Advice for alternate pathways in journalism: re-entering the workforce after taking a break; transitioning to college teaching

Jerz > Writing > Journalism
A colleague put me in touch with an award-winning TV journalist who took some time off for eldercare, and is now having a rough time re-entering the profession. 

I reached out to my former student who’s now a TV news producer in Houston, Amanda Cochran, who was our first “Online Editor” around 2004, worked her way up to “Editor-in-Chief, went to grad school at NYU, and is now “Specialty Content Senior Editor” at KPRC-Houston. Here’s her advice: 

Be open to moving. Work your way from a small market to a large one. Get an agent and update your reel. Be open to MMJ and digital work (without a photographer). Look at PR jobs with media opportunities. If nothing pans out from that, start working and then shopping your pieces around. Someone will buy them piecemeal. You can shoot with an iPhone and a tripod on your own. 

Amanda also said she’s always looking to buy stories with a Texas angle.

I’m not sure I can improve on that advice, since I am not a working journalist. (I had two undergraduate internships and a summer job working for a radio news station in the 1980s; I loved it, but went into grad school for English literature instead.)  

The journalist who reached out to me asked about teaching at the college level.
Seton Hill hired me because they wanted a generalist who could teach literature, college writing and new media, in addition to journalism. I don’t have any professional or personal connections to the local TV news market. This fall I’ll be starting my 25th year as a college faculty member, and my 20th year at my current school.

So I can really only speak to the job I know — for what it’s worth.

A college usually requires undergraduate instructors to have at least a master’s degree. Sometimes experience in a profession is enough for part-time instructors, hired on a course-by-course basis. 

If you look at the courses offered by most two-year colleges, you’ll find a lot of college composition courses, and maybe some business writing. Potential faculty to teach those jobs will be more competitive if they have a PhD in rhetoric/composition, English, technical writing, or an MFA in creative writing.

I work at a “teaching college,” where my primary responsibility is to teach four undergraduate classes per semester. (I am also expected to advise students, serve on committees that perform the nuts-and-bolts planning and strategizing that keeps a university running, and participate actively in my scholarly field by presenting at conferences and publishing original scholarship.) If I were to teach an additional course, at my experience level I would get paid about $2500.  

Teaching one course means spending about 3 hours in the classroom each week. If you figure a minimum of 1 hour to prepare before for each hour of class, and 1 hour to mark papers after class, over the course of 16 weeks, that works out to a best-case scenario of about $17/hr. 

But that minimalist calculation doesn’t account for the time spent before the course begins, deciding what textbooks to order, what readings to assign, how to evaluate whether the students comprehend what they read, what major papers or exams to assign, and what low-stakes assignments to create in order to prepare the students for the high-stakes ones. The prep work also involves uploading the syllabus and creating individual submission slots for each assignment, attaching instructions and a rubric for each assignment. (I usually budget two full work days of prep for each course. When I’ve taught the course before I can save some time by copying the data from the previous semester and changing all the due dates, but it’s still tedious work.)

Nor does that calculation account for the time during the semester meeting with students after class or during office hours; answering emails from students asking for individual help or explain why they would really, really appreciate it if you would create an alternate final exam just for them and come to campus to proctor it so they can leave campus early and join their family on cruise. (“Thanks in advance for understanding, your [sic] the best!!”) 

My university also expects me to follow various procedures if a student is in danger of failing, misses too many classes, or submits a plagiarized paper. Over the years, I have served on committees that helped shape these policies, so I don’t think they’re pointless; however, it does take time to act on each of these policies.

Part-time faculty members take work when and where they can get it, which might mean teaching a handful of classes at two or three different universities during the same semester. Teach a couple of morning classes at one school, hold an office hour, drive yourself across town to a second school, then teach a night class at a third school. That means spending extra time in traffic and prowling for parking spaces, and spending extra money on gas. 

Having said all that, if you have taught the course before, or you’re teaching multiple sections of the same course, and you develop ways to give meaningful feedback without staying up every night until 3am circling misplaced commas, the mechanics of teaching will work more smoothly. Still, I’ve told my students I would teach for free, and do scholarly research for free; but SHU pays me to do the grading. Sometimes I envy the professors who end their courses with a multiple-choice, computer-scored exam.

