Masters vs Short Course
No matter what your peers, recruiters, or old-time hacks say, there is no one way to get into journalism. Journalism is a fast-changing industry, particularly in the digital age, and newsrooms are constantly having to adapt their training and expectations of early-career journalists. This list should give you a sense of the pros and cons of some of the options available, but by no means the only ones.
Journalism as a degree can be studied at undergraduate or postgraduate level. On a 3 or 4-year BA course, you’ll have more time to try out different types of storytelling, from documentary-making to social media journalism. An undergraduate degree is of course expensive, but if you’re eligible for student finance, you can get loans for tuition fees and maintenance costs. Most people decide what to apply for at university aged 17 or 18 - pretty young to know that you want to be a journalist!
One of the other common routes is to do a master’s course in journalism after your main degree, when you’ve had time to figure out what you want and even write for the student paper. These courses are usually a year-long full-time, or can be done part-time, and pack in a lot of content. You should expect 9-5 training from ex-journos and editors from local and national newspapers. There’s a wide-range of specialist courses, as well, from investigative to broadcast journalism.
Many masters courses are NCTJ-accredited, which means you’ll receive an industry-recognised qualification (read more about that below) alongside a university degree. Journalism schools at universities often have great connections with local press, and help to arrange internships as part of the course or connect outgoing students with media recruiters.
But, masters courses are expensive, often in excess of £11,000. The government loan doesn’t always cover the full amount, and you’ll be expected to fund your own maintenance costs. This is a major barrier for many. And, despite coming out with an impressive qualifications and industry connections, you'll still find yourself vying for the same jobs as people without the degree. What employers care about most is experience, bylines, and student media experience.
NCTJ Short Course
An NCTJ diploma is the industry-standard qualification for journalists, and covers skills from shorthand to mobile journalism. Quite a few job adverts ask for candidates with an NCTJ qualification, particularly local papers which require shorthand for covering court cases and council meetings. However, this requirement is becoming less common, as most journalism has shifted online and reporters rely more heavily on automatic transcription softwares.
Like the masters, a fast-track NCTJ course is intense, hands-on, and exciting. The difference lies more in the time-scale and cost. An NCTJ is usually 28-weeks long and costs more in the range of £5,000. As it is not a university course, you can’t get a typical student loan for this. However, there are many grants and bursaries available, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (the Journalism Diversity Fund is a prime example). You’ll still get industry connections and advice on job applications, but the course is faster and gives you slightly less room to explore your different interests.
Distance-learning is a cheaper option to achieve an NCTJ diploma and allows you to set your own pace. This is a great alternative for those who can’t fork out the high course of fast-track courses or who have other job commitments. On the flipside, you’ll need to be disciplined and motivated to power through the training on your own.
On the job!
While masters degrees and NCTJ courses will equip you with the basic skills of a modern working journalist, they’ll never be able to replicate the experience of a real-life newsroom. It’s totally possible to get a job in the industry without a qualification, as long as you demonstrate commitment to the career in other ways, e.g. by freelancing, writing a blog, or even creating newsy TikTok videos. Employers understand that not everyone can afford to do a course. Don’t be put off by job descriptions asking for one of these qualifications - it’s still worth applying and demonstrating that you have equivalent experience.
These days, there are apprenticeships, fellowships (longer internships), and training schemes that provide on-the-job training. The perks? You’ll be earning a salary, networking with colleagues, and racking up bylines. Of course, these programs are competitive - but so is every opportunity in the industry! Alternatively, look for entry-level journalism positions at smaller organisations which care more about your drive and talent than any qualifications. Finally, consider a job in an adjacent industry (or even something totally different) that gives you transferable skills and allows you to build your portfolio on the side.