Further education for the itinerant journalist?
November 2, 2010 3:22 PM   Subscribe

A generalist grad school program: Does such a thing exist? And can you recommend something like it to a listless journalist?

I've been a freelance journalist for about six years, and the world has been good to me; I've been a columnist in this country for a while now. I specialise in online culture (hello there, MeFi), but I've written about everything from copyright law to urban policy to national politics to local disputes. Y'know, journalism.

But I'm in my early 30s now. I sense that my future is going to involve some combination of thinking and writing, but for the last while there's been a lot more writing than thinking. And I'm itchy to live in another country for a while, while I'm still unattached enough to do so. (The UK has its appeal.)

For years I've thought to myself, "I should go back to school," but for years the lack of a specific subject to pursue has hampered me. What I really want is a return to the days of undergrad, where I was able to spread myself across multiple disciplines without falling into any one rabbit hole, and get a grounding in the areas I missed out on the first time around. (The thought of a masters of journalism doesn't thrill me, but I'd consider the right one.)

So I'm looking for any kind of broad, humanities-based academic program - or even a fellowship of some variety? - that might help develop both the mind and the career of an itinerant journalist who's coming up on the seven-year itch. Does anything spring to mind for any of you?
posted by bicyclefish to Education (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might be looking for something like a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. My (undergraduate) alma mater offers such a thing, and I'd bet other places do as well.
posted by rtha at 3:29 PM on November 2, 2010

This is not what grad school is for. Grad school is for picking one tiny topic, becoming an expert in it, then using your expertise to push past the boundaries of what is already known.

You would probably be better served by attending conferences or workshops. For example, if you're into science journalism, you might attend Science Online, AAAS, or a writing workshop like this one.
posted by chrisamiller at 3:30 PM on November 2, 2010 [10 favorites]

You might want to try for the Nieman fellowship at Harvard, which basically pays journalists to spend a year there and take whatever courses they want. Obviously, highly competitive.
posted by Maias at 3:49 PM on November 2, 2010

When I did my grad school applications, I got the sense that the programs that sound generalist (I'm thinking UChicago's MAPSS and MAPH and maybe NYU's Gallatin MA) are really only worthwhile if you're using your time there to do something really specific/beef up your CV for future PhD applications (and even then, they're largely cash cows for the universities).

If you have any relevant background in the field, maybe you should look into International Relations programs like Fletcher or SIPA or the new-ish Columbia/LSE MA in International History? You'd still have to pick some basic area of interest, but it could be vaguely interdisciplinary and you'd get to meet lots of fun international people.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:49 PM on November 2, 2010

They exist, as rtha notes, but they exist almost exclusively as methods of parting you from your money.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:54 PM on November 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

You might be looking for something like a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies.

I came in to say this. My undergraduate alma mater also offers one.
posted by pemberkins at 3:54 PM on November 2, 2010

Yes, the European Graduate School springs to mind.
posted by Beardman at 3:54 PM on November 2, 2010

What I really want is a return to the days of undergrad, where I was able to spread myself across multiple disciplines without falling into any one rabbit hole, and get a grounding in the areas I missed out on the first time around.
(1) You don't need anyone's permission to do this and you don't need to pay tuition. (2) Going to grad school would in fact prevent you from doing this.

Grad school is absolutely not what you're looking for. It is nothing like undergraduate++, which is what you seem to want.

Putting aside possibilities like the Nieman Fellowship, the one exception that falls under the "grad school" heading that might suit you is a short, taught masters, which is basically just another year of undergraduate study. It's still going to be more specialized than you'd like, it won't be cheap, and you won't get funding to do it, but it will get you to the UK for one or two years if that's where you want to be.
posted by caek at 3:55 PM on November 2, 2010

St. John's College would give you a solid grounding in the major disciplines of western thought (though it is a very specific program that may not appeal to you at all).
posted by ke rose ne at 4:05 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Oh, should have previewed. I wanted to add that the appeal of St. John's is that the graduate program is exactly the same in spirit as the undergraduate program, though significantly shorter. If what you want is to read a lot and talk about ideas over a bottle of wine all night, it lets you approach a variety of authors and topics with that same undergrad enthusiasm and courage, without a lot of academic baggage.)
posted by ke rose ne at 4:12 PM on November 2, 2010

They exist, as rtha notes, but they exist almost exclusively as methods of parting you from your money.

This. Unless you are independently wealthy or get tons of financial aid (not the loan kind of aid, I mean the grant/scholarship kind of aid), or can get into one of the fellowship programs, this is a bad, bad idea.
posted by Forktine at 4:15 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just want to chime in to encourage you. When I went to grad school many years ago, I chose a university with exactly this in mind. Furthering my liberal education. They even gave me a fellowship. Then a few months into my tenure there, they changed the entire curriculum, turning it into a journalism-teaching track--courses like statistics, content analysis, crap like that. I stayed to the end but declined to write a thesis, so I lack the MS degree. But I did get to take art history, music studies, modern European history etc, before they blindsided me.
I say all this to warn you it may be hard to find a spot, but it's worth it if you can. St Johns sounds terrific. I think Brown has an American Studies track, which might be good.
Anyway, good luck!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:23 PM on November 2, 2010

Just want to pop in to say that yes, non-PhD graduate school costs money, and yes, universities make a lot of money by adding in a stand-alone masters program, but that doesn't mean that they're Ponzi schemes, and I'm not really sure why the fact that they're "cash cows" should be relevant to your potential application. No, you will not be getting to add a Dr. to your name or a guaranteed new job out of something like MAPSS, MAPH, or the St. John's graduate program (which, might I add, as a journalist is probably not up your alley), but you pay them money and get to take graduate courses, which seems to me to be a pretty equitable trade. Cash for services and all that: it's how the world works.

