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How to Pass a Masters in Journalism Programme

Masters students in journalism running a newsroom — film by David Dunkley Gymah

Do you even need a Masters in the digital era? You could construct an argument that goes either way and it all depends upon what you want in the future.

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Masters 2006

If you’re one of the selected then, or have earned your self a place on a Masters programmes , congratulations.

You’re about to embark on a learning experience that will equip you with skills for that chosen career.

Here might be some reasons you want a Masters. To further your job prospects in your company. A Masters is used in employment to boost promotion. Some want an MA as a trophy.

The title Masters (in journalism) after your name can alter the perception of those privy to this qualification — family, friends and potential employers. A Masters programme is a finishing house. It’s the last big door that separates you from your work for a significant period . In the UK a Masters in journalism program is one year, generally in the US it’s two.

But gaining an MA comes at a considerable trade off. The most obvious, but misunderstood is the new culture, learning environment, and social change, with an implicit contract that awaits you.

If you’ve never done a Masters before, how do you know what it’s like? It’s an environment which asks a level of interpersonal, analytical and critical skills that you’re unlikely to have witnessed in a previous learning environment.

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There’s a fair chance that too you may not have prior experience in your intended field. Generally, before the mid 1990s, anyone wanting to undertake an MA in media and journalism had to demonstrate a working knowledge or association with a media form e.g. working for a radio station or newspaper.

It showed a commitment to your chosen career, but also meant you had some concrete knowledge of the industry. That happens less so nowadays. The world has moved on and student 2.0's penchant for media everything outstrips the analogue thinking of fixed structures — this is digital democracy at work.

Read this thought-provoking post why silicon valley now controls your news

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Masters students engage with Jon Snow at Channel 4 News
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If you’ve never done a Masters, then you’re relying on tacit knowledge of how things were in your undergraduate programme. This knowledge bank transferred to the Masters programme, if it goes unchecked can create problems.

For instance, you may have some recollection of lectures and independent learning from your undergraduate days. You might even confess that in your BA you got by with the minimum of work and consulted your lecturing team for answers with little independent learning. Well, on the MA that’s one of the first shocks, the amount of work that you’re designed to do can seem relentless.

Firstly, how were you to know? Until you hit your first wall. So the university prepares you for this by a number of strategies. A module handbook becomes a vital interface. Everything you want to know is in that document. It took painful hours to make to cover every base you’re likely to encounter. It’s not just worth reading. It needs to be read. That’s a shock in itself, because you’ve likely never had to ‘put up’ with reading such a dry document.

This year (2015/16) we revamped our book to become more interactive and less corporate.

The module handbook lists various books designed to assist you. A lecturer will make suggestions to the list and herein lies another shock. The level of learning required from you after lectures to successfully pass an MA is enough to put you off doing an MA if you knew in the first place. But you didn’t know that when applying — and now it seems, well, just an add-on that you could do without.

So below are 10 points to help you cruise through the choppy waters of a Masters.

The film Student.You explores the psychological, as well as physical journey of three students completing their final project. They’ve now graduated. Below is a list of ten things you might consider that will help you pass your Masters.

10 points to help you pass a Masters

1. Understand the institutional environment. Deadlines are set by the university and assessments follow a well worn regime for gaining marks. If you’ve never done a Masters, seek out previous students and ask them what is expected.

2. Respecting your environment. The MA environment you’ve walked into, it changes every year. Learn how to gather information about the environment and synthesise this to make sense. You do it anyway by talking amongst each other. In your Masters we’ll label this ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’. Written about by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, (his book here) and Dan Gilmor in ‘We the Media’, it says more are smarter than the few. That is, if you’re likely to find a ‘correct’ answer to a question, the chances increase the more people you consult.

The flaw in the Wisdom approach lies in how many people you’re asking and the quality of the crowd. In subjects that require debate, like journalism, it’s expedient to have a group together to foster a dialogue. Newsrooms are built on the wisdom principle. Social Media is all about sharing.

3. Manage your lectures and lecturers. Everyone reads everyone. You read your lecturers, your friends, and make judgments about them. Everyone does it. James Monaco, a respected scholar in film, said anyone can read a film, but not many people know how to interpret it. He’s right! Interpretation is a skill that is learned, critical skills requires continual honing. One aspect of critical skills is ‘call and response’. If A asks something from you, it would be helpful to respond to A on your next response. Assumptions and what we refer to as ‘closed knowledge’, something you know but assume others should, can create a confused environment.

