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How to get the most out of your Journalism degree

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Published: 18 April 2019

The University of Sunderland’s School of Media and Communications has a range of opportunities and an experienced academic team to help our journalism graduates stand out in a competitive sector. We spoke to Carole Watson (Programme Leader for Fashion Journalism), John Price (Programme Leader for Sports Journalism) and Alistair Robinson (Programme Leader for Journalism) to find out what students can do to best prepare for a career in journalism after graduation.

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The importance of your portfolio

A journalist should have a range of skills, such as being able to work under pressure and to tight deadlines, as well as being able to conduct thorough research on a range of topics. They also need to showcase their work, so having a strong portfolio is a must.

Carole says: "Employers want to see several things. They want to see that you have a good degree, that you’ve got your NCTJ qualifications, if you’ve been on placements, if you are professional and confident in the workplace, and they’ll want to see examples of your work. For fashion journalists, that would be catwalk or trend reports. For sports journalists, it would be match reports so they can see what your writing is like and videos or podcasts so they can see what digital skills you’ve got."

"Students also do a final project where they create a website, magazine or series of articles and that can often be really useful in getting a job as well. Many of our graduates have found work partly because of that project.

"We had a student last year who now has a fantastic job at JPIMedia; he recently won the NCTJ Trainee Sports Journalist of the Year award and it was largely based on articles he had written for his final project," John adds.

NCTJ Diploma

When recruiting, editors look for the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) level 3 Diploma in Journalism, but they also value graduates of NCTJ accredited courses.

"It’s still very important for students to get the NCTJ Diploma or study an accredited course. From the 2018 BA (Hons) Sports Journalism cohort, three of our best students now have jobs at the Sunderland Echo sports desk; all three of them graduated with the NCTJ Diploma.

"Employers will tell you that this is one of the crucial factors in getting a job. Sky Sports News insist that students come from an NCTJ accredited course, and have skills like shorthand and knowledge of media law. It’s still absolutely crucial," John believes.

Carole says: "Most editors have NCTJ qualifications so they just assume that’s the gold standard. If I have a pile of people applying for jobs, it’s an easy way to make a shortlist. Take out people who don’t have driving licences, who don’t have the NCTJ Diploma and then drill down into how good they are as a journalist."

Making contacts is everything

Having an extensive contacts list be hugely beneficial to your career.

"Contacts are everything. When you go on placements you meet people and hopefully find out about upcoming opportunities. In fashion, there are a lot of women in the industry and you get tipped off when they are pregnant or going on maternity leave. There might be an opportunity there, so knowing who is who and where the jobs are is really important.

"Students want to do interviews on Twitter or email but we push them to meet people and be professional because you get better interviews and make good contacts that way. People want to give you a job because you make them or their magazine or newspaper look good and sell more copies. You do that by having good stories and you get good stories by having good contacts. It’s just journalism 101 really. The better contacts you have, the better stories you get and the better journalist you will be," Carole says.

John adds: "Connor Bromley (MA Sports Journalism graduate, now working as Video and Visual Content Manager at Sunderland AFC) is a good example. He gained a huge amount of experience through his work for Roker Report and also made contacts with new Sunderland AFC Chairman Stewart Donald and Executive Director Charlie Methven.

"They essentially went to Connor rather than a lot of other journalists in the North East. Having access to these contacts made him very valuable to other organisations and other journalists. That’s one of the reasons he has such a good job in SAFC. It’s one of the most important things to develop. It’s one of the hardest things as well."

Generally, I’m very optimistic about employment prospects for our journalism graduates. If you do the right things on your course like doing your placement, portfolio and NCTJ Diploma, you will get a job in journalism.”

John Price
Programme Leader for BA (Hons) Sports Journalism

New vs. old

The modern journalist needs to be tech and social media savvy, but also have traditional skills like shorthand.

Alistair says: "Two of our BA (Hons) Sports Journalism graduates were employed at JPIMedia specifically for their extraordinary range of digital skills, skills that traditional journalists don’t always have. That’s one of the great things about our journalism graduates. We’re teaching them these skills and there’s a generation of journalists out there who don’t have them.

"Shorthand is still an essential skill, certainly within a large part of journalism. Transcribing interviews is a pain in the neck and you get a lot of information you don’t need really. Shorthand is a quick way of getting information.

"A couple of years ago, two of our BA Journalism graduates got jobs on a weekly paper in the Scottish borders. Shorthand is really important for their job. They cover local football and county shows, council meetings and court cases, quickly turning around copy which requires shorthand and knowledge of public affairs and law, which we also teach.

“But we’ve also had BA Journalism graduates go to work on national newspapers and in television – and traditional skills such as shorthand are crucial to their job as well.”

"There are also careers that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago, in which digital skills are a fundamental part of the job, like social media managers. Understanding how to use social media and video is crucial to get these jobs. In a way, our students have an advantage because they are on such a topical and contemporary course," John says.

Carole adds: "If you are ever sued for libel or privacy, courts will accept your notes, but they won’t accept tape recordings so you need a good shorthand note now. It’s hard. No one found it easy, but we ask for it for a reason."

"We can often tell who’s going to get a good job"

When you get a job interview to be a journalist, expect it to be different compared to other jobs.

"It’s a different kind of job. Not a lot is achieved by sitting opposite someone in an interview and telling them what your hobbies are for 10 minutes or going through HR ticklists. They are trying to work out your personality and passions, and want to see your portfolio. Quite often I would insist on a trial. You want to test people out and check if they are a people person, if they are interested in other people which is really important.

"We can often tell who’s going to get a good job and it’s nothing to do with their grades. It’s an attitude. It’s all about a 'can-do' attitude. Once, we had a Fashion Journalism student who, while on placement at InStyle magazine, stayed all night to find a lost pair of shoes that would have cost £10,000 to replace. The Editor was so impressed she gave her a present at the end of the placement. 

"It’s all about saying ‘yes’ and I can do this rather than moaning or looking at your watch saying it’s home time. A lot of that counts for employers, it makes you stand out above everyone else. Attitude was everything to me when I used to hire," Carole explains.

"Journalists have a power to entertain, inform, make people laugh, cry or angry"

Carole sums up why you should pursue a career in journalism:

"Come and study at the University of Sunderland because we have great undergraduate and postgraduate courses. It’s the greatest job in the world. You meet the most interesting people and no day is the same. You have fun, can change things and have influence and power, can entertain, inform, make people laugh, cry or angry. Journalists are interesting and fun people to hang out with as well."

At Sunderland, our Journalism and PR courses are designed to help you to hone your practical skills, with lots of opportunities to network and build contacts with regional and national industry experts.

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