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Do You Need a Degree to Get into Television?

What better time to consider the role of a degree qualification when looking for jobs in television, and in particular the value of a media studies qualification?

A-level results are in; GSCE results are in; the manic dash for university places is well under way ; Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced plans for an English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) to encourage the study of more academic subjects at A-level (by this they mean the likes of English, maths, sciences, modern languages, history and geography) ; Conservative Minister Elizabeth Truss has called for children to favour these more traditional subjects over what some considered to be ‘soft’ options (like tourism & leisure, PE and, yes, I’m afraid so, media studies!); and today the Office for National Statistics released data that shows that the pay gap between people with degrees and those without has narrowed (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=2732).

That data shows that employees with the highest qualifications earned 85 per cent more than those educated to around the GCSE or equivalent level at the end of 2010 – but this figure is lower than the 95 per cent reported in the same research in 1993, when there were fewer graduates.

The research, conducted among people aged 22 to 64, also showed that one in five graduates earned less than the average for those educated to A-Level standard.

So statistically having a degree should mean you still have a better chance of earning more but not necessarily.

But never mind the rest of the work place, what about getting into television? And does it have to be a media degree? Several of you have asked my advice on this subject and I will give my point of view BUT always remember that everyone’s situation is different and there may be others in the industry who may not agree with me! Getting a job and keeping a job in TV depends a lot – but not totally – on qualifications. Fate, personal skills, contacts all play a significant part.

OK, I’ve been putting it off. Do you need a degree to get into television?

NO.

But it helps – a lot. I can find you successful people in television production who got there without a degree. I could find a whole host of television presenters who got on-screen without a degree. There are plenty of writers, journalists, camera operators – you name it – who didn’t get where they are today by having a degree.

BUT the BUT is a big one – you are competing in a very crowded market. The competition for jobs in television is intense so anything that helps you stand out, anything that points to a good level of education and intelligence is going to help. Most people recruiting in the media will look for a degree qualification as some kind of sign that you have the basics, the ability to consume and regurgitate information in a meaningful and accessible way. And apart from anything else those years at university or college should be fun, character-building, an opportunity to explore interesting subjects, to make friends and quite possibly future useful contacts, and a chance to develop interests in extra-curricular clubs that could be relevant to your future employment.

Does that degree need to be  a Media Studies or Television Production one?

NO.

But it has its advantages, as follows:

  • It demonstrates your genuine interest in the media and television.
  • It should be great fun!
  • You’ll learn to work as a team.
  • Hopefully you’ll take on various different production and technical roles during your studies which should give you an insight into the pressures on other members of production and crew when you do finally get into that job.
  • You should come out with a clear understanding of how television works (this all depends on the quality of your degree course – and that’s another subject altogether!) and what you need to do to put a good programme together.
  • Those techniques you learnt in the edit suite or directing on location will come into their own when someone finally gives you the opportunity to produce or direct something yourself, or when they ask your advice.
  • You’ll be able to put your hand up when someone asks if any of the runners know how to use a Z1 and can go shoot a news story cos the director just phoned in sick!
  • It should give you a clear idea of which role you are most suited to in television production.

So what you should study if you are planning to go to university and think you may want to work in television when you graduate?

The subject that you are most likely to enjoy, the subject you are most passionate about. I suspect most employers in television care less about the subject of your degree and more about your passion for a subject and your ability to manage and present information.

If you want to work in television but have fallen in love with classical history then sign up for a classical history degree but make sure you take full advantage of any media clubs and societies at uni while you are there (blog post coming soon on just how and why you should do that). One day you may find a TV company making a series on classical history sites around the world and you could find yourself in prime position to get a job on it because of your degree subject.

The nature – the joy, in fact – of television is that it is about education, information and entertainment (as John Reith summarised for the BBC so long ago). There is no subject that television can’t, won’t or shouldn’t feature. So no matter what your degree subject, no matter how obscure your hobby, or how perverse your interests, there’s bound to be a programme somewhere that needs your knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with a Media Studies degree but ask yourself this: if I decide working in television is not for me, to what other uses can I put my media degree? There are probably lots – I am no expert in that, nor in the details of the average media course (I’ll find out, of course, and make that another article!).

The internet is creating all sorts of fascinating opportunities to create and distribute content. Media studies should be about mass communication – the methods of distribution may change but the need for new ideas, new ways of disseminating information, the desire to entertain and be entertained will always be there. Make sure the course you sign up for is giving you the tools to be part of that. And make sure the course you sign up for will give you the practical tools to earn money. That, after all, is really what it is all about….

To summarise – if you can get one, if you can afford one these days, go get a degree in whatever subject you really want to study. If you don’t get into university, if you can’t afford to go, don’t worry – the television business contains a vast array of different people all with different skills, background and with very varied interests.  Whatever you do and whatever qualification you come out with, just remember that you will still need to start at the bottom when you enter the job market.

Getting a job in television is a multi-faceted issue and one I’ve been discussing just this morning for a BBC College of Production podcast as part of a panel of experts in television production. If this post is of interest to you then watch out for that podcast next Thursday (1st September 2011) on their web site:   http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/collegeofproduction/podcast.

AND there’s more! We did a tiny poll of our own quite recently amongst employers in television. We asked whether they would be more likely to employ a television runner with a media degree than one without.   Find out what they answered in our next article in this blog, plus there’ll be plenty more advice on getting into television. Subscribe if you would like it to pop up automatically in your inbox.

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