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Take a Chance: A Q&A with Philip Lee, Head of The Journalism Department, St. Thomas University, By: Ariana Calvachi

The head of the Journalism Department at St.Thomas University speaks about his career and what it means to enter the world of employment.  

In the world of employment, there has always been a certain level of competition. However, finding your competitive edge in a crowded candidate pool means owning the relevant skills you've earned and worked toward. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘fat resume', a resume filled with a wealth of relevant experiences. If you're looking to break into journalism, the competition is exceptionally high as it's an industry with fewer available permanent jobs and less long-term security. So, what does a path into journalism look like, and what advice should you consider when pursuing it? I sat down with Philip Lee, a former journalist and teacher at St.Thomas University, to answer these questions. Lee’s advice and personal experience show that life will not always be what we expect, but we must put ourselves out there and accept failure along the way to reach success.

Q: What was it like applying to jobs when you finished college?  

A: I graduated with a major in classics. I studied greek poetry and literature philosophy. I didn't study journalism. So, after graduation, I went to an employment counselor, and I took a test. He said that my only skill was writing, then pulled out a job listing form for a Newspaper in Newfoundland. It was in central Newfoundland, in a place called Grand Falls. I applied and soon heard back. They wanted me to come in for a job interview, and I did. Luckily, they offered me a job at a paper called Grand Falls Advertiser. It was a twice-weekly paper, and I said yes.  

Q: How was your first job experience?  

A: When I first got there, I didn’t know how to type, and I also didn’t know how to write a news story. I had to learn everything on the job, and I decided that I liked journalism. About six months after I was there, I got a new job at a bigger paper in Saint John, Newfoundland, for a paper called  Sunday Express - that was a good paper. I did a lot of things there, it was a good job, and I learned to be a journalist there. I stayed with them for several years. That’s how it all started. 

Q: What was the thing you liked most about working at Sunday Express? 

A: One of the good things about working for a small paper was that I was able to do different jobs: I learned, I wrote news stories, I even laid out the paper (pasted together the pages), I went out to take photographs... I did everything! I learned a lot - quickly. I learned to rely on myself, to develop ideas and things that I probably wouldn't be able to do at a larger paper, where I would be assigned and told what to do.  


 Did you move a lot? Work part or full-time jobs?  

A: At my first job, the pay wasn’t the best, so I'd opted to move any time I got offered more money. Every job taught me new things. There are full-time jobs, but one of the things that I would tell journalists, especially young journalists: “You should expect to move often from one job to another, so when new opportunities come along, you want to be able to take them.” I was always moving, trying to find new opportunities, to work for bigger papers, to make more money.  

Q: Was there a time where you outgrow your job?  

A: Sometimes I would outgrow the position I was in, but sometimes it’s because things changed. I think it is very strategic to move from one opportunity to the next. It’s something to expect, and it's a good thing. For example; When I worked at Sunday Express, there was an editor that I liked working with, and when he left for another job, the atmosphere changed and I was ready to move on.  

Q: Do things always go as you planned?  

A: I think, in your life, you have great periods and some others that aren’t. You ‘kinda’ have to work your way through it. You are not going to have a professional life, unless you are really lucky, that every year and every job will be fulfilling. But, especially when you are young, you can move around to fulfilling opportunities that make you happy.  

Q: How did your job expectations change over the years? What was the most challenging part? 

A: I think that the hardest thing for me was when I came back to NB, and for a time, the paper was not that inspiring. I was doing daily editing, waking up early at 5 a.m., and doing work that I was not particularly proud of or didn't love. Maybe what I wanted to do was be in a job where I could do good work and do the work I wanted to do, not work for the sake of work. I search for that. Then a new editor came in who became a life-long mentor and friend; he changed my life. I was lucky, I stuck long enough in this job, and things got better. We did a lot of great work together. I think that if you don't want work somewhere you can’t be honest and truthful for yourself… you can’t do work you don't believe in. You don’t want a daily moral dilemma.  

Q: Do you think companies’ culture, beliefs, values, morals, objectives, and image are important when deciding to work with them? How did it influence your choices?  

