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J-School Confidential: The Great MA/MS Debate

PhD-level reading has one MA student wondering if she should have chosen Columbia's MS path instead

By Kate Dailey - December 14, 2007
Three years ago, Columbia unveiled its new MA in journalism. Unlike the famous MS program, which taught fledgling newsmongers the ins and outs of reporting, the MA targeted experienced journalists, and sought to give them a broader understanding of arts, science, business, or political theory. As one of the deans once put it, the MS program is for brain surgeons who want to get in to journalism; the MA is for journalists who want to write about brain surgery.

Having already spent four years working in magazines, the idea of the MA appealed to me. I wanted to switch gears in my career: less abs and more art; less olive oil and more cultural criticism from a feminist perspective. Enrolling in the MS -- which many of my friends had done a good four years ago, right after college -- seemed like a step back. Plus, the deadline to apply for the MA was a full month later than the deadline for the MS, which appealed to me even more.

Now I'm almost halfway through my program and wondering if I made the right choice. It's too soon to come to any conclusion, and since I'm fully invested in the MA, I'm determined to take advantage of every available opportunity it presents and create some of my own along the way. But the application deadlines are coming soon for any aspiring j-school students, so for those trying to make a similar decision, keep the following in mind:

How much do you want to write?
All my pre-j school clips are service-heavy, bullet-pointed service articles. I looked forward to graduating with a file folder full of articles that demonstrated my cultural savvy and straight reporting skills (or a flash drive -- the last time I went to college, they let cows graze on Old Main Lawn and all the freshman had to wear beanies). But the program is so reading-intensive (see below) that I've only done two real examples of arts reporting all fall. Our thesis is supposed to be our showcase piece; something to show potential employers at the end of the program, but I wish I'd written more during the semester (which is why I started a blog, a phrase that makes my hair stand on end). On the other hand, they're two good pieces -- one a long profile, one a news piece. Will they be enough?

My working life will be full of corners that need to be cut, and I'll benefit from knowing what can be jettisoned.

How much do you want to read?
The MA program is intense. At times, it feels like they're trying to give us a PhD -- or at least a two-year masters -- in ten months. With good reason -- most people in the program have wives, families, and some healthy freelancing responsibilities. Few of my classmates, me included, would have signed on for the program if it took longer than a year. But mother! The reading! Cramming a PhD's worth of knowledge into a ten-month (nine, considering our long winter break) program is deadly. No one I know does all the reading; even brown-nosers like me have to pick and choose what's important. This is not a bad thing: My working life will be full of corners that need to be cut, and I'll benefit from knowing what can be jettisoned.

How deeply do you care about your subject matter?
Do you love business? Are you obsessed with politics? Fascinated by science? Good. Because you're going to spend a lot of time working on your respective concentration. Six hours of seminar during the week, often with at least six more hours of reading outside of class. Add to that a 10,000-word thesis. If you're only marginally interested in art theory, you will be totally overwhelmed. It's important that you have something to gain by studying this topic: For me, it's a great way to make contacts and do some writing in a field I'm trying to crack. But I've talked to students who have worked in their concentration for years and feel like the generalized reporting training in the MS might have been helpful. On the other hand, there are some people who have worked in journalism for a little so wanted to skip the MS, but aren't super into their concentration. Now, they're wondering if they shouldn't have just jumped back into the MS to get a more intense reporting experience, or kept writing on their own just at a more intense pace.

How much fun do you want to have?
"You will have a blast!" promised all my MS-alum friends. And from what I can tell, the MS class is having a blast. They're working hard, but they're simulating newsroom conditions, which means big bursts of work, followed by lots of drinking. The MA is more of a long, slow grind, with fewer of the mini-deadlines to break things up (and around which to get drunk). And since the demo is a little older and a little more settled, they're less likely to hit happy hour at the end of the week. Most of us are taking time off from our jobs -- escaping from the real world for a year, instead of postponing our entry into it -- so there's more of a sense of urgency and seriousness than those devil-may-care MS kids. It's possible that I'm just a loser -- there's an MA happy hour ever week, and when I ventured out to the last one I had a blast. But it does seem that we're not drinking nearly as much as my friends who graduated in '02 -- though maybe they just an especially soused bunch.

Of course, all this is just my opinion -- for some people, this MA is exactly what they wanted. For others, it's a disaster. As for me, I'm learning a lot from some of my classes, and less from others, and I won't know for sure if I made the right decision about which program I chose until this summer -- you know, when I do or don't land one of those illusive, high-paying, high-status journalism jobs. It is good to be back in academia, talking with smart people about interesting things, rather than being stuck in Pennsylvania writing about sex yoga. No matter what happens in June, I still have six more months of that.

Kate Dailey is a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University

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