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J-School Confidential: Worth the Price?

This grad student discusses the value of j-school, her too-soon graduation, and her next steps

By Beth Braverman - December 7, 2007
I opened my e-mail today to find a letter from Columbia University requesting that I submit all my paperwork for graduation.

"Graduation!" I shouted at my computer screen. "But I just got here." Classes in the M.A. program began just over three months ago, and my first semester back in J-School winds to a close next week, I can hardly believe that I am halfway through my time here.

In many ways -- adjusting to the graduate school schedule, getting to know my classmates, making a lasting impression on my professors -- I feel I have just arrived at school and could easily extend my time on campus.

But in more ways, the past semester has felt a great deal longer than three months. Since starting J-School, I have probably read more than I had in the entire preceding year. My home office overflows with assigned magazines, newspapers, textbooks, journal articles, nonfiction books and novels that probably constitute a slight fire hazard.

While I did not enjoy every text I read this semester, the assignments have absolutely benefited me as a journalist. I garnered insight into framing stories, finding "truth" and conducting interviews by seeing how various social scientists -- from anthropologists to historians -- do so.

Over the past three months, I also learned to conduct archival research and oral history interviews. I have gone from possessing virtually no Web experience to creating a personal Web site to serve as a portfolio of my work.

Persistently reading the business pages of national newspapers and perusing every business magazine for which I can find the time has served to reinforce the lessons gleaned from my business and economics seminar, the core of my curriculum and by far my most valuable class.

I have written close to a dozen business stories on topics ranging from Wal-Mart to oil prices, and have gained a practical understanding of macro-economic policies that my undergraduate J-School degree never afforded me. Comparing my stories from the beginning of the semester to my more recent pieces reassures me that I will emerge from this program a much improved, and much more skilled reporter.

In August, I wrote a column for this Web site wondering if my decision to return to J-School would prove the right one. At the time, I was engaged, employed and living in Manhattan. Now, I'm married, attending graduate school full-time and living in Queens.

Living on loans is only enjoyable until they come due.

My husband has been fantastically supportive of my decision to return to school, but our status as a one-income family has forced us in some ways into the traditional gender roles to which we never before ascribed. It makes sense for me to do laundry and start dinner while I am home all day reading, and for him to pay the bills since he is the one contributing to our "joint" bank account. But we both look forward to returning to the more modern, task-splitting approach that served us much better in the years we lived together before marriage.

Prior to returning to school, I worried that seeking a master's degree when I already had a J-School degree and several years reporting experience might turn out to be a very costly career misstep.

Columbia has challenged me academically and allowed me to become re-engaged in the profession I have loved in since childhood. My classmates and my professors are experienced and interesting, and interacting with them represents an intellectual opportunity I could never replicate. Like me, my classmates have generally logged a few years in the field, somewhat assuaging my concerns that working journalists have no use for a graduate degree.

In terms of my education, I am certain I made the right decision. Still, I have learned that the student lifestyle to which I so looked forward no longer suits me. I cannot wait to return to the workforce, regaining a regular schedule (or as regular as a journalist's schedule can be) and -- more importantly -- a regular paycheck. Living on loans is only enjoyable until they come due. Conventional wisdom on campus seems to hold that the business journalism concentration students in the M.A. program get the best paying jobs. This belief has led to a few envious remarks from classmates, but I am happy to bear the brunt of the resentment if it turns out to be true.

The real test of the decision to return to school will come this spring, when my job hunt truly begins. But I can't think about that just yet. Rumor has it that the second semester of the M.A. program is far more rigorous than the first. There's also that pesky little 10,000-word thesis required for graduation.

I am trying my best to actually slow down, experience and enjoy my time here. I fear that next time I'm caught off guard by an email, it will be from the alumni office, and I may still feel as if I have only just arrived.

Beth Braverman is a freelance writer and graduate student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Astoria, N.Y.

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