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J-School Confidential: Returning To School

A post-college writing gig left this current NYU grad student unsatisfied, so he enrolled in j-school to improve his skills

- August 24, 2007
Welcome to our new series, J-School Confidential, filed by media experts in the making. Our rotating cast of emerging journos will take on that great media debate -- to j-school or not to j-school -- while chronicling their tales of learning the craft both in the academic settling and on the ground. They range from a writer who gave up a plum women's magazine editor spot to pursue graduate training she hopes will lead to work as a cultural critic to an overachieving undergrad who breaks TV industry news and has his own news radio show, all on top of the government degree he chose to pursue instead of journalism coursework.

In the fourth installment, NYU grad student John MacDonald leaves his post-college job writing grants for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to start fresh in NYU's graduate program. He struggles with the decision as to whether he should pursue a career as a rockstar or rock journo, ultimately deciding neither is the right option.


I suppose there are two ways to tell this story. In the first, our protagonist jumps skillfully from bedroom rock critic to NYU graduate student, from fanzine intern to New Yorker intern, from penning 300-word CD reviews to 1,500-word Brooklyn Rail features, from diffidence to confidence. The second is a little more interesting. Here, the 24-year-old faces a grueling grant-writing gig and what we'll call the "post-graduate plateau." Not a quarter-life crisis, but the unshakable sense that if he doesn't leave Philadelphia, he'll be joking with the same buddies, drinking at the same bars, and collecting the same paycheck until he's bald and truculent. This story isn't about writing at all. It's about moving on and moving out, going to the Big Apple.

Of course, the genuine article is a mix of the two. Ever since I wrote my very first CD review (yes, Coldplay's Parachutes) as an Oberlin College freshman, I've known with near certainty that I wanted to do this for a living. I just didn't know precisely what "this" was. Was it rock 'n' roll or writing about rock 'n' roll, distortion pedals or word processors? At Oberlin, it was decidedly the former. While I hopped from band to band, rock-writing for the Oberlin Review was a way to step on stage without leaving my dorm. And my tenure as the Review's arts editor covering film and theater was just an extension of that. I had no intention of putting my guitar down.

At 24, my life had begun to feel settled and sluggish. I needed to move on for reasons that had nothing to do with my job or my writing. I wanted to know more, read more.

As the summer of 2003 approached, bringing with it graduation and one of the worst job markets in years, I went dutifully to alumni networking events. I nibbled brie at roundtable discussions and chatted up travel writers. I smiled and took notes. But I expected little in the way of employment. And I certainly had no intention of going back to school -- for journalism or anything else. Most alums told me I didn't need to anyway. I was just leaving school for Christ's sake.

So I flung myself out of Oberlin and Ohio, drove around the country for two weeks, and landed in Philly. I flung myself through jobs at a record store, a bookstore, and a self-publishing house -- all while managing an internship at the Philadelphia Weekly and writing weekly music reviews for www.prefixmag.com -- before landing at the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Mural Arts has more than 2,700 murals to its credit -- making Philadelphia the mural capital of the world -- and I wrote many of the grants to get them painted, often two or three a week. After only a year and a half, the job had taken its toll. If non-profits are notorious for exhausting their employees, then Mural Arts managed appalling new heights. At the same time, I had a creeping sense that my relationship with the city was running its course. At 24, my life had begun to feel settled and sluggish. I needed to move on for reasons that had nothing to do with my job or my writing. I wanted to know more, read more.

So I started thinking seriously about grad school. But my initial focus wasn't journalism; it was on the subjects I wanted to write about -- pop culture, mass media, music -- things I thought j-schools didn't cover. I looked at media studies programs at Georgetown and the New School, but then I realized something. In my NYU application essay, I beamed about how Mural Arts "extended my range as a writer" and gave me an "appreciation for the hectic atmosphere" of a fulltime journalist -- great stuff. But the reality was much simpler. I learned to value writing as a skill -- as something I could do quickly and competently. Even if I wasn't writing about music or theatre, I could rake in a paycheck every couple weeks. I still wanted to know more and read more, but now I wanted to write more... and better.

Once my writing became an end unto itself, j-school was a no-brainer. I applied to the handful of programs that focused on cultural journalism, NYU and Syracuse University among them. Then I left my girlfriend, my friends, and my band, and moved north. I convinced myself that I was a better writer than a musician (something I said to myself endlessly in the shower), that if I didn't leave now, I never would, and most importantly, that I could do more than write about music; I could be a professional. A year later, and without many freelance opportunities or a staff job on the horizon, only this last assertion remains doubtful. But like I said, this isn't a story about dramatic ascents or sudden stardom. I had no grand design and I still don't. I graduate in December with a master's degree in journalism from New York University. That's all I'm sure of.


John MacDonald is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at jmacdonald324 AT gmail DOT com.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We'd love to add more voices to this series. If you'd like to share your take on pursuing journalism in and out of school, email us.]



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