very pricey, skills-based, advanced degree commences with a vengeance, as it already has on Gianna Palmer’s Wall Street Journal Hire Education blog post about matriculating there. It makes me laugh…and cry…because I graduated from Columbia’s J-School in May, and have since returned to the life as a professional intern that I had both before and during my 10 sleepless months there.

I use the term “professional intern” jokingly, sort of, as a way to cope with the truth:

I’m working at my ninth internship.
I had to slice two off the bottom of my resume because they simply won’t fit.
I spent my year between college and grad school job-hunting, waitressing, and of course interning, with a brief stint as a PR assistant to boot.

So, grad school made sense since I was hell-bent on journalism but jobless. I’m OK with having the same title, “intern,” as I’ve had for most of my adult life because by definition, it doesn’t last forever, and hey, you’re reading my writing. Am I screwed? Am I stupid? Maybe, but only on my worst days. But do I have J-School remorse? Absolutely not.

Palmer’s WSJ post explaining her decision to enroll poses the question of regret to every J-School grad. Why don’t I regret my decision and what does she have to look forward to besides mountains of debt, grimy keyboards, and learning the value of Starbucks Doubleshots (and their taste association with Reporting & Writing 1)? And am I — scraping by on rent with my parents’ help, eking out the rest of the summer on school health insurance — qualified to tell her that she made the right decision? Dammit, my diploma at least allows me this right…

Gianna, excellent choice.

You have your whole life (and afterlife) to get out of student loan debt, earn a living, and gain work experience, so, go get the kick in the ass you need from J-School. Judging by your smart, big-worded, complex-sentenced blog post, you’re intelligent, but you can use a shake-up, and formal training is (unexpectedly to some) where it’s at for a lot of people. Lede, nut graf, yeah, you’ll hear all about that, but equally important, you’ll learn how to deal with about a million different and insane personality-types in students, sources, and professors (mostly variations of type A), all of which will prove invaluable since you set out for a career of talking to, well, everyone. J-School also delivers a solid foundation of reporting and writing essentials, because once you know the rules, you can choose to disregard them, a/k/a blog for a while! You’re exponentially more empowered to break certain rules when you at least know they exist and can operate from a reasonably expansive body of knowledge, and for a young journalist, that can mean the difference between sounding like an imbecile and actually saying something intelligent — not that it’s foolproof.

J-School drags you down (and through the Bronx, Brooklyn, murder cases, court rooms, and Community Board meetings), builds you up, and spits you out, dizzy but with a level head and realistic goals. And no: realistic goals are not something normally associated with Columbia or J-School. But that school — far more difficult and unforgiving than I imagined — inspires a strange masochistic work ethic that allows me to find satisfaction in stress and poverty, though I hope neither lasts a lifetime. At the very least, my life is never boring, even if J-School and a journalism career shaves off years or decades and garners me prematurely gray and wrinkled.

But OK: the metaphorical light I’ve described as shining out of J-School’s ass merits dimming with a few condemnations of The System that absolutely ring true:

1. It’s expensive. Very. It puts a lot of young people in an extraordinary amount of debt the money to repay doesn’t necessarily exist in this industry right now. It’s certainly a risk, but one that I think and hope will pay off. I have three more months before I start repaying my loans, and I will be living at home in Pennsylvania if I don’t find employment before then, so help if you know of any openings!

2. It’s insular and incestuous. The journalism school is one building — J-Schoolers don’t typically associate with students from other programs or even see the inside of other buildings — or the light of day, except when reporting. If you’re not in a relationship, the only people you will potentially date are J-Schoolers and your conversations will only be about — you guessed it — J-School. If you’re in a relationship, the demands of J-School will probably cause its demise.

 The stereotypes are painfully valid. Digital media students rarely lift their eyes from a computer screen, endlessly curse flash, and are intimately involved with Final Cut Pro and little else. Print students, upholding the disheveled reporter persona, sometimes skip showers, subsist on coffee, and bring channel new and unexplored depths of the word “frazzled.” Broadcast students dress well, are hyper-competitive, and are prone to bouts of stress-induced bitchiness. Not all, but some. With all of this, I met extremely interesting people at J-School, many of whom I’ll be friends with for years to come.

I’ve come to accept that I’m not Woodward; I’m not Bernstein, and I’m not even Jessica Coen (but hey, if you’re hiring…). That said, I’m better positioned to become some kind of recession and technology-born composite: classic training with “new media” instincts. Or maybe that’s how bloated and convoluted J-School made my brain. Time will tell.