How To Survive Columbia Journalism School: A Non-Exhaustive Guide

#DailyWings: “I’m a story-teller. I tell stories. In some stories, I am the story. But the story transcends me. How? Hear my stories.” Guy at your J-school

Happy November! It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally finished putting together this blog post about my experiences at Columbia Journalism School (as promised), along with several nuggets of advice for prospective students — brought to you by the Class of 2016. :)

For those of you who might be new to my blog, I’ve talked about my journey to New York City in previous posts. I often tell people that going to graduate school for journalism was one of the best things I’ve ever done, even though it was also one of the most difficult. I had already obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is considered an excellent program and taught me the fundamentals of professional writing, editing and reporting. Columbia Journalism School was on a whole other level — basically UNC’s j-school on steroids.

Before we dive in, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: One, I’m mainly focusing on the M.S. program, which is designed for students with various levels of journalism experience. The M.A. program is geared toward experienced journalists who want to focus on a particular beat. There are also the dual-degree and PhD programs for people looking for an even more specific educational experience. Two, while I think the j-school (like many things in life) can definitely use some improvements, the quality of your experience largely depends — up to a certain point — on how much effort you’re willing and able to put into it.

Because I’d just spent four years writing local news and magazine features, I knew that I wanted to acquire some new skills in graduate school. So I took an advanced photojournalism class, two investigative reporting classes (including one focused on the health care beat), Multi-Platform Design & Storytelling, and Narrative Writing.

Columbia j-school is difficult mainly because of the massive amounts of work you’re expected to complete in just 10 short months. In some ways, I wish it had been a longer program (perhaps even two years) so we could dive deeper into our classes and our master’s projects. And while Columbia’s roster of journalism professors is top-notch, you might click more with others. I was incredibly lucky to have some amazing professors who taught me almost everything I know today about what it means to be a good reporter, particularly Karen Stabiner, Bruce Shapiro and Howard French. You also get access to excellent career counselors and services that continue even after graduation.

One thing I’m really grateful for is that going to Columbia Journalism School helped me reach some of my biggest dreams — even ones that I didn’t even know I had until they happened. I got to do a lifestyle fellowship with Bustle.com (my dream next step at the time), and I interviewed celebrities like George Takai, Grandmaster Flash and Andrew Lloyd Webber for stories that I’m really proud of. I also published my master’s project in the New York Times six months after school ended.

A common question that people ask me is: What do you get out of j-school — contacts or skills? Depending on how much you’re willing to work and network, the answer is both. I mentioned earlier that you (mostly) get out of the program what you put in. J-school doesn’t guarantee you a job or major byline. Rather, it gives you the lessons and tools you need to be a great journalist. You also need to be willing to put in passion and work.

That means gathering sources, leaving the Upper West Side to do reporting elsewhere in the city, looking for stories in unlikely places, editing story packages for hours, and following up with contacts you meet at events. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of time and energy. It’s important to check in with your physical and mental health — in fact, I’d say always make some time for self-care.

You’ll eventually have to make some sacrifices, especially when it comes to how best to spend your time, which really sucks but might serve you better in the long run. Some advice-givers might say, Go to all the events. Do as much as you can. Take advantage of everything. I agree with that only up to a certain point. If you’re caught between going to a cool-sounding event and editing a video for another grueling four hours, go to the event. If the j-school is hosting an entire conference and all of those panels sound interesting, pick your top three — really listen, take notes, and connect with the people who are at those three events.

Another question people like to ask is: Was it worth $60,000+? It’s a tricky question, and honestly, it’s going to depend on your goals. Do you aspire to become an investigative reporter? Are you interested in data journalism and media innovation? Or do you want to become a media mogul and run your own multi-million dollar publishing company? At the end of the day, what do you hope to get out of attending graduate school for journalism?

And even if you’re a seasoned journalist, you will still learn a lot depending on the classes you take. I’d previously taken several writing classes at UNC including news writing, magazine writing, copy editing, feature writing, and community journalism. I also had an interest (and at least some level of skill) in photography, but no formal training. So my medium of focus at Columbia wasn’t writing — it was photojournalism. I took a couple of intermediate photo classes and completed a photo essay for my final master’s project, which eventually got published in The New York Times. (Thus, what many people don’t know is that my Times piece was primarily adapted from a photo project).

