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What you know vs. what you do

April 23, 2008

NOTE: I’ve since come to regret some of the things I said in this blog and those regrets are reflected upon in another blog titled, “Things I shouldn’t have said — Welcome to The Lock-Box.”

I got into a small discussion yesterday with fellow Wired Journalist Christian Sheckler about (essentially) what was more beneficial to a career-bound college journalism student: GPA or experience? In short, Christian was longing to write “good stories,” but more often than not, was inhibited in that venture by a more pressing need to complete class work.

I think this is an interesting conundrum.

It seems to me, and Christian pointed this out in his blog, that journalism professionals really don’t care much about a recent grad’s GPA. I got my current job, which is also my first out of school, without listing my GPA anywhere on my résumé. (Which is probably a good thing; no one ever accused me of being an honor student.) I felt my real strength was in the portfolio I had put together, which was formidable compared with most of my classmates. I had great references, great clips, a knockout cover letter and letters of recommendation to boot.

Granted, it still took me five months to find work and I have no idea what to blame that on. However, I can honestly say that I was held in pretty high regard among students in my graduating class. I also spent a LOT of time applying to newspapers and looking for work.

But I’m getting off track. Struggles aside, I did have a few interviews during my bout of unemployment, and no one ever raised the slightest question about my GPA. No one ever even asked, “What kind of student would you say you were?” or “Did you enjoy school?” Not one. Nada.

In all honesty, this makes sense to me. A college degree is pretty meaningless in its title. I’ve met stockbrokers who majored in art history and legal professionals who majored in English. We all know people like this.

I would argue that journalism is one of the few industries where that argument doesn’t ring true — in other words, most journalists probably have a journalism degree or some near equivalent — but the logic is still the same. Editors and publishers could care less what someone’s degree says. I could roll into the offices of the New York Times with a shiny 4.0 GPA from Harvard or Yale and they’re still gonna end up asking me, “Well, can you write?”

At the end of our short discussion, I told Christian all this in a nutshell. “Success in the real world depends on who you know, not what you know,” I told him. This, of course, against my better judgment, seeing as how I basically told a guy in college to not do his class work.

Nevertheless, I feel like that’s worthwhile advice and it makes sense.

Any editors or other pros care to weigh in on this?

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