Owlcation offers these tips for ways to improve your chances of being hired to teach at a community college. Most of these tips involve unpaid labor, such as attending professional conferences or publishing scholarly articles. My university will refund me for travel expenses and conference registration fees if I get them approved in advance, but my requests aren’t always approved, and there aren’t enough funds to support part-time employees contracted to teach a few classes. However, for a person who is serious about putting in the time (and that may involve years of effort) to make the transition to being a college instructor, this is good advice.

First, attend continuing education in your field. Many textbook publishers offer free webinars, and universities also offer speaker and lecture series. There are conferences and organizations that you can join that will offer continuing education, although the costs may be prohibitive. Make sure to document each time you attend an event, where it was, when it was, and what it was about.

Second, present at conferences and events. If you are still in school, you may be able to take part in a poster presentation (depending on your field). You can offer to give lectures at local libraries and other public venues that rely on free speakers. While you may not get paid, it will give you a good history of presenting in public and can fill in the teaching experience background.

Third, volunteer in teaching positions. If you teach creative writing, for example, you may want to find out if any local retirement communities are looking for events for their residents. Pitch a class, and see if you get any takers. It’s another great way to show that you have experience teaching.

Fourth, become a tutor. There are numerous nation-wide tutoring companies. Some offer on-line tutoring, some offer in-person tutoring. You may be able to work as a tutor while you’re still in school, which will help show your ability to work with students. You can also look at the college you’re interested in teaching at later on – many of them have “learning labs” or other tutoring centers.

Fifth, get published in your field. There are journals for every field. Find ones that are in the right field and look at what they publish. You may even have papers from your graduate classes that you can submit. While community colleges don’t necessarily believe in “publish or perish” the way universities tend to, it will help enhance your qualifications if you can show that you are respected in the field through publications. –Owlcation, Qualifications Needed to Teach at a Community College

Above is good general advice, but because for someone who’s specifically interested in teaching journalism, I’ll recommend “For Journalists Considering a Move to Teaching: What You Need to Know Before You Start” from the University of Florida:

You might be thinking about getting a master’s degree to make yourself eligible for j-school teaching positions. You’ll need to consider what I’ve said about salaries. It won’t be cheap to get a master’s degree — even online. Even if you land a fellowship with a tuition waiver and a stipend, your student living expenses will almost certainly exceed the total of the stipend. Some master’s programs require more than one year to complete. Some require your full-time attendance (no part-time options).

If you’re thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., the time commitment will be greater. Expect to spend a minimum of three years, and more likely four, full-time. Expect to learn a lot about research methods and communication theory, because that’s the content of a doctoral program in communications, media studies, etc. The point of getting a Ph.D. is to become a scholar, a researcher.

Most important, research and scholarship will be expected if you manage to land a job that requires a Ph.D. The degree is not a teaching credential. It is an indicator that you have successfully completed a particular type of training that enables you to design and conduct original research projects of sufficient quality to be published in competitive, peer-reviewed academic journals.

In sum, if you want to teach at the college level, my advice is to take a close look at job advertisements for the position you want. Look carefully at the job notices. Would they consider someone with lots of recent experience in the field? Does the ad call for a “teaching philosophy statement,” syllabuses from courses you’ve already taught, or a record of scholarly publications? I learned about those things in grad school, and if the job ad mentions these things, that probably means the search committee is expecting applications from people with advanced degrees.

If the job description looks like the department would hire someone with experience, then the thing to do is of course make sure your experience is up to date.

My journalism students sometimes get work writing up high school and college sports events for the local paper, or writing short pop culture stories for web sites. They earn a small stipend per article; the faster they write, and the more traffic their articles get, the more they earn.

If your resume has a gap, you can start filling it by volunteering as a tutor, or joining the board of a non-profit that could use your experience.

In larger cities, where multiple news organizations are competing to attract audiences, you might find producers willing to pay for your freelance coverage of breaking news or community issues. In between paying gigs, self-publishing your multimedia work on your own blog (showcasing your news-gathering, technical, and on-camera skills) can build your portfolio and keep your skills sharp. 

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