Credit: Image by Mark Hakansson

At we often report on news which may be of more interest to reporters and editors already in the newsroom. In this guide we go back to basics and look at how to become a journalist.

Unlike medicine or law where there are clear educational requirements, there are many routes that can lead into journalism.

Depending on who you speak to, you might be told to get a foot in the door by doing work experience, to study a journalism degree, or take a postgraduate or short course.

We asked journalists who follow @journalismnews on Twitter for their advice.

Q. Should I do degree in journalism, a postgraduate course in journalism or a shorter course?

All three of the above options offer a good route in to journalism.

"Each option suits different careers and lives," said Paul Bradshaw, course leader of the MA in online journalism at Birmingham City University and visiting lecturer at City University London. "One size doesn't fit all."

The majority of people who replied when we asked this question suggested doing a degree in something other than journalism, and then taking a postgraduate course to learn key skills, such as media law. This is something Richard Sambrook, the director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, encourages.

Lindsey Hilsum, international editor at Channel 4 News urged aspiring journalists to "do an undergrad degree in something substantial". "Then go abroad to report/have fun. Then do an MA in journalism."

Wyre Davies, BBC News Rio correspondent, agreed. "A three-year journalism degree might not be the best choice. Gap years and work experience just as valuable."

"Do something you love, then switch," advised Nancy Durrant, commissioning arts editor at The Times.

If you decide to go with a more general degree, you then have a couple of choices if you want to gain a qualification in journalism.

You can do a postgraduate diploma (PG Dip) or MA in journalism, which take between nine months and a year, or you can sign up for a shorter course to give you the essential law and shorthand knowledge. These shorter courses are around four months in duration, so a quicker and cheaper option than a PG Dip or MA.

Whether you decide to do a short course or a longer course, most experienced journalists we asked advised to go with one that is accredited by the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists).

Here's a search engine for university and college courses.

Q. What should I do while studying for a degree?

Whether you opt for a BA in journalism or another subject, you should use your spare time at university to blog and start to make connections.

Building up a blog and Twitter following can not only prove its worth when you apply for a postgraduate journalism course, but will help you get noticed by potential employers. And getting to grips with online journalism is crucial.

"Realise the importance of digital," said Kelby McNally, online showbiz correspondent at the Daily Express.

Jess McAree, head of editorial learning and development at Haymarket Media, said "learn about digital technology and digital publishing".

"Don't – whatever you do – decide to specialise in print journalism."

Q. How do I know which course or university is best?

There are scores of BA, PG Dip, MA and short journalism courses, but how do you know which is right for you?

As Will Metcalfe, crime reporter at the North West Evening Mail pointed out, "make sure your course is NCTJ accredited if you want to go into print".

"Not having this can be a big obstacle", he said.

Update: Data editor at the Guardian James Ball has pointed out that City University is not NCTJ accredited and "you don't see its grads struggling to get into print publications".

If you want to go into radio, you should consider a course accredited by the BJTC (Broadcast Journalism Training Council).

Beyond that you need to look at the facilities, the quality of the teaching staff, the reputation, course content and where alumni are now working.

Journalists who have a wide range of skills may find there are more jobs to apply for after graduating. So consider a course which teaches skills such as video production, data journalism, and includes lessons in financial reporting.

You will also need to invest your own time teaching yourself some of the skills that may be absent from the course. You could spend time getting to grips with Photoshop, for example, or blogging platforms, and teach yourself to shoot and edit video using your mobile phone.

When we asked on Twitter what you should look for in a course, journalist Helen Robertson suggested that you "look up past graduates and employment levels". "Check out lecturers and their contacts in industry for work experience", she added.

Daniel Bentley, contributing editor at Circa, suggested students "follow the course tutors on Twitter (if they're not on Twitter, red flag)".

Q. Will a prospective employer look at the name of the university or college when looking at my CV?

"Yes, of course," said writer and academic Tom Felle. But, he added, the "quality of graduate trumps school he/she is from".

"I look at how hard they've worked to get what they want," said Stuart Rowson, BBC Sport interactive editor. "I want drive and passion, not fancy unis and silver spoons."

"Only out of nosiness," freelance journalist and editor Isabel Mohan said. She is "far more interested in work experience, evidence of published work and a cracking cover letter".

"I look at the course taken and the grade but work experience and hobbies are key for me", said freelance journalist and editor Laura Rowe. "Passion for a subject is impressive".

Q. Will I need to learn shorthand?

There are two types of shorthand: Pitman and Teeline. Teeline is included as an essential part of many journalism courses. It can be learnt fairly quickly, as little as four to six months, although building up speed requires commitment and practice.

There are no quick fixes and although in theory it is possible to buy a book and teach yourself, it helps if you have a daily or weekly class.

If you plan to work for a local newspaper you are likely to need shorthand, although it is a valuable skill for any journalism job. You will need at least 100 words per minute for it to be useful.

While some experienced and senior journalists may not have shorthand, many editors today see it as a key skill, or at least desirable (such as Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website, who shares his views on shorthand in this article).

If you are unsure whether or not to learn shorthand, take a look at this feature which discusses both sides in more detail.

Q. Do I need a specialist subject?

It is helpful to pick a specialisation based on something you are interested in – whether that is knitting, education or your local area – and blog about it. That way you might open up additional opportunities at specialist publications, for example, or be in a better position to pitch to them based on the contacts and specialist knowledge you build up.

Q. How do I get work experience?

You will learn key skills by studying at college but experience is vital, both for learning on the job and making contacts with potential future employers.

And work experience may lead to a job, even if you do not have a journalism qualification.

Rupert Evelyn, ITV Midlands correspondent, said on Twitter: "Get down your local paper/radio/TV and find bosses who believe in you." He explained how that approach worked for him, saying he did not have A-levels or a degree but was able to demonstrate a hunger for stories.

Many journalism courses help you arrange work experience, but you can also apply directly, which might help you stand out. Think of a publication you feel you could contribute to and email the editor. Refer to him or her by their first name in the email, tell them what experience you have (perhaps you write a blog), tell them why you want to do work experience at that publication, and pitch a story idea.

As entertainment journalist Ben Falk says "editors want solutions", and by pitching a story you are providing such a solution.

Daniel Owens suggested, for example, to "go to your local paper armed with an Freedom of Information request ready to write up".

Q. Any other key skills I will need?

If you want to work at a local news outlet or anywhere you might need to go out on a story, it is likely you will need to be able to drive.

It goes without saying that you will need to read newspapers, websites and magazines, and hone your writing skills by practising daily.

And finally, as a number of experienced journalists urged when we asked for tips on Twitter, enjoy what you are doing.

Useful articles:
A list of tools and apps journalism students should know about
130 tweets of advice for aspiring journalists
BBC News website editor: Five key digital journalism skills
How to: write a covering letter and CV
How to: prepare for a journalism job interview
Search engine for university and college courses

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).