Degree v NCTJ


I became a journalism graduate almost three years ago and in about a month’s time I will (fingers crossed) have passed my NCTJ preliminary exams. But with figures showing that the intake of new journalism students is at its highest ever there may be a few lost souls out there wondering what’s better, NCTJ or a journalism degree?

 As a disciple of both schools I think I am in a good position to break down the pros and cons of the two.

So, first up is the degree and one look at the module list of my old Uni course at Kingston tells you there isn’t much you won’t be covering in your three years of study. Everything from photo journalism to sports journalism to war reporting will be looked at here and for those who need more than cheap booze and a lie-in ‘til midday it’s certainly appealing.

To quote the blurb from the same website, the undergrad journalism course aims to:

“develop your writing skills and a nose for news, and provide a forum for analysis and debate. The course will enable you to become an effective journalist across a broad range of media.”

Now, parts of this are certainly true. I can honestly say I knew how to write a news story after the course had finished but my striking feeling on things, looking back, is that it didn’t leave me ready to burst onto the journalism scene all guns blazing. Please get in touch if you feel differently but for my money, there is a greater emphasis on analysis and debate with a Uni course than there is on practical skills.

For example, I was taught shorthand to 50 words a minute at Uni (it has since been increased to 60 wpm) but any trainee reporter role advertised after my graduation told me not to bother unless I had 100 wpm. At my very first work placement the editor I reported to nearly fell off his chair laughing when I told him what speed I was taught to. “You won’t find many jobs with that,” were along the lines of his response.

Yet more time was spent discussing the ethics of this article and the meaning of that. I remember having a two and a half hour lecture on the media coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case. Now that’s all well and good but your knowledge of it won’t wow a prospective employer more concerned with a proven ability to write to deadline.

To go back to the blurb above, the University professes to leave you as an “effective journalist across a broad range of media.” Again I agree, but what role are you going to be offered as a trainee fresh out of Uni with a CV that boasts three years spent becoming a jack of all trades and master of none? 

By the end of my degree I could write a news story, sub a page, write a feature, make a video news report, take down a slow conversation in shorthand and talk at great length about the ethics of Jeremy Clarkson’s latest xenophobic column, but none to an intensive level.

The degree program just isn’t specific enough for you to pass and get a job straightaway, unless you seek further education through a Masters degree or have a vast amount of experience already.

On the other hand the NCTJ exams are just that, specific. They are all about training would-be local reporters with good news writing skills, 100wpm shorthand and a good grasp of media law and public affairs. Everything an editor could want.

If you want to be a reporter then this is the course for you. Magazine hacks and broadcast lovers need not apply. This course gives you every tool you could need to confidently apply for a trainee reporter’s role and stand a chance of getting it.

There are sub sections, such as sub-editing and sports reporting, along the way in which you can narrow your field even further.

However, the work is intense and it isn’t cheap at well over £2k for entry. I have studied part time while working a 9-5 job and in the back of my mind there is a nagging doubt that it will be a lot of money badly spent if it doesn’t come off.

Nonetheless, I really feel ready to tackle the world of journalism head on, much more so than my Uni course did. So for what it’s worth, I think the NCTJ course is a better way to gain some education in journalism but it’s each to their own in this field so please feel free to comment to keep the debate alive, I only hope my Uni’s debating skills don’t fail me know.

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7 Responses to Degree v NCTJ

  1. Why do you think your uni only made you to write 50 words pm? If they know that you would need at least 100 words pm in the real world?
    Which now brings me onto Uni itself!
    Do you think that university’s allow students onto their course just to make up the subject and to pump in more money or do they try and get students who have a passion for journalism? Who will get the spark for journalism and take up another course after Uni, like yourself, to find themselves become and explore juornalism?
    If so surely Uni is a waste of money for those students who don’t actually want to take up there course strande after uni?
    Whats your opinion?

    • Matt Wiggins says:

      Hi Matt, thanks for commenting. I think it goes back to the jack of all trades comment I made in the post. To pass shorthand at 100wpm you need to spend over three hours a day on it. At university there just isn’t the time to put that amount of class time in because of all the other modules they teach you. I think the Uni likes the idea of having shorthand on its repertoire of modules but doesn’t commit to teaching it all the way.

      You have some interesting points about Uni. Obviously courses need a certain amount of pupils in order to maintain themselves. I don’t think that they just accept anyone of the streets though; the UCAS application process is testament to that. From what I can recall I wasn’t interviewed for any of the courses I applied to, maybe that would help but I suspect there just isn’t the time to do that.

      Some people probably have graduated from Uni with a journalism degree and found a job straight after and in the coming weeks I hope to showcase them in a new post.

  2. […] though a shameless plug, my debut post was a look at the merits of a degree in journalism compared to an NCTJ course. As it was quite […]

  3. Matt Baxter says:

    Hi Matthew,
    I’ve just come across your blog and it’s proving a great insight into many things.
    I, like you have, am studying on my final year of a journalism degree. I’m currently learning shorting as well as sitting in surrounding courses class’ to get some of my NCTJ’s done whilst i can get the tuition for free.
    I definitely agree with you about degree courses. They do teach you a lot, and in an environment where you can more afford to make mistakes. I’ve picked up quite a few multi-media skills up along the way as the uni’s equipment is good and i wouldn’t be able to afford much of this myself otherwise.
    However, as useful as structuring a news story or writing for online modules might be, nothing beats the professional environment of actually doing it.
    Above all, work experience is vital and anyone who believes they’ll just walk into a journo waving their degree is a very naive person in my opinion.
    Keep up the good work and good luck with your NCTJ results!
    I know I’ll be in your situation with some of mine come january/feb.

    • Matt Wiggins says:

      Hi Matt

      Thanks for the comments. I am glad you have not only found the blog but started at the beginning, this was my first ever post!

      I definitely agree with you, nothing beats experience. But that can be hard to come by during full time education. Does your Uni course allow for you to gain any experience during your time there? Mine did and it certainly helped but maybe wasn’t for long enough.

      A degree does provide a good grounding for a amateur journalists but the competitive nature of the industry mean that you need a bit more these days.

      Thanks for your well wishes and please return to the site soon.

      • Matt Baxter says:

        There’s no placement built into my course, but we have some great lecturers here (Salford uni) and they’re always willing to help you out if you show you’re committed with things.
        Like they’ve all been happy with sharing contacts when i’ve needed them. And if they weren’t so sound i wouldn’t be taking any of my nctj’s as they’re not built into my course, but others around it (my course is Journalism and Broadcasting).
        Don’t worry i’m keeping posted and getting through your articles.
        Got your blog on my Google Reader – vital tool for any journo!

      • Matt Wiggins says:

        Interesting points you make about contacts, Matt and in perfect timing for my post on networking tomorrow!

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