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Too late for a career change?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by anotherbucket4monsieur, Feb 5, 2011.

  1. I'm considering pursuing an MA in journalism and hoped I might be able to get some feedback here. I've searched through several old threads on this topic, but my situation is different than that of other posters, so I thought I'd solicit some advice. I'm 38, and have an undergrad degree in business, with no previous coursework in journalism. I started doing some freelance work, mostly sports features for newspapers, about 1.5 years ago after spending the previous 15 years working in sales and then various government jobs overseas. I had no real expectations when I entered the field, but have been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the work- when I can get it, that is.

    I've been able to sell feature stories to some major newspapers and some smaller magazines and sites, but I'm not close to earning enough money to pay the bills. I knew I'd need to make a major step back financially to transition to a career in journalism, and luckily, I do have some savings to fall back on. I think I have a nice collection of clips, but I've had absolutely no luck in landing even a single interview for a sports reporter gig. I've sent my clips to veterans in the business and was told that my lack of success might be attributable to that fact that I've only done freelance work, or that potential employers perceive me as too old/experienced to accept a low-paying, entry level job.

    I know that making a career change during a recession into a low-paying field is never going to be easy, but I'm wondering if, at age 38, it makes sense to: A) get a graduate degree in journalism from the best school I can get into, B) give freelancing more time to see if I can build a sustainable career, or C) pack it in. I'd love to try both A & B simultaneously, but I'm terrified of spending two years working on an MA, and then find myself in the same place I'm in now: looking for jobs and not finding any. I've had offers to go back into government work, but the idea of sitting in a cube for 40-50 hours per week staring at a computer screen, fretting over mind numbingly dull crap is just too much to bear.

    I know that it's hard to offer advice without seeing examples of my work- but please assume, for the sake of argument, that my clips are very solid and that I can afford to get the degree. I very much appreciate your input. Thanks!
  2. OK, I've finally stopped cringing and laughing enough to offer a one-word piece of advice:

    All right, let me expand on that.

    Please don't mistake the laughter or cringing as being directed at you. It's in horror for what could happen to anyone trying to either enter or hang on in this business at this point. You sound earnest, intelligent and responsible -- which is why you don't deserve any major part of this business as a full-fledged career right now.
    Read any one of a ton of threads on here to see exactly why, but the most recent on the Gannett columnist offers a strong one.

    I'm also amused because apparently the grass is always greener. So many of us long for more stable pay and hours, others, such as yourself are tired of the cubicle. We trade places and wonder if it's the right call.

    Here's my suggestion though.
    Try to see if you can tolerate what you were doing if you can make a living at it. One thing I've learned in my time away from journalism is that your work doesn't have to define you. It can just be a job and you use the rest of your day to show who you are and live your life. For more fulfillment, you can still freelance during part of that time.

    If you really are still determined, then go for it. But just keep in mind, you're also competing against folks your age facing the same challenges, only with a ton of experience. Not saying you can't show enough talent to overcome that. But even if you do, the reward will most likely be a tenuous position for crumbs.

    Sad, but all too likely true.

    (Also: A definite no on the Masters. That wouldn't help you get a job. It's just not considered as important in this field as it is in others, unless there's places I'm unaware of that give it more value.)
  3. The Big Ragu

    The Big Ragu Moderator Staff Member

    My 2 cents. The masters in journalism is a relatively worthless degree, particularly in this environment. The reason you're not coming close enough to paying the bills freelancing is that lots of freelancers are not coming close to paying the bills. Far more than used to. Budgets aren't there and there are fewer outlets than there were 10 or 15 years ago.

    As for the jobs you're trying to get, your clips will do way more for you than a masters in journalism is going to. I'd bet the lack of experience and the fact that you are relatively old, experienced (but in other things) to start at an entry level journalism job, is causing exactly what those people told you. But I don't see how a masters fixes that, really. By then you're even older and still without the experience.

    That's not to be a total bummer about it. And not even to discourage you, if this is the thing you love. But you need to face a few facts if you want to pursue it seriously. This is a very tough environment, and there is a changing landscape in journalism. A lot of newspapers have been financially hurting. Circulation is way down. Fewer people subscribe to newspapers every day. And that means advertising is also down, including classifieds, which was once the life bread of newspapers. It's craigslist now, not the local paper, for most people.

    All of that has meant massive layoffs. So you, 38 and inexperienced, are trying to grab a job, in a field in which 1) jobs are scarce, and 2) the market has recently been flooded by even more experienced people than you, who have been laid off.

    That is the main reason you are having problems. And a masters degree is worthless enough, where it isn't going to solve those problems for you. It's not the kind of degree that has ever hurt anyone in the long run. But it has never been a necessity for anyone in journalism, and given the typical cost, I can't see how it really pays for itself down the line in advancement or job opportunities or salary. Being able to report or write -- what you do once you have your foot in the door -- matters way more. And that isn't mattering anymore for a lot of people who can report and write or edit REALLY well. And for what jobs are out there, actual experience matters.