A: Is not always possible to align morals, values, objectives from a company to someone’s perspective…Some of the best work I did was owned by a multi-billionaire family…we did great work, but I wouldn't say that our values lined up. I believe it's important, but I don’t think that is necessary. Especially in the world of journalism, you should be able to be independent in the kind of content that you do. For example, The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, and you may say, “Amazon is ruining the world. It's a terrible company.”  I'm not saying that’s true, but you can certainly take that position, which doesn’t mean that The Washington Post is not filled with good journalistic work. So, I think that is something to take into account because you are certainly not doing promotional work for your ownership; you are just doing independent journalistic work.  

Q: Why do you think people settle for mediocre jobs?  

A: I think that people don’t just settle for mediocre jobs. It just depends on the time of your life. I was just at this point in my life where I had small children and bills to pay. I had to make a living. I was willing to do what I needed - that was my priority. But I think when you are young, it gives you more freedom to choose what you want when it comes to jobs and being unemployed. If you find yourself in a conflict with your soul, then you should find another job. Sometimes the mortgage, health insurance, house payment…it’s more important than liking or not the job.  

Q: Did you ever quit a job just because you didn’t like it?  

A: My Father always told me: never quit a job before you found another one. The only time I quit my job was when I wanted to work on my book, but then I got another job once I finished the book. 

Q: What do you think is the #1 mistake everyone makes when applying for a job?  

A: I think not being prepared enough for the interview is a problem that I’ve seen. You don’t want to go in unprepared. I think a lot of companies weigh the interview. Let say you do poorly regardless of your experience, and you get pushed aside. You want to be strategic, have stories to tell; always have 2-3 stories ready to go in the back of your head. You should always do your research about the company but also be prepared to show who you are. You don’t want to fill up space and 'just talk' but be thoughtful about it.  

During interviews asking about salary, hours, and all those types of questions are valid but should be secondary. You always want to talk about what you are going to do, how you are trying to contribute to the company, and how you will make their lives easier. You need to be useful to them.

Q: How do you handle rejection?  

A: Rejection. There is a lot of rejection that comes with a creative job. You probably have this idea and believe it is a great idea, but then someone else will not think the same. I believe that if you give your best and don’t get the job it is because it wasn’t meant for you  

Q: Do you think job expectations have changed from back when you were a graduate till now? How?  

A: There’s a problem in journalism with creating good jobs with a decent lifestyle. As a teacher, I see that graduates are hesitant to work in a newsroom because the long hours and demands that the job has don’t match their lifestyles. Remember, balance is important, but you can also bring balance to your job, work as much as possible, and keep a healthy life - not getting consumed by the job. I wasn’t very good at that. I often would leave work with my computer to keep working.  

  Do you regret working at any job in the past or recently? Why or why not?  
 I don’t regret any of my experiences…taking or leaving any job. I think I tried to learn something new at every job. It was all a learning experience - for better or for worse. One thing, when you are young, you shouldn’t tie yourself down to a specific place. You want to be able to move. So take time out and don’t settle for a job. Travel, learn and see the world.  

Q: Along your path did you reject job opportunities? How did you know it was the right choice?  

A: You never really know if you are making the right decision by taking or not a job offer. I think considering options is important to help you make the best call you can. You never have any guarantees that things will be perfect or how you expect them to be. So I think that you need to be strategic but know you can’t control what happens. 

Q: Are you happy with your current job? 

A: 20 years ago…St.Thomas Vice President of Academics called to ask me if I would be interested in teaching and starting a Journalism Program. There wasn’t one. It was a program partnership with a Community College in Woodstock. So, I took a chance, I got a one-year contract teaching and working in the development of the program, for that I had to quit my job and took a big pay-cut to come to STU but I thought that my payoff was down the road and would increase. So, I took less money for a job I thought would have more possibilities. I was intrigued by the idea of teaching.  

I’ve been here ever since, and I love it.

Q: What advice would you give to this future generation of students and graduates?  

A: I think when you are young, it’s good to take some chances, take jobs that would make you stand out from your comfort zone; you will eventually get to settle down, but you won’t have the opportunity to jump and go, so take a chance. Also, if you are in a situation where a job is not bringing you joy, and I’m not talking about every minute of every day, there is no such thing as a job like that, if the job is not bringing you joy, then you should starting looking for another job. Find something that does, because life’s short and having joy and happiness in your life is the most important thing.  

Editor’s Note: Personal growth and focusing on yourself is as important as getting a job that eases your soul and makes your life worth living.