How to make the most of a postgraduate journalism course

(Originally published on Guardian Careers)

Last September I defiantly enrolled on a year-long journalism postgraduate course. Editors on placements warned me there were no jobs in journalism. Careers advisors told me to try PR – I did and hated it. Yet I chose to ignore them and can now say I have few regrets.

The course has generally been a positive experience, though some parts have been more enjoyable than others. There is a tremendous focus on passing numerous externally-assessed National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) exams. While these are useful in preparing us for entry level positions in local journalism, they can feel quite rigid and suffocating. Other aspects of the course, where we have been encouraged to come up with our own ideas for feature articles and pursue our own interests, have been more inspiring.

But while a journalism diploma may have provided us with a good grounding in the basics – finding stories, writing news and feature articles – it is only through work experience and extra-curricular pursuits that those skills are put into practice. Our course leaders guaranteed everyone placements on at least one local paper, but those who stand out are invariably the ones who also find their own opportunities.

When I first began looking for work experience two years ago, it was a case of simply sending off speculative emails to every magazine and newspaper I could think of. Initially I got very few responses but after a while I secured two internships with a local newspaper and a regional magazine. Since starting the course I have generally found this easier as some editors will only consider students or graduates for work experience.

As well as email and social media, it's important to make use of any friends and family members who might have contacts in the media. Before I started my course I was fortunate enough to get in touch with the Guardian's prison correspondent, Eric Allison, through a friend. Since then I have worked with him regularly, visiting prisons and interviewing people with incredible life stories, and have gained a fascinating insight into the practice of investigative journalism.

Whenever I have a spare moment I also email editors and journalists covering areas that interest me – either to seek their advice or to pitch an article idea. I have regularly been surprised by how helpful they are; on some occasions I have even secured freelancing opportunities. Throughout the year I have pitched my articles to newspapers and magazines and have been paid for a published pieces.
Some of the best advice I was given was to widen my job search by considering working abroad. One of my course mates is working for a media organisation in France, and in September I will be traveling to Chile to work for a newspaper and pitch stories to publications back home.

In short, do not expect a postgraduate course to be the golden ticket to your first job in journalism as some course pamphlets might have you believe. On the other hand, coupled with stern perseverance, it might just inspire you to force your way into the industry by getting yourself heard and forging your own unique journalistic brand.