I remember my father telling me that the best career decision he ever made was getting his PhD. He said it had given him endless opportunities and it had increased his earning potential in a way that nothing else could have. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about my master’s degree.
While I’m glad I earned a graduate degree and I don’t regret it, it has not had a significant impact on my career or my quality of life. I haven’t found additional job opportunities and I haven’t earned any more money than my colleagues without master’s degrees.
It’s been almost six years since I graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The school is considered one of the most prestigious and competitive—if not the most—in the nation for journalism. The work is beyond rigorous, the curriculum is comprehensive, and the professors are truly inspiring.
It was one of the most exhausting, yet fascinating years of my life. It was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because I had earned a major scholarship and the timing was perfect since I was in my twenties, unmarried, and without children.
Deciding to go to graduate school is a huge decision that has the potential to affect the rest of your life. After all, you could find a fulfilling new profession, enhance your existing career, or end up unemployed with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Okay, the last one probably isn’t likely, but it was especially scary job-searching just months after 9/11 in a rocky economy for a few of my classmates who were saddled with massive student loans.
Graduate school can be a great opportunity to shift gears, and many people use it to change careers completely. I remember my class at Columbia had people who had been doctors, lawyers, teachers, and even a ballerina.
I wasn’t switching careers entirely. I had already been working as a newspaper reporter for several years, including a stint at a small-town daily, a couple years at a big-city business paper, and an internship at a newspaper in Asia.
I was passionate about journalism and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else. But I did want to do more. I wanted to work for bigger news outlets and I wanted to know how to do more than simply write newspaper stories. I had never taken a journalism class in college, so I liked the idea of learning more about the craft of reporting and writing. I was also intrigued by television news and thought I might like to move into that industry some day.
A few months into the program, I decided that I wanted to focus on television, so I learned to shoot video, write for television, produce TV news stories, and even do on-camera reporting and anchoring. It was challenging and interesting, and I imagined an exciting career after graduation.
There was just one problem. I really didn’t know enough about the field I was studying. I had visited CNN and talked with people who worked as TV reporters and producers (oddly, a few friends working in television cautioned me against the move). But I realize now my mistake was that since I had never worked in the business, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I should have done an internship or even taken a week off to shadow someone in the industry before I decided it was something I wanted to pursue.
Instead, I got my training through an expensive graduate degree and plunged into the job market with my resume tape looking for an on-air reporter job. I landed a gig as a reporter and weekend anchor at a small station serving some small communities in West Virginia and Virginia. I soon moved on to a bigger station in Charleston, South Carolina.
The one thing I hadn’t given enough thought to was the day-to-day life of working in television. If I had done an internship, I probably would have had a reality check on the TV lifestyle of working round-the-clock and being called to work at odd hours to cover a plane crash, shooting, or interstate pile-up.
I didn’t really mind working evenings, weekends, and almost every holiday when I was single, but once I met my future husband, I began to hate it. He worked normal hours and so we never had any time together. Instead of feeling an adrenalin rush when I heard details of a homicide or a police chase on the scanner in the newsroom, I felt dread at the prospect of working a few more hours past my shift and another cancelled date.
I tried to imagine how my life as a TV reporter would lend itself to marriage or maybe motherhood some day—working weird hours and moving to a new city every few years—and I just couldn’t see it. Entering my late twenties, I realized that those were things I wanted in the future.
I also realized that I missed doing stories that required more than a few hours worth of reporting and I had grown tired of covering complex issues in the required “one minute and thirty seconds” for snappy TV stories.
Eventually, I went back to work in print media. And, yes, I’ve asked myself many times whether grad school was a waste of time and money. But it wasn’t. I learned a lot, I gained a much broader perspective on journalism and I became a much more versatile reporter. Plus, I figure it can’t hurt to have a preeminent school on my resume.
Whenever I talk to someone considering graduate school, I urge them to research their post-graduation job prospects and learn as much about those jobs as possible. Are the jobs something they are certain they would enjoy? Is there a way to test the water by shadowing someone or doing an internship? And, do those jobs require a graduate degree, or are there alternate routes to those professions? In retrospect, I believe that this type of self-examination and practical research is far more important than studying the schools themselves and checking their rankings.