This is a subject that comes up time and time again, and after receiving an email from friend a few weeks ago asking for some advice on how to get into journalism – I thought it might be about time I tackled this subject in a post. Everyone has a different opinion on whether qualifications or experience have the greater input into where you end up in life, and I know there are great examples for both sides – but I know so many students are left confused by which one they should be focusing on. When you’re at university, you’re constantly told you need to gain more experience but when you try to get some you are told you’re not qualified for the role. It’s an eternal battle and a vicious cycle – one that many students struggle to break. So which one should you be concentrating on?
I will always be a champion for the experience route, I may be an English Language and Communication and English Literature graduate, but I’ll be honest when I say that my degree has not really had much influence over where I have ended up. I loved studying for my degree because I was passionate about both subjects, and I would always argue that if you are passionate about something it is worth studying. But it is easy to think a degree will get you where you want to be when in actual fact they really won’t in many cases. While studying at university, I applied for work experience at national publication, More Magazine, where I spent two weeks working on the fashion desk, helping on photoshoots and so on… It wasn’t for me, but it gave me my first piece of worthwhile experience to add to my CV. Work experience at my local newspaper turned out to be the most valuable – after five days I had the front page and had been asked to write a weekly column. I also worked full time for a month with them (paid) before returning to university and was given a job upon graduating. Since graduating, I have also started writing for a festival news and reviews site, of which I was made the editor. It has not only given me great experience, but it looks fantastic on my CV and will help me in the future. Despite not being a fully-qualified journalist, I have worked in two journalistic roles since graduating three-four years ago all because of the experience I have gained. I know other fully qualified journalists who have put a lot of time into becoming qualified, but have been stuck with unpaid writing work or copy writing roles instead of journalism.
Of course, not everyone is trying to be a journalist. But this is something that will work in most professions – I have friends who work in retail, in marketing and advertising, in engineering and several who have become teachers. All of them have had to gain experience in their chosen fields before they were able to progress in their careers – it has just come in different forms. For one engineer, he was given experience and training as part of the course to become qualified for his role. For the retail worker, she started as a shop assistant and gained experience while working on the job, which allowed her to work her way up and become qualified as an office manager. All of the teachers had to gain experience of working in schools, mostly unpaid, alongside their PGSE studies so that they could finish their qualification. And those in marketing and advertising found their experience vital to gaining employment in bigger and better companies upon graduating – completing a placement year or few months while studying was a necessity. Of course, all of them also needed qualifications in one form or another, but their experience played a much larger part in their overall career path.
In many fields, experience can be impossible to gain without having some kind of qualification beforehand. Journalism can be a tricky one, particularly if you are applying for work experience before studying for an NCTJ, because there is so much competition. I was lucky that I was given the opportunity to do work experience at the newspaper because I was the first in over five years to do so, and I wasn’t even studying journalism! But I know of many student journalists who have struggled to get experience without already being enrolled on a journalism course. If you know that you want to study journalism, it is a good idea to just go for it and study for your NCTJ because some papers are unwilling to take on work experience students when they do not have skills like shorthand, or a knowledge of media law. Don’t do a journalism degree! I can’t stress this enough – I know so many journalists who have done a degree and then have had to pay to study for a NCTJ afterwards because they haven’t fulfilled all of the criteria. If you want to study a degree as well, why not do like I did and study English or another humanities subject you have an interest in? Just bear in mind it is important, particularly if you want to work for a newspaper or news site, to be qualified. But also bear in mind, that there are lost of people out there who are working as journalists and freelance writers who are unqualified. It is not necessary to have a NCTJ, but it is a helpful addition to your CV and skills.
Don’t feel like I am down on qualifications and how useful or important they are. I have always taken them very seriously, whether they were GCSE’s or final exams at university, and I always think it is worth working towards having an official document saying you can do something – even if you have known you can do it for ages before. It is an achievement for yourself, and it also proves to the world that you can do something. Being officially qualified puts you ahead of the pack, if two people go for an office manager job and one has completed a managing course and the other hasn’t – the employer will probably favour the one who has. When a potential employer is just looking at your CV, having an extra qualification on there can mean the difference between a new job and the dole. It can also mean a huge difference between the rate of pay – having an extra qualification can mean you are entitled to thousands more a year overall. It can also mean being paid significantly less than someone who is doing exactly the same job as you – soul destroying. I would always recommend trying to get a well-rounded CV packed with experience and qualifications – both will play a part in getting you where you want to be.
But which one is more important to you? For me it has to be experience – as much as I love and am proud of my degree, I have found my working experiences invaluable. My time spent working at the newspaper and the festivals site has changed what I want to do with my life and has given me the confidence, knowledge and skills to achieve that with or without the qualifications. I see them as an added bonus to my life, but not something that will hold me back or prevent me from achieving my career dreams. I know that it will be different for those working in different fields – but I would love to know about your experiences of different industries.
Do qualifications or experience mean more to you? Which has played a larger part in bringing you closer to your dream?