Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Revelations on J School

Ruminations on Journalism School
Taylor Pipes

When I packed my car to move across the country in the dreary winter of 2003, I had a plethora of fanciful visions about beginning my career as a journalist. My degree freshly received should have been my ticket to a job in a gritty, fast-paced newsroom, right? I could not have been more wrong.

It has been nearly three years since I relocated to California from Wisconsin and while San Francisco is known as a mecca for writers, both past and present, it has yet to yield a decent full-time job for my career. That is why the decision to go back to school has been such an easy one. The only difficult part of this process has been deciding which part of the country to base the next part of my academic career.
Courtyard at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

But in all the debates over Journalism School, more commonly known as "J School," has been whether or not to even go in the first place. In all my conversations with professors, industry

professionals and friends, the debate always seemed to center around the fact that I didn't have to go back to school. It is common knowledge that a B.A. in journalism is good enough to land you in a newsroom. Although the process of scaling the industry ladder still exists, a major positive aspect of going to J School is the ability to meet contacts in the profession and to open more doors.

Using that lineage of thinking I made the decision to apply to J School, but the list of schools seemed lofty and unattainable. The schools on my list were Stanford, Berkeley, Wisconsin and Columbia. I dropped Stanford early because their program focused more on policy and research when I preferred to be actually writing and practicing journalism. The decision came down to Berkeley and Columbia and for the last month I have wrestled with what was not the 'right' choice, rather what was the best choice for my career. Many friends I spoke with convinced me that if I attended Berkeley over Columbia, I would be turning down a world of opportunities that are only available with an Ivy League education.

For awhile I scoured the internet message boards, met with other prospective students at both schools and thought long and hard about the choices laid before me. While no one in my entire family has had the prospects of attending a "great" school like Columbia, I suddenly was starting to fixate on rankings and prestige rather than my career.

When I tried contacting active Columbia students I barely got responses. When I did hear back, the ones I got were confusing and never really offered a ton of insight. One student responded back telling me that I should not be laboring over such a decision and that in retrospect, my decision was meaningless because there were far more important things going on in the world. While there certainly are far more daunting issues in the world going on, my life and career are important and I don't take major decisions based on my future lightly.

At a Columbia accepted students dinner held on the upper floor of the Bank of America Building, I joined other kids like myself. There were also alumni of the Columbia J School and that perhaps offered my initial insights into the school. Most of them seemed successful but some seemed to be in an echelon completely above what I was used to. One women's husband had a popped collar with a sweater draped over his shoulders and brown loafers. I could almost imagine him challenging me to a game of tennis on a court surrounded by brick walls, lofty mansions and ivy walls.

One other graduate I spoke to is still buried in debt. To date, the tuition from the school has risen to over $35,000 a year. In comparison, Berkeley's yearly tuition is a mere $4,000. You do the math. But the math to me said that unlike other professional schools such as medical and law school, the dividends of salary does not equate. A graduate of a J School does not make more money than their B.A. counterparts. Also, professors and students were overwhelmingly available during an entire four-day open house with alumni and newly admitted students.

In fact, in most instances the majority of the J School graduates often get jobs at the bottom rungs of the industry. It is the connections in the schools that allows some to skyrocket above the rest. Valuable connections as in any field, can catapult a career high above the rest and that is why I chose Berkeley. I also hope to do the documentary program at Berkeley's J School, which has an incredible track record. In the last five years some students have won Academy Awards and their films have traveled the World to prestigious film festivals like Sundance and Cannes.

Studying in the beautiful weather at Berkeley

Speakers that have attended the school in the past few years have been lured by Dean Orville Schell, who has helped with the rise of prestige and respectability of the program through the last ten years. Those include Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Bill Clinton and the Dali Lama. Pretty incredible people that get to spend time with students exploring their crafts together.

The one regret I had while at my undergrad days in Wisconsin was the lack of college travel. At Berkeley all of the students are almost expected to put time traveling across the world. This past spring break, the North Gate School of Journalism resembled more of an airport hub than a school with the stories I heard from professors about where students were jetting to next. All across the globe from Europe, Latin America and Asia, Berkeley's students were doing journalism in interesting places. Alternatively, at Columbia when I asked Robert MacDonald, the Dean of Admissions about travel opportunities, I was told that students get to travel...all over New York and her suburbs. While that sounds exciting, I want to get a grasp of journalism across the globe, not just in one of the largest cities in America. They have a foreign reporting course, but they don't ever leave the country. What is the point in teaching foreign reporting concepts when you are not even expected, nonetheless even slightly pushed to travel? That is akin to teaching broadcast journalism without expecting a student to pick up a camera.

The other plus about Berkeley is that rather than spitting students out in a whirlwind ten-month program, Berkeley allows students to dabble in all forms of journalism over a two-year period. Journalism just is not the same as it was when gritty and leathered journalists spent years working their way up from copyboy to editor. Grizzled newsroom veterans used to spend entire careers working through their career in one organization. Now job security in any industry just does not exist, let alone journalism. But with the advances of internet reporting in blogging and podcasts, journalists are suddenly expected to carry a wealth of skills ranging from reporting for radio, television, internet and newspaper.

Personally, I think that journalists should at least be expected to get an advanced degree -- the industry is one that props up the very ideals of democracy. But the way journalists handle the news today is not respected and is highly biased. We expect doctors, lawyers and business leaders to learn beyond their undergraduate years and I expect the J School to instill skills that just were not accessible to me in Wisconsin.

Overall, it has been nearly a week since I had to formally declare my intent to enroll in Berkeley's program. Columbia, much like a relationship with an attractive woman that ended way too soon, has come to an end. While I will truly never know what would be if I attended that lofty institution, I feel equally excited to attend Berkeley. It truly is one of the best schools in the World. Consistently ranked as the best public school in the country and one of the top 5 best universities in the World, I am definitely going to have doors open and opportunities that I would never imagine had I not gone to school. The campus is beautiful, the class has less than 50 people per year (compared to over 200 students per year at Columbia), and the professors in all departments are heads of their field. Not to mention I am still living in heart of one of the most beautiful places in the world; a three hour drive to amazing skiing, a stone's throw to the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco seven miles away, and the backdrop of the campus formed by the rolling green Berkeley Hills.

In all my research I found few personal stories of choosing between the right J School and hopefully this will help someone ahead of me. I also hope my blog serves as a tool to future J Schoolers and also a way to relive my experiences for friends and family.

J School, here I come!