From the newsroom to the classroom: Why I left my job as a journalist to get a Ph.D

In less than a month, after a 14-year career as a full-time reporter and nearly three years as a journalism lecturer, I will be a student again.

I never planned on moving from the newsroom to the classroom. I fell in love with newspapers in high school, where I became an avid contributor to my student paper. Starting in college, I interned at The Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle, then worked at The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and The Deal.

I loved daily deadlines, became a print junkie (I still prefer buying newspapers and magazines to getting new digitally), and believed that journalism was a profession that let you make a difference in the world. In 2003 I went for my masters’ degree in journalism at Columbia, graduated and then immediately returned to the newsroom.

So why am I now about to start earning a doctorate, leaving behind work life for student life? Why take on what one friend who got a doctorate recalls as a “mental marathon?” Why walk away in the prime of my earning years for a course marked by clear risks but uncertain rewards?

Searching for new avenues

The decision to go for a doctorate wasn’t easy – I struggled with it for a couple of years, drawing up a list of pros and cons and interviewing those who had taken a similar journey.

Back when I first went into journalism at 20, there was an unspoken rule: once a journalist, always a journalist. Like many other young reporters, I vowed to never go to the “dark side” of public relations, much less consider some other career.

But then the arrival of Google, the explosion of social media and the lightning speed with which information arrived changed how we acquire, consumer and deliver news. The landscape of the newsroom morphed from meeting one deadline to many, leaving reporters like me sometimes feeling like an octopus on roller skates. With the changes came layoffs and casualties in the newsroom.

While my love of news and journalism never diminished, I came to accept that the traditional journalist was slowly going extinct. I looked for other avenues to continue my passion for writing and reporting, transferring my newsroom skills to projects such as shaping a journalism curriculum and serving as a project manager for journalism conferences and events. In 2011 I fell into teaching when I applied for an adjunct-lecturer position as a last-minute replacement at Shue Yan University, a private university with a stellar journalism program in Hong Kong. I enjoyed it so much that I continued over the next two years.

Wu (front row center, with blue purse) with students on a class trip to Bloomberg

Those years of searching and experimenting were when the seeds of pursuing a doctorate were planted. In Hong Kong – and much of Asia – a doctorate remains coveted, respected, and a necessity for promotion from lecturer to professor. With encouragement from my boss, last fall I enrolled in a part-time doctorate program at a local university in Hong Kong. A class on theory and the opportunity to examine news from a different angle whetted my appetite for more. I wanted to immerse myself fully in the program, and started counting the years. It would take me six or seven years to complete a doctorate as a part-time student. But what if I took the plunge and pursued my degree full-time?

Last fall I took a small group of students from Shue Yan to observe and cover the 2012 U.S. presidential elections in Washington, D.C. I arranged meetings for the students with various media outlets and university journalism programs, and connected with journalism departments to explore ways our schools might work together. One of those schools was the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. I was impressed with the people I met there, and noted that a number of faculty members had left behind careers as professional journalists to become educators. I was encouraged to look into Maryland’s doctorate program and soon had the gut sense – intuition, if you will — that this was the place and now was the time.

I took the leap and applied. When I was accepted I was happy – but I wrestled with the idea of leaving behind an excellent job and colleagues. They encouraged me to take on the challenge, though: with my doctorate I might return someday and be able to contribute even more to Shue Yan. It was a win-win situation, in other words.

Plenty of company

While this is a big change, I’m far from alone. Over the past five years I’ve seen an uptick in journalists jumping on the newsroom-to-classroom bandwagon. Facebook has become a landscape of updated statuses: from reporter to lecturer, adjunct professor and professor. It’s true that many of the newsroom-to-classroom crew are award-winning journalists in their sunset years, but some are younger journalists making the move in their prime, or seeking a second career.

For the first time this year, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is sponsoring a Graduate Expo for journalists at its annual conference with 22 colleges and universities participating. Paula Poindexter, AEJMC’s incoming president, said the group hopes to target the growing number of journalists interested in graduate programs.

Via email, Poindexter predicts that “more journalists will think about getting a Ph.D., which will lead to more journalists pursuing a Ph.D. degree. These doctoral students who are former journalists will become role models for those who’ve been thinking about getting a doctorate but weren’t sure how to proceed.”

My conversations with friends in academia convinced me that I don’t need a doctorate to teach. But those same friends noted that to be a professor at a big-name journalism school without one, it would really help if you “wrote a book or won an award.” And at many universities outside of the U.S. a doctorate is a basic requirement for teaching. Overall, a doctorate opens doors to more teaching opportunities, and offers the hope of more freedom to think, write and produce — as well as a chance to get on the tenure track.

Kathleen McElroy was senior editor at The New York Times before seeking her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin in 2011. She’s also a friend of mine, who’s served as a sounding board for me in reaching my decision. She shed some light on what inspired her own move: “I became more interested in researching why and how journalism works — theory, essentially — rather than just practicing journalism. And I really enjoyed working with The Times’ web producers — young, bright, eager. They inspired me to want to teach.”

That resonated with me – as did something Poindexter said.

“The reasons for leaving industry to pursue a Ph.D. vary widely,” she said. “While some journalists have viewed the academy as an oasis with new opportunities, especially after the downsizing of newsrooms, others have wanted to have an impact on the restructuring of journalism education and training of future journalists.”

I won’t be in the newsroom, but my doctorate program is the perfect way to keep up with the industry, and observe it through a critical lens. I’m excited about finding new and creative ways to teach and examine journalism during these changing times, and I continue to be inspired by those who share the same background and have followed the same path.

“Getting a doctorate is harder than I thought — reading, writing papers, reading, and more reading — but more rewarding than I could ever imagine,” McElroy told me.

Hearing that, and reflecting on my journey so far, I found myself smiling – and thinking that I can’t wait to go back to school.

Amy Wu is starting at the University of Maryland in the fall.

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  • Edward Ericson Jr

    Good luck.