Should You Do A Journalism Degree? Why I Did An NCTJ Instead

London like a Londoner

An NCTJ level 3 diploma is an accredited journalism course ran by the National College for the Training of Journalists. The course is designed to give you the knowledge and skills to begin a career as a professional journalist and it can be taken before, after or instead of university. In many cases an NCTJ is something that is requested by editors in an application process regardless of whether you have a degree in Journalism or any other subject.

So, should you do an NCTJ instead of a journalism degree?

If like me you’re considering taking a NCTJ then you’re probably a pretty impatient person too so I’ve put this post into subheadings so feel free to skim through until you reach the topic that you’re interested in.

Why I dropped out of University

When it came to deciding what to do after Sixth Form, we were really pushed towards going to university in my College and I think that’s the case for most places in the UK.

Writing is something I really enjoy and I was drawn to Journalism because it’s one of the most adaptable careers as you can apply it to almost any area e.g food, travel or science. So when I finished Sixth Form and it was time to consider Higher Education options, applying for a Journalism degree in a London university seemed like the right choice.

It may have just been my own personal experience but I was massively disappointed with my degree.  It had taken a lot of mental energy and a lot of money both from my parents, from the full-time job I had taken in a supermarket in London to support myself and from the heavy debt I was ranking up every day I was there yet for all of this, I felt that I was getting very little out of my degree or my university experience in general

Crappy flatmates aside (that’s a whole other post) for £9000 a year plus rent and all my other London living expenses I was getting just three hours tutored lessons a week, many of which involved sitting in a lecture hall while our lecturer put on a film he’d found off YouTube. My degree also wasn’t exam based, didn’t teach us shorthand, didn’t give us any help getting work experience and spent a lot of time getting us to write essays rather than articles.

Every day I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was hanging around, working myself into the ground at late night shifts at the supermarket and spending a lot of evenings scouring for bargains in the reduced section of Tesco just so I could make it to these three-hour tutored lessons. Being in London I thought I’d be having the time of my life. in truth I didn’t have the money or the mental enthusiasm to have fun and my weekly highlight used to be buying lunch once a week from Pret.

I knew something had to change and I thought, surely I could learn everything from this degree in a lot less time than three years and for a lot less money? This is why when I came home for christmas I decided to drop out of university, move back home and start my full-time NCTJ diploma in Brighton instead.

What is an NCTJ? 

In the UK an NCTJ (The National Council for the Training of Journalists Diploma) is an official journalism qualification that give you the specific skills required for the industry (A little like doing your accountancy exams if you’re training to be an accountant). It provides vocational lessons and exams in media law, court reporting, public affairs, shorthand, production journalism and essential journalism.

What are the entry requirements?

An NCTJ can be taken after a degree, before or instead of (the only entrance requirement is usually 5 GCSEs at grades A-C, one of which must be English and 2 A Levels or equivalent).

Where can you do an NCTJ?

NCTJ courses can be run by specialist journalism schools, in sixth forms, universities or by distance learning. There are a couple of university journalism degrees in the UK that are NCTJ certified however the latter are not and a lot of professional journalism jobs require that you take the NCTJ regardless of whether you have a degree or not.

You can view the full list of accredited courses here:

My NCTJ with Brighton Journalist Works 

I found out about the option to take an NCTJ after searching out alternatives to university for Journalism in Brighton. I studied for mine at Brighton Journalist Works, an independent journalism school in the centre of the city and took a news based course. I took the fast track course that cost £4,200 which although I had to pay upfront, worked out so much cheaper than university in the long-term.  There was also an option to get a loan or pay in installments. My course was five days a week, nine to five and could be completed in 16 weeks from March to July. There was also another fast track course that run from September to January and a part-time course that starts in September.

Our course was assessed at the end of the 16 weeks with seven exams along with an assessment of our portfolio which had to contain a mixture of news, feature and media pieces. On  the course we worked closely with our local paper where many of us, myself included got the chance to be published, including partnerships with other events in Brighton like the Fringe festival.

There were 16 of us in the class, the majority who’d just finished their degrees with three of us who hadn’t gone to university and a couple of people looking for a career change.

Brighton Journalist Works:

Why an NCTJ worked for me

An NCTJ really felt like the right option for me personally. Here’s why.

  • It gave me practical skills as a journalist
  • It helped to improve my writing
  • It had exams and I work well with an end goal
  • We had the chance to be published and received feedback and help with building our portfolio
  • We had inspiring mentors who were real journalists
  • It was great for contact building
  • It was full-time and gave me structure and really challenged me
  • It was a much cheaper alternative to university as I didn’t like the idea of being in debt
  • I could move back home which saved money and helped after my bad experience at university
  • It was short and I was desperate to stop studying and start working and travelling
  • It was interesting. Journalism schools have a strict criteria in regards to what they teach on the course so you really do learn a remarkable amount in a short period of time

Other reasons an NCTJ might be good

  • If you’re not sure if you want to be a journalist then it’s better to find out by doing an NCTJ than a full degree
  • Transferable skills for other areas like digital marketing, PR , sub-editing or copy-writing.
  • On a gap year
  • After university if you’ve done a degree unrelated to journalism but want to get into the industry
  • To improve your chances of getting a graduate job after doing a journalism or english degree
  • If you want to continue to study after higher education or fancy a career change

Finishing studying: A year on 

Since graduating I’ve not been very prolific on the job hunt because in all honesty I’ve just been travelling for the whole year. However the great thing about doing my NCTJ instead of university is that it’s given me a lot more time to play around with. Travelling  and this blog are my passions and at 21 I’m in no hurry to get a full-time job yet.

One thing I can say is that when I have applied for jobs I haven’t knowingly received any rejection because I don’t have a degree. In so many respects the NCTJ has given me more than a degree ever would have: Shorthand, a portfolio of published work, law and court reporting practice.

It’s also given me a lot of confidence, saved me a lot of money and has given me a lot of time. In a year since graduating I’ve started this blog, spent months travelling, I’ve done copy-writing, an internship for one of my favourite news and current affairs programs and I’ve earnt enough money with all this and working at a cafe, to travel the world.

I’m sure next year when a lot of my friends graduate, lots of them will walk into graduate jobs straight away, but some won’t and some won’t want to. I’m not sure where I’ll be this time next year, be it working or travelling but my plan is to keep saying yes to experiences and keep writing because even though I’m not studying anymore, I’m still learning every day.

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