Recent Journalism Grad: Dealing with ‘The Question’ & the Journalism Unemployment Myth

During the last academic year, Indiana University senior journalism student Sarah Hutchins dreaded what she called The Question, capital T, capital Q.

“The conversations always start the same,” Hutchins wrote a month before commencement for The Indiana Daily Student’s quarterly magazine Inside.  “‘So, what are you doing after graduation?‘  I’ve been asked by family, friends, old high school acquaintances I mistakenly friended on Facebook and never deleted.  Even my dentist broached the subject over winter break.  As she slowly reclined my chair, and I gazed into the light, I thought about how I would answer The Question.”

She said others’ expectations centered on her having a firm plan, preferably involving an impressive starter job or grad school pursuit.  And so she sensed disappointment when she repeatedly answered The Question with a mix of “heavy sighs and visible anxiety” and the three-word fallback, “I don’t know.”

Months later, now on the other side of a degree, Hutchins is more confident that the best plan of attack is figuring out what’s right for you regardless of peer pressure and to be open to a running start that begins off the beaten career path.  In her case, the path has been an extended post-grad internship and the realization that journalism jobs still exist en masse.

In the Q&A below, Hutchins offers advice for the current crop of j-students and pokes holes in what she calls “the unemployment myth” surrounding the journalism profession.

Sarah Hutchins graduated from Indiana University in the spring. She is currently completing an extended post-grad internship at The Virginian-Pilot.

Now that you’ve graduated, has The Question you get most often changed?

The actual question varies, but the intent is the same. “So, what are you doing after graduation?” has changed to “So, what are you doing after your internship?” Sometimes people ask me if I’ve started applying for jobs, which also gets at the heart of The Question– why are you still unemployed?  The good news is that my answers have changed a little.

After I graduated, I moved to Virginia for a 12-week reporting internship at The Virginian-Pilot.  I applied and interviewed for jobs while I was interning.  I even had a few job offers.  Then the Pilot extended my internship and I temporarily stopped looking for work.  I also have a timeline for starting the job application process again. While I still don’t have a clear answer to The Question, I do have a plan.  After going through the job search process a few months ago, I have a better idea of what I’m looking for in a first job.  I also picked up on some of the sacrifices I’ll have to make to get it.

What does life and the j-profession look like on the other side of the degree?  Is there anything you would do differently if given a second go-round at senior year?

I only looked at internships when I was getting ready to graduate.  It’s a decision that makes perfect sense to me, but I’ve actually been asked to justify it in job interviews.  I’m on my fourth internship now, and this seems to baffle some employers.  Here’s what I tell them: I didn’t want to waste any time not reporting. I’ve watched friends graduate from college without a job and spend entire summers sending out job applications.  If I took a post-grad internship, I could continue to develop my skills while I apply for full-time positions.  I have also been able to fill some of the holes in my experience, making me a better job candidate.  Post-grad internship shouldn’t be considered a backup plan.  With the job market as difficult as it is, internships are a good way to gain valuable experience and contacts.  Looking back, I’m still happy with the decision I made to take an internship after graduation.

What’s your advice for this year’s graduating j-class?

Challenge yourself to produce great work before you graduate.  Take risks and push yourself.  One of my best clips came out of a project I did in college, and it’s something I wouldn’t have had a chance to do at an internship.  On a similar note, make sure you graduate with a well-rounded portfolio.  Be able to write a web brief, a succinct news story, a killer profile, and a thoughtful in-depth article.  It’s OK to specialize in one area, but make sure employers see that you can tackle anything. As newsrooms continue to cut employees, companies are asking people to do more with less.  Prove to them that you will be a valuable part of the team.

What is the unemployment myth and how should students go about dismantling it?

There are so many myths.  I can’t count the number of people I met in journalism school who told me there were no jobs in journalism.  At internships, people I worked with told me to reconsider going into this industry.  When I said I was sticking with it, they told me to use my degree for PR.  I just refuse to give up. It’s true that the industry is changing.  People are getting laid off and, as a result, everyone is asked to do more (usually for less pay).  I understand why some people would find that discouraging.  However, it’s just not true that there aren’t jobs. Take a look at journalismjobs.com and you’ll see plenty of positions for beginning reporters at small papers.  We might not all be able to start at large metro papers, but that’s OK.  If you’re in journalism for the right reasons– helping people, serving as a check on the government, telling compelling stories– than it shouldn’t really matter where you start.

Here’s the reality I see: There are less jobs in journalism than there were before, but there are still places to get your foot in the door.  Media organizations today are asking more of employees than ever before.  However, recent j-school graduates have likely been trained to handle these competing demands.  Remember why you love this business and make sure that shines through in everything you do.  And, if people tell you to go into PR, feel free to use my standard response: You can go into PR and I’ll happily take your job.

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