Deconstructing the Zillion-Dollar Investment That Still Hasn’t Yielded Any Damn Returns…

Recently, while I was en route to meet up with some old coworkers circa 34th and 8th, I ran into a classmate from junior high who I haven’t seen since — oh, I don’t know — 1994? And as soon as we established we were who we thought we were, she said, “Lisa! This is so weird! I was just thinking about writing you because I’m thinking about applying to journalism school…”

Sooo…long story short, I sent her the longest email ever. Which — slightly doctored — seemed like an okay blog post, too.

Et, voila.

Here it goes: The jury is still out on whether I think Columbia was worthwhile. It was certainly a good experience at the time and I met really wonderful people and made really wonderful contacts…and it’s super-quick and definitely gives you some street cred and/or a name to drop at cocktail parties…and — keep in mind that I graduated at quite possibly the single worst time ever…and *that* has definitely played into my experiences post-Columbia. But, then again, after Martha let me slip through her fingers, I was networking like a fiend, trying to drum up freelance contacts and/or a full-time job…and I met a guy who had graduated from Columbia a few years before me…and he said you have to look at it like an investment and, understandably, you can’t expect an ROI immediately. Which makes sense. But it’s not always comforting.

If I could do it again, I’d definitely do the new media program — or whatever they’re calling it now. Prior to grad school, I was a financial journalist…but only because I majored in English and wanted a writing job…and there are TONS of financial writing jobs here. (In fact, a LOT of my classmates ended up at Reuters and Bloomberg and Dow Jones…even though they’re not necessarily interested in writing about finance at all — but they need paychecks and health insurance…and this week I got not one but TWO panicked emails from friends in that situation…and had to send them peppy responses about how it’s all going to work out for us someday and that these are just the lean times…and, I mean, I hope I’m right…but I know how they feel — I, too, have my panicky moments and sort of depend on them for the same advice when *I* freak out…)

So, anyway, I went to Columbia because four years went by really fast and all of a sudden, I had backed myself into this niche and even though I told myself I wasn’t going to make a career out of venture capital or mutual funds — and I really feel that I am woefully inadequate to cover these topics as I am HORRIBLE with money — by ’06, it was all anyone trusted me to cover (…if they actually trusted me at all. Which is a whole other can o’ worms…). I really had no clips about anything else. And…a lot of people I worked with at Dow Jones had gone to Columbia, so I finally decided it was worth my while to go, too, so I could prove that I had basic reporting skills and that I *could* write about other things and I wanted to make the leap from financial reporting to Martha. (I really like baking…) And more than one person I worked with at Dow Jones didn’t actually want to be there…which didn’t seem that bad for poor Master’s-Degree-less Lisa…but I sort of looked at the Columbia grads who ended up there with pity, thinking that things would be different for me if *I* went through the program…

So…I hustled. I really did. And — I don’t know about you, but…when I graduated from college, I just sort of expected someone to give me a good job because I worked really hard in college. And, you know, if I had studied business or engineering or something, maybe that would have been the case. But, other than maybe teaching, there just isn’t a really clearly defined career path for English majors. And so I really struggled to find my way. And eventually I did…but I was determined not to let the same post-graduation slump hit after Columbia.

And, like I said — it worked…for awhile. I interned at Good Housekeeping while I was a student and I got a gig with Martha after graduation. But…then she let me go…which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the worst thing ever as I wasn’t enormously happy there…and, between the two gigs, I learned magazine journalism isn’t really what I want to do anyway. Which sort of ushered in another existential crisis — like, “I thought I knew what I wanted to do! And now here I am practically 30 and I was totally wrong!” And, I mean, I’m working on a book now and freelancing and whatnot…so it’s not exactly tragic…but…like I said, if I could go back in time, I’d do the new media program. I tried to sort of couch things while I was there and take the new media elective…but I got the fill-in teacher on Saturday…and the class was AWFUL and we learned NOTHING. The guy knew his stuff…he was just really bad at explaining it…and, to make up for it, he just had us create WordPress blogs…and said we could do as much or as little with them as we wanted. So…none of us really learned any valuable Web skills. So. That’s point #1.

#2: I haven’t been astonishingly impressed with Career Services — either as a student or a grad. In my first meeting, the lady looked at my resume and said, “Oh, great! You have financial reporting experience! It will be easy for you to get a job after graduation…” and I said, “Well, that’s the thing — I don’t want to write about finance anymore. That’s the whole reason I’m here…” and she said, “Oh…” and I think she knew someone at Food & Wine…but that went nowhere. And, I mean, it could very well be because I had these weird, stringent demands at the time — Food! I want to write about food! — and, really, a lot of my classmates have gone on to successful careers at the Miami Herald and CBS and the Huffington Post…but…I found the gig at Good Housekeeping on my own. I found the gig at Martha on my own. Take from that what you will…

The Career Services department sends out emails about jobs from time to time…but I haven’t found those to be enormously helpful either. We got one once about an entry-level position at the New York Times Syndicate. And it said it was very clerical but that it was a great position for someone who eventually wanted to go on to editing and that two grads from ’07 had taken similar positions and were quickly promoted to editors. I sent in my letter and got called in for an interview…and the first words out of the editor’s mouth were, “Did anyone tell you how crappy this job is?” and I tried to be upbeat and mentioned what Career Services had said about the two grads from ’07 getting promoted and she said, “That was a fluke. I had to fire one guy and another joined the Army…your ascent would be profoundly slower.” And then she told me that the job entailed an hour and a half a day of sorting mail…and cleaning the managing editor’s office. So. I didn’t get the job…but wasn’t really upset about it…and then about a month later, Career Services sent out another email about this SAME position saying the SAME things about how it was great for a future editor and that two grads from ’07 quickly scaled the editorial ladder…so I sent a reply to some of my classmates and said, “Don’t be fooled! This is the mail-sorting, office-cleaning gig!” and one of them jokingly responded, “How do we know you’re not just saying that to keep this job for yourself?”

So. I don’t have to tell you that it’s tough out there…but…I really feel like I’ve been on my own as far as finding jobs are concerned. But, then again, a friend got a gig at a Spanish language newspaper thanks to Career Services and she just loves the guy who works there. And…in Career Services’ defense, they *do* tell you how much easier it is to find jobs if you leave New York. So that may be part of my problem, too.

And…I’m a Libra — the scales. So I’m notoriously bad with decision-making and can often see both sides of an issue. Case in point: Sometimes I feel like maybe I would have been better off just quitting my job and hustling to become a freelancer. Because…in the end, that’s what happened…and I wouldn’t be up to my eyeballs in debt for the rest of my life. But…on the other hand, I really, REALLY hated writing about venture capital and mutual funds…and…I fill in for this marketing publication every now and again…which really just means I write about brands that have promotions on Facebook or Twitter…and I just wrote about beer…and, as I was writing it, I had an epiphany that I really was much happier writing about beer than I ever was writing about, say, XBRL or 22c-2. And I realized that I would probably be profoundly unhappy if I had stayed in financial reporting and I would totally regret not taking a chance and seeing what happened. And…I suppose there’s still hope for my career. Who knows what the future will bring…but, at the same time, I haven’t dreamed of writing about Facebook campaigns ever since I was a little girl…so…it’s not like what I’m doing now is truly fulfilling. It definitely sucks less than what I was doing before…but, then again, I didn’t go to Columbia to get a job that sucks less.

But…then again (again), I wouldn’t have worked at Good Housekeeping or Martha (or written for HuffPo) without Columbia.

And I think your experience there is really strongly influenced by your RW1 instructor/class. I got really lucky — I had Dale Maharidge and he was/is wonderful and has been a great resource post-graduation. (I also took a literary journalism class with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt…and he is totally amazing and I love him…and he’s been really helpful with this book I’m trying to get published…) And…I was really lucky because my RW1 class got along really well…and we’re all still (pretty) good friends now. But…I heard horror stories about some RW1 classes…and so I can imagine if you don’t like your instructor, it would really profoundly influence your experience…and you’re only there for ten months! But…there’s not much you can do about that — it’s just sort of the luck of the draw.

And, I mean, really — the experience is what you make of it. There were people who really worked hard to get a lot out of it and endear themselves to the community and who were super-involved…and there were others that, well, didn’t. But…even some of the ones who did everything “right” while they were there still ended up scrambling after graduation…

I assume you’re looking at starting in the fall of 2011? So…you’d be graduating into a totally different environment than the one I found…and I really don’t know much at all about CUNY’s program. I sort of put all my eggs in one basket…as I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in New York and I figured that if I didn’t get in to Columbia, it would be a sign that I was supposed to move on to a different city.

So, in short — if you go, I’d highly recommend the new media program (even though the first thing Sree Sreenivasan said to me was, “You have a weather girl name.”) and remember that it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to be in journalism now…and you may end up having to take a job that you don’t want after graduation in order to make ends meet…which may be totally obvious…but…I thought I had such a leg up on all those kiddos who came to Columbia right after graduating from college — I felt like I had a much better idea of what it was I wanted from the program and, noble as their aspirations might have been, I couldn’t help thinking whenever they spoke of becoming the next Susan Orlean or John McPhee that they were perhaps being a bit idealistic…and that’s not to say that it won’t ever happen…it’s just highly unlikely right after graduation. And yet I still ended up getting a HUGE reality check after graduation, too.

And it’s a TON of money. And, nearly two years out, I’m still not quite sure if it was money well spent. Although, then again, if I get a book deal and become the next Julie Powell, I will totally be singing a different tune. That’s the other thing — you have to remember what it is that you really want and even if you *do* get stuck writing about the price of corn (as one of my classmates does), I think you have to have the chutzpah to keep working on projects on the side — which is also not easy to do when you have a job you hate and come home and just want to watch Mad Men and eat Cadbury mini eggs — or you’ll get really super-depressed.

But, then again, even though I have to write about social media campaigns and dispense financial advice to savvy urban 20-something ladies and I fake-gamble three mornings a week to make ends meet, I’m not writing about mutual funds anymore…and I *did* break out of the financial niche…which may have been impossible otherwise.

I know this is WAY MORE than you wanted to hear…but…the “Was going to Columbia a good idea?”-question has been in the back of my mind for about 18 months now…and I feel like most of my classmates are on the fence about it, too. For whatever that’s worth.

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