Journalism Students Can Dream Big, But Keep Realistic Career Goals in Mind


As a journalism professor I see lots of students who have big dreams. They imagine themselves working in glamorous jobs, usually in television, in the not-too distant future. They want to be ESPN anchors, host their own talk shows or be marquee columnists for top newspapers or websites.

That’s fine. I never discourage my students from dreaming big. But too often these big dreamers lack three key elements in their thinking:

1) an understanding of the hard work and sacrifice that’s required to achieve such goals

2) a realistic assessment of what kinds of career goals are actually attainable

3) a sense of how important what they do now is in reaching their goals

For example, not long ago I was chatting with a young woman in my class who told me she dreamed of becoming the next Oprah Winfrey. She seemed absolutely serious and apparently didn’t notice the look of mild shock that spread across my face when she told me this.

The problem was, this student was doing poorly in my class and didn’t seem very interested in improving. Because of this she didn’t strike me as a particularly hard worker, or as someone brimming over with drive and motivation.

And yet she dreamed of following in the footsteps of one of the most powerful media figures in history. Clearly she hadn’t read anything about Winfrey’s humble beginnings working for local TV news and talk shows before making her way into the big time.

Now, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to claim that doing poorly in a college journalism course automatically means someone won’t be successful in life.

But as someone who believes that actions speak louder than words, I’m pretty confident that I had a window into the personality of this student, one who had big dreams but wasn’t prepared to back them up. This young woman lacked an awareness of the three elements I listed above.

Here’s another example. Recently a young man in my reporting class told me he wanted to become host of an ESPN show in which he would interview coaches and athletes.

That’s great, I said. I told him he could get valuable experience by interviewing coaches and players and writing stories for the student newspaper about the sports teams at our college.

But week after week passed and the only stories he did were ones regurgitating information he found on the Internet about the local professional sports teams. Apparently doing an actual interview with a real human being was too intimidating or troublesome a prospect for this student.

Of course, this student may yet go on to have a successful career. But in my class at least, he demonstrated that while he dreamed of having a high-profile job interviewing people, he had no appetite for doing so in the real world.

Students like these only see successful people at the height of their success. They don’t see, or imagine, what it took for them to reach the mountaintop.

Such information isn’t hard to find. A quick search of the ESPN website turns up bios for many of the people who work there. For instance, a glance at the bio for ESPN interviewer Jonathan Coachman shows that he got a degree in communications from McPherson College and worked at several local TV stations before moving to the MSG network and eventually ESPN.

Coachman began his career in decidedly unglamorous places like Wichita, Kansas, before breaking into the big leagues. He did what virtually everyone who becomes successful in journalism or the news media does – he worked his way up.

Of the three elements I listed above, probably the one I find most frustrating is the third. Students need to understand that their career doesn’t magically begin at some indeterminate point in the future. It begins now, this day, this minute.

Successful students understand this. They do well in my classes, get involved with the student newspaper and work their way into internships. That in turn leads to good jobs and successful careers. Hard work produces positive results. Success breeds success.

But other students fail to see the connection between what they do in college and their ultimate career. The student who wanted to work for ESPN could have gotten valuable experience interviewing athletes and writing stories, skills that would have prepared him for internships and entry-level jobs covering sports. Instead he frittered away the semester doing little or nothing, wasting his time (and mine) and throwing away a valuable opportunity.

Here’s the takeaway: if you want to model your career after a successful journalist or media figure, do a little research and find out how they got where they are. Also, understand that while you might not become rich and famous, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an exciting and satisfying career.

Most importantly, understand that your first step on the career ladder must be taken now, and that what you do in school will directly prepare you for what comes next.

Now get to work.

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