My recommendation is that you look into auditing graduate courses at a university near you before you decide to enter a program, namely because above posters are correct in stating that graduate school programs are designed to make you further specialize. Taking grad school courses as a student-at-large might be a fun way for you to pick up some extra knowledge without being forced to produce something like a thesis.
posted by libertypie at 5:22 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Consider the opportunity cost of taking a hiatus from your journalism career. It might not be a good idea in the present environment.

Why do you need to go to school? You know how to learn already, just go do it as a journalist.

I'm with the other academics above who say there is no reason to pay for grad school in the arts and sciences fields and that the only reason to go on to an advanced degree is to develop a specialization.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:29 PM on November 2, 2010

Okay, I should elaborate. I'm a grad student myself, and I agree that graduate programs are for studying and contributing to a specialized topic. Generally I believe it is true that MA programs function as "cash cows" for departments, and I'm one of the crowd that will chime in to say not to enter a graduate program unless you are fully funded.

However, if you are essentially interested in taking a broad smattering of courses not unlike an undergraduate program, I think there is probably a liberal arts MA program somewhere that will do that for you. If you're willing and able to pay for it, I say do what makes you happy.

I like libertypie's suggestion of auditing some graduate level courses rather than entering a graduate program. That seems like a good compromise, as long as you're okay with not getting another degree in the process.
posted by pemberkins at 6:07 PM on November 2, 2010

It's in this country and it's journalism-specific, but the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford might have some appeal -- the description sounds cool to me, at least. I was a grad student at Stanford and the Knight Fellows were very fun people to have in class every now and then.
posted by obliquicity at 6:28 PM on November 2, 2010

Taking grad school courses as a student-at-large might be a fun way for you to pick up some extra knowledge without being forced to produce something like a thesis.

This is an awesome idea. I did this (taking classes as a "non-matriculating" student, which basically meant paying a surprisingly low fee to take classes, with the caveat that the credits couldn't be applied towards a degree) when I was considering grad school, so as to sample graduate-level courses in a variety of departments to see what fit best with my interests. You could easily do that as an endeavor in itself, rather than as a prelude to a degree program. It gives you a lot of the benefits of an open field of study, with few of the downsides of a full-time and expensive grad program.
posted by Forktine at 7:57 PM on November 2, 2010

I'm looking for any kind of broad, humanities-based academic program

Yeah this is not what graduate school was ever meant to be. Granted I'm sure you can find some, but they will be exceptions. And, as others have noted, probably a waste of time for you because graduate programs exist for primarily two audiences:

1) Those going for advanced career training (think MBA, MEd, MD, etc.)
2) Those going for a job in academia (MA, many MS, virtually all PhD, etc.)

As those two audiences tend to be very specific about what they want to study, grad schools tend to be pretty specific about what they want to offer them. The "Hey I have an extra $40,000 and 40 hours a week lying around, maybe I'll go to grad school" audience is pretty small (not nonexistent, mind you [read: MFA in creative writing] but small.)

I think suggestions along the lines of "take continuing ed classes until you figure out what you want to do" are the right ones. These programs are a) very numerous (both my alma mater, for instance) b) designed with nontraditional students (e.g. those with jobs) in mind c) may or may not be degree-track and therefore may or may not require the 2-5 year commitment that traditional grad work does and best of all d) are usually dirt cheap compared to traditional grad programs.

I'd look into that. Once you find a specific area of study that excites you, I'd say then and only then consider applying to a grad program in that area.
posted by ChasFile at 12:53 AM on November 3, 2010

Why do people keep saying this isn't what grad school is for? There are dozens of counterexamples in this thread.

Here are some more: the 'university professors' program at Boston University allows you to develop a multi-disciplinary program that works with some of the best teachers in each field.

Also many programs have an American Studies degree. It has been mentioned here, but it might be just what you're looking for.

Education can be for many different kinds of people at different times. As long as youre clear about why you're going and what it will be like: Go for it!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:31 AM on November 3, 2010

I have been thinking about doing the science and math version of this: taking a smattering of courses over a wide range of topics to fill in gaps in gaps of my knowledge. My employer allows me to take classes at night for free, and I don't have the pressure of working towards a degree.

If you're paying out of your own pocket, think about the local public university and see if they have classes you can take as a non-matriculated student. Since you're a freelancer, your schedule is flexible, so you won't event be limited to night classes.
posted by deanc at 5:37 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd strongly suggest checking out non-traditional undergraduate education, rather than graduate school, for fulfilling your intellectual curiosity.

For example, Harvard Extension School offers a wide variety of courses, many identical to the Harvard College equivalents, for cheap and at convenient hours for people working regular jobs. Your fellow students would be other adult learners, and some of the most interesting and motivated undergraduates around.

(Disclosure: I got an ALM there, for specific (and successful) academic/career purposes. I wouldn't bother with the extra $$$ for the Masters level coursework without a specific reason to get a Masters per se.)

I also had good experiences with U Mass Boston, which, as a commuter campus, has a relatively diverse and interesting student body. I suspect, though I cannot confirm, that you could find similar experiences at the "big city" satellite campus of other state universities.
posted by endless_forms at 7:15 AM on November 3, 2010

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