Academia vs journalism? Reaching a career crossroads

Newspapers in SOAS Library
Newspapers in SOAS Library

SOAS student Selim Yaman (MSc Political Economy of Development) finds himself in a professional quandary.

“I am at a crossroads.  Should I choose an academic path or pursue a career in journalism?  After trialling both life styles, let me tell you my personal observations.  Then you decide which one is more suitable for me.

“…all this information may accumulate and become a meaningful whole.”

“Academia is about digging up deep knowledge; making connections between dots.  Today’s academia is based on social Fordism.  Everyone is specializing in very narrow topics: titles of dissertations are lengthening day by day.  You may find an essay about the role of entrepreneurs in decreasing the number of dolphins, or a paper entitled ‘the importance of kitchen tools in shaping community life in ancient Mesopotamia’.  Each of these studies is a drop in the ocean but, collectively, all this information may accumulate and become a meaningful whole; may constitute a big theory; a key to saving the world.  At least there is hope.

“Recent research revealed…”

“Turning to journalists, we have people who are trying to save the world every single day, but failing each time.  Journalism is not about producing new theories, or making fresh arguments.  It is about reflecting daily developments, and selling what the academics have already discovered.  They are the ones who produce the arguments, which journalists pick up upon and bring to public attention.  ‘Recent research revealed that…’ is a phrase that you can run across every day.  If a journalist decides to dig up a topic and needs empirical evidence, then some studies are unearthed from the ivory tower of academia for the newspapers, TV channels or social media.

“In this sense, the media’s role cannot be counted as intellectual as the academics’.  Let’s not pretend that we don’t know that journalism is seen as a less-than-intellectual activity by some.  Even journalists themselves sometimes underestimate their jobs.  Well, it actually depends.  If you’re re-posting what you’ve seen in social media, or copying news from agencies and contribute nothing yourself then, yes, you are transforming journalism to a non-intellectual activity.  But, if you’re undertaking an investigation, for example, then you need to connect the different points and produce a story.  If you are able to interpret sophisticated economic data published by big fancy international organizations, then you can make an analysis of them and bring it into the public domain.  If you’re holding an interview, you need to ask the right questions; channel the talk to a meaningful point.  The key here is how you manage to translate the information you unearth and communicate it for public use.  That’s all up to you, and it has nothing to do with the nature of journalism.  Producing content like academics may require intense intellectual effort, that’s true, but you can be a researcher in journalism, too.  Hence, my current dilemma.

“…not stuck in the closed market of theories.”

“Here is the advantage of SOAS: you’re not lost in microeconomic theories or mathematical models about regressions.  You have plenty of applied classes and you can catch the latest discussions.  You have the opportunity to make analyses of current problems facing different regions.  This is something you cannot find in other universities.  You’re at university, but not stuck in the closed market of theories.

“…an endless conflict…”

“Journalism also mean a life between impact and reaction, or challenge and response.  It is more like an endless conflict, a fight you can never give up.  If you give up, then you’re simply out.  On the other hand, you can find a quieter and a happier life at universities.  Of course, there is a fight here too, and it’s usually a more ideological and a deeper one, but at least you can go to bed at night without thinking about it when everything settles down.

“One practical difference I have to mention are the working hours.  Academics can be completely off when they are out of the university, but journalists have no regular working hours; there is no such thing as being off.  Life doesn’t stop here.  When some journalists might sleep in the Middle East, others in the US are just waking up and announcing their plans.  Or, all of a sudden, at midnight, you might hear about a possible coup attempt, which needs to be reported immediately.

“Overall, each profession has its own advantages and its own difficulties.  It’s up to the individual to shape their own profession.  But don’t worry, it is sometimes possible to jump from one to another, or create your own space in between.”

So, which career path should Selim follow?


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