The Society of Professional Journalists does not come out with a ranking of journalism schools for good reasons; the best reason is that an individual student’s needs cannot be measured by a generic list attempting to define quality through imprecise numbers. Successful journalists have come from virtually every type of undergraduate institution and degree program now available. Ultimately the student’s motivation to succeed is what counts the most, but certainly a good education helps. Here are a series of questions that will help you find the best program that will meet your career goals. This is a one-source opinion piece because quoting others might imply preference or a recommendation for a particular institution. Consider these questions as launching points for further investigation rather than a road map with a definitive end point. Let’s start with the generic questions, meaning the questions you should ask regardless of what major you choose: 1) How far away from home do you want to go?
This is a big question for traditional-aged college students but may be less so for older students. For students about to complete high school, get out a map and draw a circle that outlines a six-hour drive or one direct airline flight (meaning no transfers). Start looking at schools within that area. You may want to get further from home, but there are advantages to being able to come home for a weekend or in case of a family emergency. Going further usually means that you won’t get home except at the term vacations.
Regardless of where you live or what your circumstances are, consider the circle a starting point. If you live in an isolated area, this six-hour drive/one plane ride circle may be unrealistically limiting, so enlarge the geographic area as you see appropriate. Or you may want to go to school in a new part of the country to broaden your cultural experiences. 2) How much do you want to spend on college?
This question is tricky. Investigate every scholarship and financial aid award available to you. Do the math and figure out how much student loans will cost you per month after graduation. You usually do get what you pay for (or get scholarships for) when it comes to education. At the same time, you don’t want your debt load to exceed projected starting salaries in your field. 3) Do you want to go to a state university or a liberal arts institution?
Cost also is a factor here, depending on how far out-of-state you go. Typically, state universities offer a wide variety of courses in specialized areas, and many classes – except for lab courses – may be large. The amount of contact with senior faculty may be quite limited, while the available communications technology may be cutting edge. Typically, liberal arts institutions are private, though some state schools have maintained this approach. Students usually develop closer relationships with faculty, and the range of specialized courses may be more limited. The educational philosophies of these two types of institutions may differ greatly. Investigate both types of schools and compare strengths and weaknesses. Use the questions above to help you narrow down the number of schools you are considering. If possible, get the list down to somewhere between three and six schools. Then, ask the questions below about each school to help you narrow the field further. 4) What kind of journalism jobs do this school’s graduates get?
If you are interested in copy editing, ask where the copy editing graduates landed. If you are interested in broadcasting, ask about the graduates starting off in good broadcasting careers. Do these graduates have jobs you might want? Ask about graduates both from the last few years and those five-to-10 years out. Don’t know what career path you want to take? That’s OK. Asking questions about the school’s graduates will help you learn what your options are. You also want to ask about the kinds of internships students get. Internships – on-the-job experience for college credit – also will be important in helping you get a job. 5) What kinds of courses are taught?
Look through the course catalog, and see what classes interest you. If one or two stand out, ask how often the courses are offered. Remember – not only will your interests probably change during your college years, but the media industry is converging as well. Changes in technology may bring newspaper, television, radio and Internet news together into a new medium, or cross-media ownership may mean the same person creates stories for different media. You need to be ready for whatever comes next. That means you will need a variety of skills during your career, and you’ll want to have a solid grounding in writing, editing, speaking and using technology. You may have an interest in one area now, but you need to have all these skills. You also need a theoretical foundation in journalism. Do you see courses offered with titles such as Media Ethics, Journalism History, Communications Law, Principles of Journalism, Communication Theory, Media and Democracy, or some variations on those themes? You want a strong combination of these theoretical courses to provide a base for the skills you want to develop. Keep in mind that you are getting an education – not just preparing for a career. There is some debate as to whether you actually need to major in journalism to become a journalist. Every newsroom has at least one or two folks who studied political science or theater or something else instead, but the reality is that most people hired in journalism do have degrees in journalism or a related major. Sometimes that major is called journalism, but it also can be called mass communication or just plain communications. Sometimes schools fold journalism programs into English, theater or other departments. Make sure the quantity and quality of classes are appropriate to prepare you for the work you want to do. 6) What kinds of expertise do the faculty members have?
Ask about the journalism experience of each faculty member. Do faculty members have professional experience in the course areas where they teach? How many years of professional experience do they have? Are they active in research in their fields? Does that research sound like something you want to hear more about? Some schools place an emphasis on faculty continuing to work in journalism rather than doing research. If that is so, are faculty members producing the kinds of journalistic projects that you are interested in learning more about? If faculty members are not doing research or journalistic projects, ask how they spend their time outside the classroom. Ask about the number of courses taught by faculty, adjuncts (part-time instructors), and graduate students. Sometimes adjunct faculty and graduate students offer incredibly valuable expertise and teach in exciting, innovative ways that enhance the department. Sometimes the number of adjunct faculty and graduate students mask a faculty shortage. Ask current students at this college about both the regular faculty and the part-time faculty. They are most likely to give you the best answer. 7) How active and strong is the student media?
Working on the campus newspaper, radio, television, yearbook or other media staffs will give you experience needed to get a strong internship, and getting a good internship helps you get a good job. Being involved with campus media is a great way to get to know other students who share the same passions as you. 8) Is this a school where you believe you will fit in?
Worrying about fitting in seems superficial, but it is important. It’s more than liking the students, respecting the faculty, or admiring the campus architecture. Fitting in is hard to define, but it comes down this: Do you want to spend four years at this school? Only you know what factors you should consider and how to best answer that question. You will make the right choice. And as stated at the beginning of this article, the success of your career depends on you; the school only helps.
Virginia Whitehouse, Ph.D., is the former chair of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee and is the vice chair of the Media Ethics Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an associate professor in Communication Studies at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash.