From the age of 15-years-old, I knew I wanted to go into journalism – how I was going to get there was another matter. I decided I didn’t want to restrict myself too much early on, so decided against a journalism degree, and instead chose to do English, and then I would specialise in journalism later on.
This ‘later on’ time quickly arrived, and in second year I got thinking about how I was going to specialise. Through some digging around I quickly realised that I needed an NCTJ qualification to get into the majority of trainee journalist roles.
NCTJ stands for the National Council of Training of Journalist, and they are basically the accreditation you need that is recognised throughout the industry. Now I had worked out I needed this, it was a question of how I was going to get it.
The options were:
1. Do a master’s, with the NCTJ attached to it
2. Do the NCTJ through distance learning
3. Get a trainee job, and do the NCTJ whilst working full time
I went for option two. I graduated in July 2019, worked and travelled for a few months, then started my distance learning for the NCTJ in November 2019, finishing by July 2020.
I will go into the other options, as I have friends that did the other two options – but first I’ll explain my decision.
I decided this was my way in by asking lots of people in the industry – how they got into it, what was their route from uni, and what they thought of master’s and the NCTJ. LinkedIn is a terrific place for advice – message people and you will get valuable information back. I have pages of advice from people, many working in the major companies like the BBC and Sky News! You just need to ask, you have nothing to lose at the end of the day – worst thing that will happen is that you will get no reply.
If you want that advice sending over, just ask me via LinkedIn/Email/Instagram (links at the end of this post).
Distance learning with the NCTJ works by them sending you the textbooks, and a USB with the content on. There are four core modules, and then you have to choose a number of other elective modules that bring you to a total of 82 credits.
I was waitressing alongside the course, so my routine was made up of studying all day Monday-Friday, then waiting tables in the evenings. This left very little time for socialising, but this was just how it had to be to get the course finished so I could get into full time work. Breaking that down per week: 25 hours of studying + 20 hours of waitressing.
Positives for the way I’ve done it:
· Cheaper – The master’s cost doesn’t include the cost of the NCTJ, plus I was saving on cost of accommodation and travel because I was working from home
· More flexible – I could travel and work when I wanted, so the course was fitting in with me, a master’s is a year-long and you have set class times
· Quicker – I completed it all in eight months, which is quicker than if I’d done a master’s or been working full time alongside it
· Lack of tutor/peer relationships – You are very isolated through distance learning, and that can be tough at times
· The master’s can offer extra opportunities like placements and practical learning
· I don’t have a job as a trainee reporter
Just to give you some variation, I asked two friends about their experiences.
Jonny did a master’s with the NCTJ combined:
Differing to me, Jonny turned to the career of journalism right at the end his English degree: “I’d never considered becoming a journalist up until that point and had no experience and no knowledge about anything in the journalism world. So, I felt a master’s degree was a good way of playing catch-up and gain both a deeper knowledge and experience needed to get a job as a journalist.”
His master’s was split 50/50 between uni work and the NCTJ, with the degree modules linking to NCTJ throughout. “The degree felt like an extension of the NCTJ but with a more practical edge to it.”
This ‘edge’ he mentions is the placement work that a master’s offers you. Work experience is just as important as qualifications when it comes to the journalism industry – employers want to see that you have had hands-on experiences as well as knowing the theory.
Due to covid, Jonny’s placements were cut short. He worked a few shifts from January to March at the Manchester Evening News, there was then meant to be another placement in April, but covid put that to a stop.
His week was made up of placement on Monday, classes on Tuesday-Thursday, and a part-time job on Sundays – leaving Fridays and Saturdays free.
Jonny finished by telling me that the decision to do a master’s with the NCTJ was all because he decided on journalism quite late. “If I had wanted to be a journalist for years and decided to opt for the master’s degree then I probably would have regretted it because it is just an extension of the NCTJ, but gives you a heck of a lot of experience in the space of a year. Since this was a very recent decision, I honestly can’t imagine being able to complete the NCTJ through distance learning.”
“I think that if somebody is debating which route to go down then I would suggest asking themselves where they are in life. If they have always wanted to be a journalist, then chances are they’ve already done some work experience as a journalist. In that case, distance learning would be the best route forward. However, if you decide you want to be a journalist and you know very little and have experienced very little, then a NCTJ-accredited master’s degree might be best since it gives a person all the skills, knowledge and experience needed to be a journalist in the space of a year.
I definitely seem to fit into this category Jonny talks about. I had been gaining work experience since 2015, so the distance learning was the best route for me because I’d known for a while that is what I wanted to do.
Matt is currently completing his NCTJ via distance learning, whilst working full time as a trainee reporter:
In an interview with the company he now works for, the Editorial Director told Matt that distance learning whilst working full time was a “streamlined way to get qualified as a journalist” so he jumped at this option.
“I also wasn’t particularly keen on going back to university, the three years that I spent there were just right, and I wanted to start working. The prospect of another dissertation wasn’t appealing either. I looked at training courses with the press association that costs thousands, while the distance learning course was a few hundred and could be paid in stages.”
The balance between work and study is something he finds difficult at times: “I am committed to deadlines with work and they take priority. After a long day, it is sometimes hard to motivate myself to study after those days.”
So far, Matt has passed three of the core modules, as well as one of his electives – exams are a working progress alongside the job. Shorthand is something he is still working on: “At the moment, I am solely focussing on my shorthand for two reasons. Firstly, it is the most difficult aspect of the qualification for me, and secondly, it will make my work much easier with many of my interviews taking place over the phone due to lockdown.
He has no regrets over working alongside the NCTJ. “Work have been extremely supportive of my studies, especially in the extraordinary circumstances that I have found myself working and learning in. Although it is hard at times, I feel very grateful to have a job in the industry with a good team to learn from and support me, even more so during these unprecedented times.”
“The experience I have gained cannot be taught through distance learning.”
Now that I have finished my NCTJ qualification, I am still pleased I did it the way I did because it is done and dusted. However, due to covid, I am very much envious of Matt. Although I have finished my course, I have no job. Matt on the other hand, has the job, but still has half the course left to do.
Jonny gained extra experiences from the master’s, but with that comes extra costs. However, if I had decided later on to do journalism, and didn’t have the previous work experience placements under my belt, I probably would have done the master’s too!
There are pros and cons to all three sides. If covid hadn’t happened, I had an amazing opportunity lined up to start in September, so everything would have been pretty perfect, but covid did happen – so plans have changed, and opportunities have dwindled.
I guess you have to think of what to prioritise: time, money, or job. What doesn’t change is the importance of the NCTJ though. On all jobs advertised, they want you to be NCTJ qualified – so that really is a no-brainer. Whichever route you take, they all involve lots of hard work and determination – good luck whatever you choose to do.
If you have any questions about what I’ve covered, please just ask.
If you want to read about my experience of learning shorthand as a distance learner: https://www.indialilyblogs.com/post/i-am-proof-you-can-teach-yourself-shorthand-and-pass-the-100wpm-exam
I did an interview with the University of Leicester which covers my journey from A levels to working as a trainee reporter