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?
When it comes to university, I will never write anyone off. Even those who are the least academic people around can find a perfect course for them, perhaps with more practical work, and can find it a fantastic experience. The big question is whether it is in fact a truly valuable experience for the individual, and while I think the life experience you gain is immeasurable, often the money and time involved can mean the experience is worth somewhat less in the long run. For me, university was something I had been set on from a young age. Not because of my education, family or upbringing, but because I wanted to study, I loved to learn and I needed a degree in order to achieve my life goals. Plus I really wanted the experience, I wanted to get away from my town, I wanted to move out and look after myself, to gain independence. This was the perfect opportunity and I know that many who are currently looking, researching and making final choices will feel the same.
What I want to do is to make you aware that university is not a doddle, it is hard work for a minimum of three years of living away from home, working while studying and surviving on meagre loans and it can be lonely at times. But at the same time, you will meet the best friends, have the most bizarre experiences and finally have a chance to follow and indulge your true passions. So many people I know are preparing to sit their exams and are trying to make huge decisions about the next three years of their life and where they want to spend it. For me, I was lucky and this was easy - I walked on the campus and instantly fell in love with it. When I read about the courses and met the professors it only further cemented my decision and I am so glad I stuck with it despite my university asking for the lowest number of UCAS points out of each of my offers.
There is a lot to think about when making your decision and it is easy to be blinded by the thought of parties, living in a city, and studying with or following your friends. By writing this, I hope to give prospective university students into the slightly less exciting and fun sides of university just to try and balance out all the amazing fun you will be hearing about. Don't by any means take this as a negative view of university because it really was the best three years of my life so far and I would encourage anyone to take the opportunity, I just think it is important to make an informed decision. Here's what happens when things aren't all sunshine and roses at university:
Don't let this put you off - university is amazing. It is so much fun and really does help set you up for life if you make the most of it and grab every opportunity. Just be prepared and aware that it isn't sunshine and smiles 24/7, and that sometimes you might be homesick and lonely but that is okay. It isn't right for everyone, but it could also be the best thing you ever do, and it certainly whizzes by in no time at all. I have a friend who studied abroad for a year, left behind her university friends and made a whole load of new ones. She is now travelling the world and staying with all of her international friends along the way. If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will! Of course, I would never argue that university is the only option and I know that for many it isn't, but having the opportunity is amazing and making that decision over what is the right choice for you, is one of the biggest decisions of your life at 18.
What was your best university experience? Planning to go, what are you most worried about?