Published on 23rd Feb., 2016

Five Tips for Freelancers Considering Grad School

So you’re getting those bylines. Beautiful, aren’t they? And you’re getting the checks that come with them. Could the checks be a little more beautiful? Yes, they could. That’s where grad school comes in.

If you do your research, and you’re careful about student loans, then getting a graduate degree might be the best way to boost your freelancing career. Here are five tips to keep in mind when considering grad school:

1. Consider diving in to a specialty field.

In the 20th century, journalists specialized in a platform of storytelling — e.g. writing or photography — and they were expected to be able to write about anything. Today, it’s the opposite. Both full-time and freelance journalists are expected to be proficient at writing, photography, videography and more. But they’re starting to specialize in a particular subject area, such as science. As a magazine editor told me recently, “You don’t have to get a medical degree to write about health — but it doesn’t hurt.” He was only halfway kidding. As disciplines become more specialized and complicated, and media outlets become more niche-oriented, editors want writers who have a thorough grasp of the field they’re covering. Can’t afford seven years of medical school? Not to worry. With increasing frequency, universities are launching master’s degrees in specialized journalism. For example, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School has a nine-month, intensive master’s degree in specialized journalism with an impressive array of concentrations: politics, education, health, science, religion, arts, entertainment, sports, business, urban affairs, and law.

2. Check out multimedia master’s degrees.

It can be grinding work to make a living solely as a freelance writer. But what if you had other skills to offer? What if you could offer both text and photos — and maybe some video, too? When you’ve got a wide variety of skills — photography, videography, data visualization, web design — suddenly you’re a hot commodity. To jump-start your multiplatform journalism career, consider a multimedia master’s degree. Such programs are popping up everywhere, and many of them are low- or no-residence, meaning you wouldn’t have to move to a new city. For example, Savannah College of Art and Design offers online degrees in photography, illustration, graphic design, and motion media design.  

3. Show restraint on those easy student loans.

In the U.S., it’s startlingly easy to take out federal student loans during grad school. That’s part of the reason why student loan debt has topped $1 trillion, with more than 10 percent of borrowers in default or falling behind on payments. Unlike other lenders, the federal government doesn’t check to see if you’re in a good position to repay. It’s easy money. That may seem like a good idea at first, but it can come back to haunt you. For writers with an aversion to math, it’s tempting to let Uncle Sam worry about the details when it comes time to repay. (Interest? What’s that?) Remember — whether you finish the degree or not, the grace period will end, and you’ll have to start repaying whatever you borrowed, plus interest. If you suspended payments for your undergraduate loans while you were in grad school, and you’re not accustomed to that monthly loan payment, then paying back loans for both undergrad and grad school all at once can be a shock to your checkbook. Even if you got into journalism because you hate math, you still need to stop and do some calculations — by plugging numbers into an online repayment estimator. If you’re completing a traditional degree on campus, you should consider only the schools that offer you scholarships or teaching assistantships. If you’re doing a low-residency master’s, you should carefully consider how much you need to borrow, and how quickly you can complete the degree.  

4. Find out if the university has in-house freelancing opportunities.

When I was completing my master’s degree, one of my most lucrative freelance writing gigs was for a PR magazine showcasing the university’s research. Because of the sharp division between the academic side of the university and the PR side of the university (they rarely talked to each other!), none of my other classmates thought to investigate this possibility. Not only did the gig pay well, but it also gave me the chance to meet interesting scientists who studied things like bears, spiders, dirt, spin valves, and chaos theory.  

5. Be inspired by academic research.

While you’re in grad school, you’ll be exposed to some amazing story ideas by peers’ and professors’ research. Academic conferences are full of sessions with clickworthy article ideas but no journalists to cover them. That’s where you come in. Because you have specialized knowledge in this area, you will be able to convince an editor that you’re the best person to tell the story. For example, when I was completing a master’s degree in English, my linguistics professor hosted scholars from Tajikistan who were developing a writing system for an unwritten language. I pitched the article idea to the local metro newspaper, Lexington Herald-Leader, and they ended up giving me an above-the-fold article — complete with my own photos — on one of the section fronts of the Pulitzer-winning newspaper. After reading the article, the president of the university sent a handwritten letter to my professor to congratulate him.

Graduate school isn’t for everyone. However, by choosing the right program, you can become an expert in something, make yourself more marketable, and draw paychecks that are even more beautiful than the ones you’re getting now.

A journalism professor at the University of Tampa, David writes frequently for high-profile news outlets such as CNN, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. When he’s not teaching, he enjoys traveling the world, writing about everything from the print-to-digital transition in Gutenberg’s hometown to scenic bike rides in the Tuscan countryside. Having built a successful teaching and writing career, he’s eager to share tips on the freelancing life with other creative entrepreneurs.

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