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Sep 10 / King Kaufman

Career advice from Columbia J-school dean: Be great at something

If you’re aspiring in the typing game you’ve probably heard the advice to get good at a bunch of different things, to be—in a phrase that’s become popular—a “Swiss Army Knife journalist.”

Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab has a bracing bit of against-the-grain counsel from Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: Get great at a few things.

One of many educators, recent grads and industry pros Nieman Lab has asked to assess the job journalism schools are doing, Grueskin wrote that many schools are doing students and their potential future employers a disservice by emphasizing the Swiss Army Knife approach:

Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has a robust Career Services office with a career expo that regularly attracts more than 100 employers a year. Those news organizations don’t often ask for “do-it-all” journalists these days, says Ernest Sotomayor, dean of students.

Instead, they are chiefly focused on students who understand the value of reporting, news judgment, and writing. They often say they want students who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific digital skill or two. Having additional skills is a plus, but without strong fundamentals, they don’t land top jobs.

Grueskin pithily points out that “The Swiss Army knife is a useful tool on camping trips, but you’d be unlikely to use one in your kitchen if you have a great paring knife or corkscrew nearby.”

In an industry that’s transforming at dizzying speed, then transforming again just when you thought you had the last transformation figured out, it can’t hurt to be willing and able to do a lot of things.

But are there one or two things you’re working on getting great at?