Friday, February 5, 2010

Confession: I have a journalist's fear of (some) numbers

I've never found a DEF 14A (a public company's proxy statement) that doesn't make me salivate. But put this in front of me and I choke: "Solve each of the following equations for x."

Remember algebraic problems like 5x - 7 = 28 and 5(x + 2) = 1 - 3x? I can't recall if I ever learned to solve them and I certainly don't know how now. Yet they're part of the GRE general test required by many graduate schools for admission.

I've toyed twice in my life with getting a master's degree. The first time, I was early in my career as a working journalist, looking to improve my employability. I searched far and wide for a good graduate school (one of my requirements was no GRE) before deciding I'd rather do journalism than study it.

Last month, I thought again of taking the j-school route. I'd heard of a master's program that offered a fellowship for career professionals that covered not only tuition but also included a stipend. Again, increasing employability was the goal, since I was a refugee of the Great Recession and 2009 newspaper purge.

The 10-month program promised new-media skills and an internship that might open a door to a new job. I needed to secure the fellowship, though, because I currently have a daughter in college and I'm still paying back loans on another daughter's B.A.

Then came the pesky matter of solving for x, along with questions about square roots, arcs and integers. Ironically, the fellowship was offered by the same graduate school I'd contemplated years earlier, the one that didn't require the GRE then. Now, though, it did mandate the test, so I was sunk.

Drat! Looks like I'll have to take the Abe Lincoln route and do a little self-education.

But let me tell you this in all candor: After years and years in journalism -- most of them spent in business journalism -- I don't ever recall having to solve for x.

And not being able to work an algebraic formula never kept me from diving into the pages of financials found in a proxy or annual report -- and coming up with the story. (The key there, if you must know, is to always, always, always read the footnotes.)

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