Stephanie Lim is a bright twenty-something who graduated top of her class in May 2009* from the UBC School of Journalism in Vancouver, Canada. When she returned home to Toronto, she had to face the reality of looking for a position in an industry reeling from fragmented audiences, declining profits and job losses.

“Even though I had high hopes upon graduation to find my dream job in journalism, when I graduated the media job market was not in good condition for hiring anyone full-time,” she recalled.

Lim did find work, though it was not the full-time position she’d been hoping for. Instead, she freelanced as a video editor for Global TV news in Toronto.

Her story will be familiar to journalism graduates in North America. The 2008 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates found the lowest level of full-time employment reported by graduates in the U.S. for the past two decades.

Only six in 10 of graduates had full-time employment six to eight months after graduating in 2008. The report said “by almost all indications, the 2008 graduates of the nation’s journalism and mass communications programs found themselves in a disastrous job market.”

A year later, the State of the Media report for 2009 concluded that the collapsing economy in the U.S. aggravated an already weakened industry.

Across the border in Canada, the year was just as bleak, with hundreds of job losses, newspapers cutting back on publication days and one of the main media conglomerates, Canwest, seeking creditor protection.

Opportunity Knocks

The journalism graduates that are getting work find they have to be flexible when considering their options.

“Pickings were slim in the job market when I graduated but opportunities were, by no means, non-existent,” said recent grad Allison Cross. “I say opportunities because full-time, permanent jobs were scarce, but there were plenty of contracts out there to do journalism, social media, communications or professional writing.

“In many cases, these opportunities did not resemble the ideal job I was looking for, but still seemed to provide opportunities for new journalists to get their names out, try new things and make a bit of money along the way,” she said.

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Allison Cross in Sierra Leone

Cross took a different route after graduating from UBC in 2009. Attracted by the idea of reporting abroad, she spent five months in Sierra Leone freelancing and doing media development work for the Canadian non-profit organization, Journalists for Human Rights.

On her return, she landed a one-year contract as a reporter with Canwest News Service, a wire service for several major Canadian newspapers.

“I was most surprised by my new employer’s enthusiasm for multimedia skills, and how desperately those skills are needed in the newsroom,” she said.

Taking the job involved making a difficult decision — leaving her native Vancouver.

“My biggest challenge was trying to find the right job in the city where I wanted to live,” she said. “Ultimately, I had to sacrifice my city of choice and move across the country for a job.”

Difficult Choices

UBC journalism grad Krysia Collyer also had to make compromises. She was awarded a prestigious Joan Donaldson scholarship with the CBC News Network, which she hoped would be the first step towards being a TV reporter.

“I won the Donaldson and as a result have had a lot easier time finding work,” said Collyer. “CBC has approached me as opposed to me going out and applying for a job with them.”

She is now an associate producer in Ottawa, switching between radio reporting and producing, though she hopes to move back into TV at some point.

Recent grads in the U.S. have faced a similar dilemma. The 2008 survey of journalism and communication students found job satisfaction down, with some grads saying they accepted a job because it was the only one available.

However, few students can hope to land their ideal job straight out of school. The challenge for grads is to marry their hopes and dreams with the realities of journalism today.

If anything, students are expected to be more entrepreneurial, though this is a relatively new area for journalism schools. Ironically, the 2008 job survey found that public relations students fared better because they were more entrepreneurial and less tied to traditional job definitions.

New Positions

New media is creating new types of opportunities. 2009 grad Dan Haves took on a new role as social media officer for the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Vancouver.

Fellow grad Cynthia Yoo is working for the citizen journalism website OhMyNews in Korea, as well as with the Korean blog network Tatter and Media, and a start-up based in California.

“I don’t think you can plan out your career as journalists did in the past,” said Yoo, who also teaches at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “But there are many jobs and interesting projects out there, if you’re flexible.”

For Stephanie Lim, being flexible has meant coming back to Vancouver temporarily for the Winter Olympics. She is working as a producer’s assistant for the Olympic Broadcasting Services Vancouver.

“The biggest challenge diving into the real world of journalism was the realization that this industry is unlike any other,” said Lim. “A job is not just given to you on a silver platter just because you have a degree in journalism. Instead, you must work from the bottom of the ladder as an intern, perform, and earn respect from veterans in the field.”

Her advice for journalism students who are apprehensive about graduation is simple.

“Know what area of journalism you want to get into, and strive for your goal. Don’t give up, even if it may take you two years to find that dream job.”

*Correction Jan. 20, 2010: This post originally and incorrectly said Stephanie Lim graduated from UBC in 2010. She of course graduated in 2009.

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.