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J-School Confidential: Advice After The First Year

This NYU grad student is steeling himself for graduation this winter and taking stock of what j-school taught him

By John MacDonald - September 28, 2007
In the latest installment of J-School Confidential, third-semester NYU grad student John MacDonald reflects upon what's he's learned and how it will help his future. The results surprise him.

The impulse is to approach j-school, or any graduate experience, with all our bases covered, all the right forms signed and sealed. We don't go to grad school because we're supposed to; we go because we want to. So we throw all we have into clearing the proper path to professionalism. But things are never that easy. Get your shit together, sure. But realize that good stuff happens when you aren't looking.

Sometimes the good stuff has nothing to do with school or journalism. Distractions can be just as "productive" in the long run as any five hours spent on the beat. When I dumped Philadelphia for NYU last summer, I left behind a two-and-a-half year relationship with a good band. Within in a month, I had a new one in New York. Now I had rehearsals in exotic Astoria and new friends who didn't know grad school from pre-school -- and all because I showed up at a friend's show at CBGB's. The next day, the second guitarist quit. My buddy offered me the slot and that was that. I had no intention of playing music last year. I was a graduate student with books to read and student loans to pay. But while writing remains foremost on my mind, my band has given it the weekly rest it deserves. A noisy guitar is the best stress reducer I've found. Distractions are a good thing, especially ones that fall into your lap.

I hesitate to call my internship with The New Yorker a fluke. But that's really what it is -- yet another example of the happy accidents that have marked an otherwise unexceptional j-school experience. It was this simple: I grabbed coffee with a recent NYU grad -- an editor for Domino working in the Condé Nast Building (the same that houses The New Yorker). I happened to mention my interest in music writing. Without any prompting, my friend sent an email to The New Yorker's pop music critic and a sometime acquaintance of hers, asking if he needed any help. And bam! I'm in the door at 4 Times Square. No applying to Condé Nast's excessively bureaucratic internship program. No fear I'll get placed at Golf Digest or Modern Bride. I had snuck in through the back door.

The New Yorker is, of course, a lesson in networking: that tiresome habit of socializing about which I felt utter ambivalence only a year ago.

Interning at The New Yorker has felt like a complete coup on the one hand, and completely commonplace on the other. Since starting this summer, I haven't done anything life changing -- just research, some fact-checking, and the occasional trip to the public library. Then again, I've gotten to work extensively with one of my favorite writers -- an experience I'd gladly exchange for any four-hour photocopying session.

The New Yorker is, of course, a lesson in networking: that tiresome habit of socializing about which I felt utter ambivalence only a year ago. I haven't exactly been born again, but I have come to see networking's uncanny power. I'm not an idiot.

But the real lesson here -- and one I would've been grateful to know last fall -- is that success isn't always dependent on productivity and preparation. That's the silver lining in all those brutal hours you've put in on your grad school application, your two-hour interviews, and your 2,000-word features. Sometimes, all it takes is a cup of coffee, and suddenly you've got a email address.

Of course, a New Yorker email account doesn't mean a New Yorker staff position. In a few months, I will leave 4 Times Square having worked hard, met fascinating people, and made priceless contacts, but not, I suspect, with a job. And here's the real issue. No one's dropping $15,000 a semester just for an internship and a couple bylines. The idea is to land a career, become fiscally sound, make ends meet, bring home the bacon, all while engaging in a profession notorious for its meager job opportunities, its low salaries, its empty cupboards and empty bottles -- its lack.

But unlike the importance of healthy distraction and casual networking, the tenuous connection between j-school and post-graduate employment has never been a mystery. I knew it when I applied to NYU and I know it now. Nothing in my first two semesters -- a time I wouldn't trade for any six-figure salary -- has dissuaded me. Clearly, there are better and worse choices to make. Some professors work hard to get you published, some less so. Some organizations make staffers out of their interns, some don't. You should figure out the difference. But you'll gain nothing by fretting too hard about graduation on your first day of orientation. Immerse yourself in the material, work frighteningly hard, and if no publication is waiting for you at the end of the line, start your own magazine. That's what I'm doing.

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.

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