February 2nd, 2008
Yesterday, I was on a panel of working writers/editors/authors/screenwriters, talking to students in the undergrad English department at the University of Washington for the school’s Career Discovery Week. One student asked whether we’d recommend getting a grad degree to those hoping to work full time as a journalist, novelist, or any other type of writer (or editor). I’m happy to report that the answer across the panel of five gainfully employed full-time or freelance wordsmiths was a resounding “Hell, no!”
1. It’s not a job requirement. Take it from someone who’s applied for a heck of a lot of journalism and publishing gigs. It’s never on the list of job requirements. Also, I have hired many a subcontractor to write and edit for my clients. Experience in the task at hand (technical editing, marketing writing, whatever) is always my number one requirement; I don’t care whether they have letters after their name. And neither do my clients.
2. Everything relevant I learned in my undergrad journalism program you could learn in one class. Yep, I took countless classes on how to write a story about a city council meeting and avoid landing my employer a libel suit. But all those lectures and homework assignments were nothing compared to the (far more educational) real-world experience I got at my internships and first couple of newspaper jobs. In other words, take your undergrad classes, then get your on-the-job experience as an intern, volunteer, and rookie writer or editor. It’s the best training around. And in case you were wondering, all the college credits in the world won’t teach you how to write a book. The first time you do it, you still have to flounder around and figure it out like everyone else.
3. All the great contacts I’ve made over the years I made on the job. I hate the argument that you need to go to grad school to get to know the key players in the publishing industry. No you don’t. Save your money and get paid to learn as an entry-level writer or editor. Much cheaper, and gets you two years ahead of your grad school counterparts in the job market. If you want to network, join a professional association like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. Go to writers conferences, events like Blogher’s annual conference, and the readings/lecture series at your local community arts center (like Richard Hugo House in Seattle). Get out in the real world and meet other working writers, editors, bloggers, and publishing pros in any of the many professional settings they congregate — which, by the way, unless they’re a professor, isn’t at your local university.
4. It’s a dang expensive way to avoid working. As one twentysomething on yesterday’s panel said, don’t be afraid to leave college and enter the workforce. She fearlessly dove into the world of work two years ago, and now she’s the managing editor at a diversity consulting firm. And as the guidance counselor running the panel said, if you don’t know what to do next, get out there and get some work experience. Don’t risk burning out on too many consecutive years of schooling. Instead, sample the various types of writing and editing jobs and industries to see what you do and don’t like. To that I’ll add: You ain’t gonna “find yourself” in law school. Better to flit around Asia, help rebuild New Orleans, or take up any other adventure that gives you the time and space to figure out what’s really important to you.
There is of course one reason to get a graduate degree in a field that doesn’t require it:
You love the topic, can’t wait to learn more about it, and want to do so in a group setting. In How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, Ariel Gore advises getting an advanced degree not in writing, but in a topic that really turns you on, be it medieval lit, comparative religion, or the history of clogging in America. That way, you’ll always have something to write about. I couldn’t agree more.
My boyfriend got a grad degree in medieval literature a decade ago. He didn’t want to go into academia, which is what you have to if you want to work in medieval lit, so now he works in the software industry. As far as I know, he’s still paying off his student loans. But I asked him last night if he’d do the degree all over again, even though I knew what he was going to say. (“Absolutely!”)
That’s when you know you’re making the right decision to go to grad school — when it’s something you want to do as much as that summer roadtrip you’re planning, that craft business you’ve been nursing on the side, or that volunteer gig you do at your local pet shelter.