    I know I was just a real bummer. But that is the reality. If you really love it, really need to be a part of it, I'd suggest doing one of two things, or both: If you have the patience and the drive, find a job that pays the bills, and keep freelancing on the side and be really persistent in trying to find that job. Work hard at it, and MAYBE if you are lucky, you'll find that one guy who is impressed by one or two of your clips and understands from your resume that you have a lot of experience in something else and were late to find your calling. Maybe he's attracted by the fact that you have some seasoning but are willing to take the small salary. It could happen; it very well might not. In fact, I would be a little surprised. There are plenty of good people out there with a lot of experience who can't find jobs in the field.

    So consequently, you can try a variation of what I have done, and carve out a career that is close to journalism, but for which there is more demand. If you love writing that much, it might be a PR job. I know, maybe not what you dream of in a Hemingwayesque way, but it's just pragmatic and really, a lot of former journalists who go that way, realize there was nothing very Heminwayesque about their former lives, when they look back. Or if not PR -- because you will have to spin your former experience a lot for that too -- keep freelancing but try to expand to other types of writing, some which might pay fairly well. Do your former jobs lend themselves to any kind of technical writing, or advertising writing of some sort? Could you learn some design skills and try to do some custom-publishing/desktop publishing of some sort -- find small clients who want to do small online or print newsletters? There are still some of those, who use those as education or sales vehicles. Learning graphic design, even if it is self taught, will take some time. But I think it would give you more to sell than a masters degree does anymore.

    That doesn't appeal to a lot of people who had the journalism bug, but some of what I do is custom-publishing work, and maybe it's not something you wake up one day and decide to do and become successful at immediately, but there is a market there and once you find some niche and some clients, you can end up doing pretty big publications (as well as some not-very-fun work that still pays pretty well), and earn decent money at it. Even there, though, you have to be adaptable. My love was print, and out of everything, the thing I love most is creating print publications and mailing them. There is less and less of that work, which meant adapting and doing more online publications. We're even doing something for the iPad now. I don't want to make a total sales pitch for that sort of work, because it's not for everyone, and even this is a fairly competitive field. But one thing that does appeal to me is the variety (I do a mix of sports and financial services work) and having to be on my toes to adapt to changing landscapes.

    I know that was a lot. So the short advice. Skip the masters. Save your money. It won't get you where you want.
  4. rpmmutant

    rpmmutant Member

    I am near the end of the going to back to school route while freelancing in journalism. It's not easy. Throw in a wife and two kids and it makes it even tougher.
    If you decide to go back to school and make any sort of decent living freelancing, you will have no time for anything else. If you're not working on a story, you are looking for work. If you're not doing homework, you are going to class. You will be lucky to get 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. Say good-bye to your friends and family. You won't see them until you finish your degree and find some sort of stable employment.
    That said, the freelance market is tough. It took me three years to build up some decent and regular assignments. I live in a pretty demanding market, so the assignments come a little easier for me. I also worked in newspapers for 20 years before I decided to change careers. Having those connections helped land a lot of freelance assignments.
    If you're lucky enough to find a newspaper that is hiring, a master's degree won't help you land the job. A willingness to work for $11 an hour and not expecting overtime, working weekends and holidays, through nights and snowstorms and earthquakes, will.
  5. murphyc

    murphyc Well-Known Member

    The Big Ragu, that was an excellent post.
    The key thing is experience and connections are far more important in journalism than a degree. In other fields it is different. I'm sure business field is the opposite. If my brother's an indication, so is teaching. A few years ago he wanted to make the jump from teaching band at the high school level to the college level. He saw a number of teaching friends with plenty of solid experience get passed over for college conductor jobs in favor of people with PhD's but no experience. So he got his PhD (no easy thing, with a wife and three young children) and has now been conducting at the college level for three years.
    He finished his PhD at the age of 35. I don't think the issue is whether 38 is too late to make a change. You probably have about 25 working years left, give or take a few. I'm 33 and starting to look at what other options might be out there. I bragged for years to family how I only needed a bachelor's degree (graduating a semester early at that) and didn't need anything else.
    My bro and dad both got PhDs, while my wife and mom both quit while going for PhDs. That's a lot to do, especially after you're no longer single. I figured I would never have to worry about going back to school and if I stay in journalism I won't have to. But if I go into a different field, more school (or at least classes/training) could well be required.
  6. Mike Nadel

    Mike Nadel Member

    Never too late for one to reinvent oneself. But it is too late to do so hoping to get into this field.

    Don't get a masters unless you hope to teach, and even then probably not. And really, do try to find something else that can make you happy in life. In this business, there is no there there.

    I can not look a single person in the eye -- be it someone like you or an 18-year-old thinking about majoring in journalism -- and recommend it as a career move.

    There. You asked for honest input. You got honest input. Do with it what you will.
  7. dkphxf

    dkphxf Member

    If you want to teach journalism, not only will you need a master's degree, but you'll also need your doctorate. At least if you want to teach at a high-end institution with decent paychecks. I don't know why you'd suggest someone not get his/her master's/doctorate if he/she wants to teach. Seems just silly.