Once ever so often, a student might claim that a lecturer favours some students, and not others. That could be the case, but more often than not, some students know how to manage their lecturers to get the most out of them. Managing means many things.Talk to faculty after lectures to get to know them informally.

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Masters student 2006

4. Reading the lecturer. There’s a strong correlation between the way people write and the way they talk. So if you’re familiar with the way a lecturer sounds, in all likelihood a critique will be in the same tone — even when the written remarks seem terse or spartan to you. Seek clarification by approaching the lecturer. Often the lecturer may ask you come and see them.

5. The respect thing. Most lecturers will address you in emails as ‘Dear’ or ‘Hello’, rarely ‘Hi’ and never ‘Hey’. This level of communication is an extension of the formal respect they accord you, even when it comes to calling you by first names. Note in many US and some UK institutions the university insists you call each other by surnames. The reason for this is to attain and sustain that professional relationship between you and your lecturer. Personally, I prefer first names.

6. Perceptions. Everyone starts off as a ‘vessel’ without much to go on. As time passes, your behaviour e.g. lateness, keenness, nonchalance, exuberance, determination, shapes how you are perceived. This has a significant impact on shaping the faculty’s perception of you. So for instance, if you have a habit of being late to lectures that may impact upon a critical decision when it comes to handing in a piece of late work. Likewise, if you demonstrate attention to detail and possess a record of due diligence, this is noted when faculty might be discussing a crucial issue surrounding marked work, when there is a contentious issue to sort out.

7. Understanding how the faculty works. If you feel you need to have an issue addressed, talk to your lecturer. Going straight up the chain has its merits, particularly where the lecture-student relationship has broken down irrevocably. But more often than not faculty talk about students too, so your issue will most likely have been raised in ongoing department meetings and the very person you did not speak to is the same person who will likely call you into a meeting.

8. Give back more, and more will come. Secretly, if not openly, your lecturer is willing you on to do well. Many lecturers carry a sense of pride seeing you graduate and climb the slippery ladder of media. Some lecturers and students become life long friends of the mutual respect club. So, intellectual rigour and a sense of self during your Masters sets up this invigorating mentor relationship. The ‘give more’ principle is predicated on the understanding that, not only have you met the brief of the assignment, but in your own time, you’ve demonstrated a zeal to do other things related to the course. It’s no wonder you get spoken about in social meetings.

Masters students from 2006 asked “what if..” What one thing would you change if you had the opportunity.

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9. Test you assumptions. You believe you know what you know, because you’ve known this before, but sometimes you don’t know, and what’s more you don’t know you don’t know. This version of Johari’s window, created in 1955, which in contemporary language has been recited as Rumsfeld’s garble, is common in advanced learning. If you’ve not done a Masters before, you’re now in the ‘testing your assumptions’ game. What’s more you testing the conventions- contemporary-conventions model. This means the classical model of media needs to be understood first, before the lab approach seeks to upend traditional media’s methods.

10. Take responsibility. This is an open environment and you should be free to politely challenge the views of your lecturers and colleagues, but equally, if not alien is the idea that of taking responsibility. The newsroom, a fast-paced environment personifies this. It isn’t the forum to have a lengthy feedback session, in the midst of a programme. Learn to take responsibility and move on. After the shift day a detailed analysis will follow. Finally, enjoy what is a stimulating environment, which, ‘blink’ and it’s gone. It will come to pass, and more often than not mostly you’ll look back on the Masters days with fondness ( hopefully) of shared times and jokes.

Enjoy the ride of the MA programme and its resources. It’s designed to help you. If you’re in trouble of sorts, seek mitigating circumstances. Respect the programme and it will respect you. And if you’re planning on a PhD, well, that’s a different kettle of fish entirely.


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The media sussed generation

David’s journalism career spans 27 years working for outfits such as Channel 4 News, ABC News, BBC Newsnight and Politics Today.

He’s spoken at international conferences e.g. SXSW, WAN, NEWS REWIRED and the IJF. He’s a senior lecturer in journalism, online and docs and is due to publish his PhD examining the future of TV — you can read web-abridged areas on his www.medium/@viewmagazine. He is a recipient of the Knight Batten Award for in Innovation in Journalism and an international award-winning videojournalist.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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