A career day conundrum

Categories: Career, Hacking Life, Uncategorized


I’m traveling to my hometown later this week, to give a talk to students at my old high school. It’s career day, and I’m on a panel with a handful of other journalists.

I’ve done this gig before, and it’s always been a blast. But while I’m looking forward to this trip, too, there is a very large difference this time: The industry I’ve devoted my career to is collapsing, and I’m supposed to be doling out advice to students who want to follow the same path I have. What on earth am I going to tell them?

It just seems wrong to tell these young hopefuls, “Look, you really don’t want to be the last one driving this bus. Study something else.” But it seems equally wrong to be idealistic about print journalism right now, what with newspapers going online only or folding entirely or being threatened with closure or going bankrupt.

So, I’m going to tell them a few things that I wish I knew 20 years ago, when I landed my first paid byline and decided that journalism was the field for me. I think the advice applies for pretty much any career path — even ones you might consider for a later-in-life switch:

1.) Study everything. Even if you’re certain that your major is perfect for you and you’d never want to try anything else, try something else. In fact, try everything else. You never know… that underwater basket-weaving class might be a revelation, or a night-school cooking class might prove that real-life in a restaurant isn’t quite so much like “Top Chef” as you had hoped.

2.) Learn how to promote yourself. No matter where you work, you’ll probably be able to apply the things you learn in a marketing class.

3.) Think in terms of gaining marketable skills. Journalism is a trade; the more you do, the more you know, regardless of what you’ve learned in school. In the same way, on-the-job experience is essential no matter what field you choose.

4.) Get a mentor. I didn’t really have one, and to this day I wish I had done more to pick people’s brains and learn the ropes.

5.) Network, network, network. It’s so much easier to do this now, with email and Facebook and LinkedIn, than it was I was in college. Take full advantage of your connectivity!

What would you tell a high school student or about-to-be college grad who came to you for career advice in this economy? Are you still in love with your career? (Were you ever?)

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5 comments so far...

  • Fabulous. Four years ago as a 22 yo I used to tell my fellow co-workers how having just one job to rely on is unreasonable. We got to get out there and get back up plans for ourselves. Of course everyone thought i was crazy. What do I know, I am only 22 right?

    Well guess what? Now that’s what everyone is saying. Ha!

    So great advice Lylah. Although I wouldn’t say, study everything, sounds overwhelming. I’d say explore all your talents and see what matches the current and upcoming trends. Don’t settle for one career path. Being multi-talented is key.

    I remember about eight years ago, Will Smith, bragged about being multi-talented, because he rapped, produced sitcoms and did blockbuster movies. Now it’s the norm and expected.

    vera babayeva  |  April 13th, 2009 at 7:18 am

  • This is really great advice. I had an advisor in college that told me not to just study music, but to also study Business, so that way I would have a back up.

    I also agree about learning to market oneself, I am learning that to get yourself out there you have to market yourself. No ifs, ands or buts.

    I think you find your mentors as you go along, but know that you have been a mentor to me, so hopefully that makes you smile.


    Gia Saulnier  |  April 13th, 2009 at 7:28 am

  • Vera: great point about overwhelm. Maybe “Be open to anything” would be better than “study everything”

    Gia: you just made my day — thank you! Happy to help!

    Lylah  |  April 13th, 2009 at 9:06 am

  • Hmmm. It seems to me that there’s a difference between “print journalism” and “journalism”. Just because print journalism goes under, does that really mean that these students can’t have the job they are hoping for? Is your work really only valuable when printed on dead trees? *grin*

    That said, though, I do agree with the advice you went on to give. Just maybe not the specific fears behind it.

    Rini  |  April 13th, 2009 at 1:47 pm

  • Rini: That’s a good point. I don’t think I was clear… the panel I’m on is talking with students about print journalism specifically, writing and editing for newspapers, the web, and magazines. But most colleges haven’t really figured out how to teach web-based journalism, so these kids are looking at studying a more traditional print form (which is really different)…

    Lylah  |  April 13th, 2009 at 1:55 pm