    A master's degree in journalism has provided me more learning opportunities and put a good name on my resume/cover letter. Some people say resumes don't matter; that's wrong. I've had several interviews where several facets of my education and previous experience was mentioned. Every little bit counts.

    And if the journalism part doesn't work, you could move on, get your doctorate and teach.
  8. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    I have a Masters in Journalism. I can't even substitute teach in the state where I live. If it was softer, I'd wipe my ass with it.

    I have a job that I love, but DO NOT go to school for anything in the journalism field at your age. You tell people you have a degree in journalism and they look at you like you said, "And I passed the GED on my third try.."
  9. Azrael

    Azrael Active Member

    Never too late for a career change. But a graduate journalism degree has almost no value.

    If you can write, write. If you can't, a $60,000 piece of sheepskin won't help.
  10. Thanks for the input, gents. I suppose the allure of grad school is that I want to do something tangible to improve my career prospects, but if the degree isn’t going to do that, then there is no point. Oscar, I take your point about the grass always being greener, and I know that everyone’s cautionary advice is well founded. That said, if you go on a message board for many other career fields- you’ll also find plenty of people bitching and telling others to steer clear. For most of us, earning living is a pain in the ass, no matter how you slice it. I’m one of those people that has a hard time sitting still in a desk all day looking at a computer- so that rules out a lot of career fields for me. I’m not saying I can’t do it- I just can’t do the sedentary thing all day long, Monday-Friday.

    Ragu, thanks for your thoughtful reply and your time. I have applied for some PR jobs, but with no formal PR experience and with the job market as it is, I’ve had no luck on that front either. I thought that my former jobs might lead to some technical writing gigs, and they have- but not to the degree that I thought they might. But I’m definitely not limiting myself to sports. The thing is, though, all my best clips are sports features, so I’ve found it very hard to sell story ideas on other topics. For example, when I try to pitch travel-related stories, I’m sending sports clips and getting no responses. I guess once you’re boxed into one field, it can be hard to expand.

    RPM, I neglected to mention that I too have a wife and two kids, which does indeed complicate matters. This is where Oscar’s point about not letting work “define” me doesn’t quite square with my reality. Nights and weekends barely exist when you have a full time job, a commute, and a 1 and a 3 year old at home. Suffering through a shit job in the hopes of pursuing your real passions in your spare time is tough when you have virtually no free time. In some of the other countries I’ve lived in, work doesn’t define people- but that’s because they take 4-6 weeks off per year and have a 35 hour work week. In this country, people do tend to judge you based upon your occupation.

    Again, thanks for the honest advice. I think I’ll put thoughts of grad school on the back burner for now. Trying to shift career focus at this age and during a recession is a losing proposition, but I need to find some way to make a living that is at least tolerable. If anyone has time to have a look at my clips and offer feedback, please PM me. Thanks again.
  11. SF_Express

    SF_Express Active Member

    Agreed on the relative lack of worth of a master's, certainly in journalism.

    Computer science maybe. Or business.

    I have to say this, and I agree with all those who say you seem smart, earnest, sincere, and you're getting some clips and experience.

    I'm getting more and more inquiries from people who haven't worked in this business, but they love sports, and they've written a few things on Facebook or whatever, and would I take a look. And they "just want to write about my passion, football" and things like that. And they're bolstered, I think, by the success of some of our bloggers, a few of whom have turned out really well while coming seemingly out of left field. But every one has brought a lot to the table. Most of the people who approach me cold simply aren't very good. And it's not that they couldn't be, but based on the early efforts they show me, I have no idea.

    That you've sold some things to papers and magazines is certainly encouraging, well beyond a Facebook post on "that great Jets game last night!" But understand this: You'll be in the mix with: A) out-of-work veterans; B) cheap but pretty talented young people, still full of piss and vinegar and willing to work endlessly to make an impression and C) all of the people who want to "write about sports, my passion," almost none of whom are going to make this into a career.

    So I'm not trying to discourage you, I'm simply telling you that nothing is impossible, but breaking into this business full time, regardless of your age, is really, really tough -- and another possible outlet, FanHouse, is going away, by the way.
  12. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    I think that the OP's interest in doing this as a career seems very mature and clear-eyed, compared to the kind of inquires SF_Express gets.

    OP, I understand the desire to gild the resume, because no matter what someone tells you, blue-ribbon credentials do matter in this business. It is shorthand, just as it is in any other business, that managers will consider in the hiring process, whether consciously or subconsciously. This is particularly true at the profession's highest levels. For example, look at the Pulitzer winners. A great many of them have masters degrees of some sort, often from Columbia University. If I were 23 or 24 years old and dedicated to giving this a go, I would apply to Columbia (but no others).

    All of that being said, at your age, the time hammering out that degree would be much better spent trying to bust down freelance doors and continuing to build up clips and learn about the craft of writing and reporting on your own.

    Maybe try to write a book? That gives you a nice credential, comparable to a fancy degree, but you can actually make money on it rather than spending money.
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