Tip-sheet – What I Learned at SEJ 2017’s: Going from Professional to Professor panel:

BY Apoorva Joshi

Author Apoorva Joshi

Author Apoorva Joshi

These tips come from panellists and attendees at a Society of Environmental Journalists session about making the transition from professional journalist to academic.

The Before:

  • Although there’s a culture change when going from professional journalism to teaching journalism, it might not be as hard as you think it’s going to be. Your commitments depend on what terms the academic institution in question requires you to fulfil. Do you have a research requirement? If yes, what kind? It helps to think about these criteria before deciding on switching to a professor.
  • You don’t have to be a staff writer or reporter. Full-time freelancers have also successfully made the transition to academia once they figured out what they needed to strengthen in their profile.
  • Think about what level you’re planning to teach. For example, if you’re looking to teach at the college level, you need to be a subject matter expert. Knowing this helps set specific goals like determining whether you need to first get a master’s degree and be introduced to the world of academic research.
  • If you’re looking to first test the waters, guest lecturing might be worth trying as you foray into the unknown. Look at universities that might have 1-credit journalism courses – these could be beat or craft-based. Guest lecturing might not pay well, or at all, but volunteering to teach at the college level is an experience rich with insights that can help in the decision about going from professional to professor.
  • It might seem like something you’d never do, or probably shouldn’t do, but sometimes these ‘stupid decisions’ are risks worth taking in the long run. Michigan State University professor David Poulson, the senior associate director at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, for example, was once a journalist by day and guest lecturer by night. Diving head-first into making a professional commitment while an organization is still in its nascent stages may seem counterintuitive, but it can be an opportunity to shape journalism education. “Plunging into the Knight Center”, as Poulson puts it, was a “stupid decision that worked out.”
  • Know that whether you get paid during this time or not, you get approximately three months off every year thanks to summer and winter breaks.
  • Consider whether being an adjunct professor might be a better fit. Look into what journalism schools at universities or colleges are seeking in an adjunct faculty member.

The After:

  • When you’re new, it’s perfectly acceptable to consult your peers who may have been teaching for longer about designing a syllabus, meeting university requirements and general academic policies.
  • Be prepared to interact with students from multiple educational, socio-cultural and economic backgrounds with a variety of opinions and ideas. As faculty, professors have to be prepared for unexpected circumstances affecting students who may be dealing with mental health crises. Understand how to approach and navigate these often-delicate situations.
  • Highly structured courses may not offer a lot of freedom on what you can cover in your syllabus, but that varies among universities.
  • If there’s a semi-professional newsroom on-campus, you could capitalize on that by building a professional journalism angle into your syllabus and work with students to create publishable work.
  • If you do make the switch to academia, continue to practice journalism so your knowledge of what’s going on in the work world is current and not obsolete.
  • It’s really easy to not work hard, but you must work hard: Journalism is a goal-oriented field where hard work can make the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
  • Try to level with students – get on the page they’re on so you can best serve their needs and help them learn.
  • Be cognizant that given students’ varying levels of experience in journalism, you’ll be evaluating work that reflects varying levels of talent, understanding and thinking.
  • Divide and conquer long structured lectures that seem challenging to you – a 75-minute lecture can be broken down into a workshop-like class session with multiple blocks of 15 minutes each.
  • Retain and apply your skills as a professional journalist – take students out into the field to produce a story or cover an event, or teach them to use new media reporting tools.
  • Repeatedly reinforce the concept of a deadline – many students view deadlines very differently from the way journalists view them.
  • Be aware that you may need to invest more time and effort when interacting with and teaching international students who may have a hard time overcoming cultural and/or language challenges. Patiently work through it with them.
  • Don’t get rid of that Rolodex! Keep your journalism contacts – you might need them to talk to your students on what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent in Russia, or what it’s like to be a photojournalist on assignment in a conflict zone.
  • Recognize that students aren’t the same as amateur journalists. Getting them there is your job.
  • Think about ways to engage the students in assigned readings and discussions. Don’t assume they’ll do the readings. Instead, before assigning readings, talk about them in class using engaging group discussions, humor or even the element of surprise.
  • Don’t feel straightjacketed by your syllabus. When professionals and scholars visit campus, take advantage of those visits and schedule impromptu guest lectures if you can or if you think it’ll help the students.

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