A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Career: 5 questions you’ve been asking yourself

By Quill

Editor’s Note — Aimee Harris, an employee at The News Journal in Delaware for the past two years, and Mary Hausch, who spent 19 years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal before becoming a professor, answers five questions that have probably been on your mind.

1. Which is better — experience or longevity?

Is it better to work at a job for one year and get great clips and experience or should you stick it out at a mediocre job for a while so it doesn’t look like you are a job hopper?

Harris: I don’t claim to be an expert, but I am proof that you can work a few jobs in a two- to three-year span and still be able to start fresh after. It is certainly very important to get great clips and experience, but I think, especially when you’re first starting out, it’s almost expected that you’ll move around. You start at one place and stay for a year or so, then move on to a place that’s a bit bigger for a while, and then perhaps move on again a year after that.

When I was graduating from college, that was the advice my journalism adviser gave me: It’s OK, practically expected, that you’ll start off at a small paper. Go there, give it your all, and after about a year, don’t be afraid to move on and look for new challenges.

It’s sometimes a symbiotic relationship between smaller organizations and budding journalists. A journalist can get a foot in the door and have the chance to grow at a small place, and the employer finds cheaper labor. While the journalist ekes out a living, he or she also is gaining the experience and clips to forge ahead.

Hausch: Experience trumps longevity. If you start at an entry-level job and it turns out to be menial work, then you need to consider moving on.

2. What happens if you start a job and after two months, decide you hate it and it’s not a good fit?

Harris: I think this really depends on the situation. If after two months, you think this isn’t the place you want to retire from, that’s OK. Consider whether it’s possible to bide your time. It takes time to find a new job, so see if you can stay six months, and then begin slowly looking. As time moves on, you can start aggressively looking.

Hausch: It’s generally not a good idea to quit a job until you have another one, but job-hunting when you are still new on a job can be tricky. Before abandoning a troublesome job, I suggest discussing your concerns with your boss to see if things can be changed. If the boss is the problem, then you probably do need to consider your other options.

3. How much experience should you have under your belt when you start to apply to larger markets? Two years? Three years? Or should you always be on the lookout for something better, regardless of your experience level?

Harris: I’d say this depends on your ultimate goal. If your goal is to get to one prestigious organization (such as The New York Times) or to be the next Peter Jennings, I’d say, yes, you should always be looking out for rungs to climb on the ladder. If your goal is to stay in your community and rise up in one organization, then it’s worthwhile to still keep a look out, but if you’re happy — why change?

In my experience, it’s often not the amount of experience you have to get into the larger markets, it’s the strength of your clips and most important, your contacts. I went to college with students who were offered jobs at major metropolitan newspapers during their senior years. Often, these were people who had previously done internships at these papers or had a strong contact there. Always be cultivating your contacts and meeting new ones, that will help you go far quickly.

Hausch: Moving directly from a small market to a large one can be difficult. A move to a mid-size market after two years might be a wiser step.

It’s always a good idea to keep your options open and consider new opportunities, especially if they are in an area where you ultimately want to live. If you don’t express your interest, you won’t be considered.

4. Aside from career considerations, what other factors should influence a career decision (quality of life, spouse/family, etc.)?

Harris: I work at night as a night copy editor, and my husband works regular hours. For the first year and a half I had this job, my days off were Tuesday and Wednesday. So quality-of-life and family concerns were definitely factors I had to weigh before I accepted. What my husband and I found, though, is that we could make it work because I find my job so fulfilling. I no longer came home from work exhausted and unhappy. My overall quality of life became better because I gave this a shot — and after time, my hours got better.

Hausch: Quality of life should always be a factor. Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you try living in a different area of the country and don’t like it, you can always relocate back “home” later. With parents living longer, more people are making career decisions based on the need to be temporary caregivers. That’s a noble reason for changing jobs and will probably provide rewards you can’t take to the bank.

5. If you could offer up one piece of advice for someone considering a move, what would it be?

Harris: Go with your gut. Trust your instincts about when it’s time to move on and whether this is the right place for you to move to. Being courted to a job is flattering, but don’t let the way other people persuade you to do something that doesn’t feel right.

Hausch: Don’t be afraid to change jobs. Staying in a dead-end job just because you have security or only 10 years until you retire doesn’t make sense. Evaluate the risks of any job change, do what you can to minimize the negatives and then go for it.

Bonus Questions

Q: Aimee, You’ve had a variety of interesting jobs since graduating in 2001. Did you struggle with when and how to leave each position for something new? Tell us a little about your decision process.

A: I really struggled with the prospect of leaving journalism to take a job in medical publishing. I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, of course, and that perhaps because I had broken my string of working at newspapers, I was putting future prospects at newspapers in jeopardy. That turned out not to be the case. My next employer, a newspaper, did not seem to be concerned that I lacked commitment to the profession or had lost my skills. In fact, I was able to tell my interviewers that I had learned a major lesson: I definitely wanted to be at a newspaper, and they then knew how committed I was.

The last time I started looking for a new job, I’d been in my position for about six months; by the time I left, I’d been there only eight months. I was very nervous about leaving after less than one year because I had always been told that you should stay at least that long. Thankfully, that turned out not to be true, and now, for the first time, I’m approaching a two-year anniversary at one place. Making a jump like that is not a career-ender, and if the right job comes along, I say go for it!

Q: Mary, is there a timetable for how long someone should stay in that first or second job? If someone jumps from job to job, does that send a negative message to potential employers? Would an employer be hesitant to hire that person?

A: I stayed in my first reporting job for only 16 months. Moving on felt right because I had polished my skills and felt confident that I could move to a larger paper. Now I tell students to look after a year if they aren’t challenged. People shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for staying put, however. Sometimes upward mobility from within an organization makes the most sense. And if you start at a small paper and fall in love with the community and what you are doing, then staying put can be the right thing to do. I don’t think employers are as hesitant to hire someone who has had several jobs in a five-year period as they used to be because more people are making career moves on a more frequent basis.