11 key ways for journalism students to improve their employability

It’s a tough world out there in the media – what with grinding recession, a skillset that needs updating by the hour and a revenue model that’s been turned upside down by the web.

It doesn’t help that more students than ever before are being turned out by the UK’s journalism courses. That makes it even more difficult for journalism graduates to get a toehold in our industry.

So, here are 11 top tips for journalism students and graduates – and even those thinking about their UCAS application – to ensure you have the best chance to get some kind of journalism job.

It may not be the one you want – you know, the one that involves you interviewing J-Lo in a rooftop pool in LA, or drinking in Chinawhite with the F1 team. But this advice is aimed at helping open up the widest possible range of media options to journalism students, with a corresponding boost to their potential earning power.

Admittedly, this has a bias towards print and web. But a lot of the tips should be generic enough to be relevant if you want to specialise in TV or radio.

Any comments are welcome to add to the roster…

 

1] Don’t do your BA in Journalism

Yes – a bit of a curve ball, but it’s one I’ve talked about before. I’m a firm believer that gaining a specialism outside journalism as well as getting some journalism training has big benefits.

Reason: The more well-rounded your education and qualifications, the more desirable you are to media employers. Journalists generally create content about the wider world, not about journalism, unless you are working for the media section. So do yourself a favour and do your BA in something other than journalism. Yes, I know that if you’re a journalism graduate already, this piece of advice may be a bit late. But UCAS applicants take note. And for the rest, there’s always the Open University.

2] Get a BSc in life sciences

Are there other degrees that might work? Possibly – but science is the one that gets asked for most in job ads. 

Reason: It’s really useful to do a science degree because it opens your media career up to include things that otherwise you would be excluded from. You may have a fascination with biology, you may read popular science books about cosmology, but unless you have that piece of paper, you will simply be excluded from writing jobs and freelance subbing shifts on titles such as Nature and New Scientist and also from editorial work for scientific book publishers. Not interested in science? Fair enough – but this post is about maximising your employability. Science will do that. It will also help you gain credibility in the mainstream media.

3] Work on the student newspaper/web site/TV station/radio show

Reason: A no-brainer really. Your work will suck for at least a year or so, whatever you do – so make it suck when it doesn’t matter so much. Make all your most egregious mistakes at college and by the time you apply for a real job you might well have developed a decent style and learned some production chops. You get free access to all sorts of facilities and equipment and you’ll hopefully learn some production discipline. If you end up as editor of something, you also get to see that student journalism work can be utterly terrible – which will put you in a potential employer’s shoes and give you some valuable perspective.

4] Gain a post-graduate journalism qualification

Finally – journalism.

Reason: Unfortunately, HR box-ticking means you probably will have to have some kind of journalism certificate (though science graduates without a journalism qualification will probably find it easier to get a job in science-related journalism than a journalism graduate without a science qualification). But don’t spend three years getting it – an MA, or even a ten-week accredited course should be enough on top of your other superb skills to take you far.

5] Learn languages

I mean, as well as English. In my day the education system was against me, as I spent years learning French, of all things, in a range of different subjects, including geography and history. This has been totally useless, professionally speaking. But extra languages can be a big bonus for journalism jobs.

Reason: It will help you work abroad; it will help you work for foreign publications; it will help you with freelance assignments that involve contacting non-English speakers. Seriously, this is another no-brainer. Which ones should you learn? Think of [a] the news flashpoints in the world (so, Arabic might be worth a shot, or Russian) [b] where the jobs are (recently Dubai, so Arabic again, also German, according to the current job ads on Journalism.co.uk) and [c] what the rest of the world speaks (so Chinese and Spanish might be worth a punt).

6] Learn English

Seriously.

Reason: Your schooldays probably made you think correct spelling and grammar just isn’t that important. But for some people – weird old people who might employ you – it can be very important. So if you make an effort to polish your grammar and spelling it can really pay off. Top tip: Focus on apostrophes. You will gain a distinct advantage over nearly all other graduates…

7] Keep a blog (or other web site) and update it regularly

Reason: You’re a wannabe journalist. Writing is your life. So write. As I’ve said before, I can filter out 95% of all journalism students and graduates based on the fact that they just can’t be bothered to actually create content. Bonus points for making your blog nice-looking and adding plug-in-style functionality.

8] Understand the back-end of web publishing

Reason: Journalism is shading into web development and site maintenance. The more you know about this area, the more employable you’ll be. At the moment, this means being familiar with, probably, HTML/XHTML, CSS, and maybe PHP. If you have no idea what these are, take a course or, as I’m doing, plough through a heavy book until your eyes bleed. Crucially, this is not computer programming. But it is increasingly necessary for both web-layout and design. And don’t think that tools such as Dreamweaver or content management systems will allow you to work just with graphics and content. Understanding the code that lies beneath lets you troubleshoot why pages won’t load as you thought they would, and makes you indispensable around the production desk.

9] Learn to make compelling videos

Reason: If you understand the impact that YouTube and citizen journalism has had on the media, it should be obvious why video skills are vital. But while it’s important to understand all the technical side of video formats and uploading to the web, it’s also vital to make good, compelling video content. As well as learning the software you need, such as Final Cut Pro, also learn how to tell stories visually. Learn about storyboarding and planning. Understand visual language. And learn to tell compelling stories. Which is at the heart of journalism. Kind of works for audio too, but I think simple audio podcasting is on its way out (discuss).

10] Network, network, network

Reason: People give jobs to people. Never forget this. In my advice on successful freelancing on the FleetStreetBlues blog, I stressed the first key attribute for professional success was the ability to get on with people. For journalism students and graduates, This means getting to know media professionals, being friendly (though not pushy), asking about opportunities and generally trying to be helpful when you can. And you’d be surprised how willing many media folk can be to help if you approach them in the right way. Crucially though, be realistic about what, and who, you ask. There’s a lot more to say on this, so I’m going to expand on it in a later post.

11] Have a backup plan

Reason: You may not be able to land a proper reporter-style journalism job, no matter how hard you try, even if you’re pretty good. Because, as discussed, things are tough in the media world. But don’t despair. You can still work with words, pictures, audio and video in a creative way and get paid. Sometimes even more than the pittance that journalists normally get. 

How? Think laterally. Recovering Journalist Mark Potts has an excellent post here on life after journalism – but at a pinch it can equally apply to life instead of journalism. Your journalism skills – ie your creative writing, editing and research skills – can be applied in many different jobs. Closely related fields include PR and corporate writing (but brush up on your spelling and grammar).

And that’s it for today. Other suggestions (and courteous disagreements) are welcome via the comments column…

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “11 key ways for journalism students to improve their employability

  1. Points 1 and 2 are absolute gold. I’ve hired dozens of journalists over the years. There’s no question the best one are those who know about something other than deconstructing the media. It’s nice being able to write, but it’s better being able to write about something.

    Incidentally, my degree is in Physics and I’ve spent 30 years in the media as a reporter, editor and publisher.

  2. Pingback: links for 2009-07-16 « Jon Bernstein

  3. rex666

    Good set of tips, I also wrote a short series for Fleetstreet blues on blogging and how to blog properly. It seems to me some of these tips overlap. But good stuff.

    http://www.plenty2say.com

  4. Alice Cannet

    Great post. Very useful advice for us, young journalists looking for work.

    In my case, it would seem that I have pretty much done all of the above (minus the science degree – but really, is this necessary?) which is relatively reassuring to see. Although as you point out, even for those of us who have done all this, it still isn’t always enough to secure a job. And you will be surprised (or maybe not) to hear that most of the students in my NCTJ course have struggled just to find work experience, let alone a full-time paid job (paid? what’s that?)! Some of us are beginning to think that paid jobs are outside our capability and it is especially hard to know where to draw the line and when to stop working for free. The state of the news industry is very discouraging for certain students who come to think that their skills are not worth a salary. This is wrong and qualified young students should expect to be paid, however low the salary (we all know it isn’t what attracts them to the jobs in the first place).This is another indicator of just how difficult it is to enter the job market at the moment.

    One of the things that have worked for me in the past is to insist until you get an offer. Although this sounds obvious, students tend to give up after sending one email if they do not get a reply. When I was looking for work experience, I have found that the more I called, the more I was considered. Journalism students should not be shy and expect editors/ prospective employers to look at their applications. They are probably flooded with them anyway. Students need to make themselves known in the industry and by individuals and, in my (humble) experience the best way to do that is ring, ring and ring again.
    In general I have been most successful when proactive and waiting around for the perfect job ad (usually once a month) will not get you anywhere. It’s about contacting people and obtaining experience (however short or seemingly insignificant) by whatever means, even if it is one day a week, on a work shadow basis or any other alternative.

    • Very interesting – thanks Alice. Three points:

      [1] The science degree. No, it’s not necessary, but my point was that, of all the degrees you can do, a science degree will open up a few more areas to you that would otherwise remain closed. It increases your employability. A bit. Other qualifications may do this – but science is the one I have seen most often in actual job ads.

      [2] Pester power. Yes – there’s a fine line between persistence and pestering that’ll just irritate people. But err on the side of persistence. One of the things that will separate the real potential journalists from the kind-of wannabes is the ability to keep plugging away in the face of indifference. It’s a key journalistic skill after all.

      [3] The “news industry”. Best advice is to think of the media and journalism as wider than this. It goes against the grain for a lot of journos, but actually the only way to stay in – paid – work is to diversify and think laterally.

    • Alice is so right on her pestering comments. I take on workies based on random elements.
      But I guarantee if they call me a couple of times to ‘make sure i received the email’ they are on my radar and I will more likely give them a week just for innovation.
      Too many times I get sent an obvious templated covering letter that doesn’t describe why they want to do what we do.
      Other massive tip.Passion and enthusiasm. Show them.

  5. j

    Also, get out there and report on stories. The web is the medium, but without the gathering of news there would be nothing to communicate!

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