The bottom line: Columbia Journalism School is really difficult and you might feel like a failure most of the time (just because there is so much to do and not enough time), but the truth is that pretty much everyone in j-school is going through similar stress, so you’re not alone. And while those of you who are already enrolled might feel the way I did during the first couple of days (that is, a pony in a world full of unicorns), remember that you applied and got in for a reason. And that reason is because you have something unique to offer the world of journalism

For this next part, I asked my fellow j-school classmates for their insight into everything from the application process to the difference between full-time and part-time programs.* Keep in mind that this is a non-exhaustive guide; also, depending on when you apply and other various factors, your experiences may be very different from what you read below. Take whatever advice that works best for you.

On applying:

For the writing test, brush up on major news events (both in the US and around the world) and key figures in politics, sports, Hollywood, etc. as much as you can. Reading the news helps so much; if you do that, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

It’s okay if you don’t have a journalism background. Don’t be deterred if you don’t have a journalism degree or haven’t done a lot of journalism already. They’re looking for people with critical thinking skills and motivation. They’re also looking for a student body that’s diverse, or maybe has characteristics that aren’t overtly related to journalism.

Columbia is hella expensive, so apply for as many scholarships and other financial aid as possible.

On the community:

It’s definitely better to be collaborative than competitive. That said, don’t be a dick and pitch someone else’s idea as your own. I saw that happen twice (from two different people) while at the j-school.

Read your professors’ books and articles so you have something to make awkward small talk about if you end up in the elevator together.

Get into a class with Kevin Coyne. I so wish I had taken his class, but was fortunate to have him as a master’s project adviser. He is so incredible. A great balance of nurturing and helping you to push boundaries with your writing/reporting.

Talk about the stories you’re working on. You never know who might have a contact to a source(s) you need. In return, talk to your fellow journos/classmates about what they are working on to see if you can help. If possible, pitch everything you write at Columbia Journalism School to a news outlet. How? Same way you find sources. You can find editors through guest lectures, friends, professors, mastheads, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Don’t be scared to cold pitch!

On differences between programs:

The master of science (M.S.) program only lasts about a year, which is shorter than a lot of graduate programs. So cherish your time and challenge yourself.

PT: I could write a whole long post about the part-time program, but I’d say my biggest advice for part timers is to take advantage of as much as possible. We’re there for two years… soak it in.

PT: Everyone should benefit from each other’s background and experience. Lots of part-timers are career changers or already working in the field. But there are more international students in the full-time program. One of my favorite parts of seminar and production classes was getting to mix in with so many different people with so many rich experiences.

PT: You have to choose classes that fit with your schedule… so if you work M-F, you’ll take evening classes (sucks when it comes time to choose S&P because there are only so many offered in the evening). The essentials classes are pre-scheduled and are all during evening hours. It definitely doesn’t feel like the full-time program…but if you have a job it is a lot to carry.

FT: On one hand, it was really hard to do it all in just 10 months. It’s stressful and takes a toll on your physical and emotional well-being (just being real). On the other hand, you’re hyper-focused on the program and you don’t have any other jobs, commitments, etc. to distract you from journalism. At the same time, I also recognize that being a full-time student is a privilege; not everyone can afford to go to graduate school full-time without having a job or some sort of income in the meantime. So do what’s best for you.

On reporting:

If you’re new to journalism, make sure you get practice in the basics — Learn what to do in a breaking news situation, learn to read court documents, things like that. Read and watch local news — It will help you learn the city and develop a sense of the day-to-day stories that people care about. Not every story is going to be a 1,500-word feature.

Talk to anyone who will listen, especially people who aren’t reporters. It will help you figure out what to focus on and what questions you need to answer.

If you have background/strength in some other area, consider making it your beat, even if it’s not what you want to do long-term. Having that expertise could set you apart during the job hunt.

As far as master’s projects go, I wish that before I’d chosen a subject on my own, I’d reached out to some editors and asked them, “What’s something you’ve been wanting to look into, but haven’t had the time and resources for?” Now that I’m turning around features on a much shorter timeline, I often find myself wishing I had six months to work on stuff, even though it felt like torture at the time.

Drink a lot of water and stay hydrated. Seriously. I always forgot to drink enough water. Make time to exercise–run, walk, play a sport–even if it’s just an hour a week. Anything to get you outside and out of the cubicles.

*Some entries may be edited for length.

Many thanks to my fellow j-school friends from the Class of 2016 for responding to my random Facebook post asking you to relive your j-school days (and nights) for this blog post. You all rock.

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