M.S. Documentary Specialization

A select program for M.S. students who spend their third semester producing a short documentary. 

The Documentary program combines world‐class training in how to be a reporter with professional skills in the craft of long-form visual storytelling. Students spend over nine months learning how to develop sources; find and verify information; use data and develop visual skills. They learn camera work, sound recording and editing. They also learn the business side of documentary production – grant writing, negotiations, rights and clearances and how to develop a winning production trailer.

The additional semester, completed during the summer, allows students to produce and edit their video Master’s Project. Documentary students generally work in teams and get individual coaching from advisers who are recognized documentary producers. We expect the resulting films to be published: online, on cable or on broadcast.

CJS trains students to succeed in the expanding world of documentaries. You learn writing, shooting, sound recording, editing and the business of video production. Classes are small, focused and hands-on.

During the year, students in the Documentary Program meet some of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians who visit classes and show their work at the regular Film Fridays series.

Who Should Apply

The admissions committee seeks applicants who can articulate their passion for documentary filmmaking. The Journalism School is committed to building a diverse student population and we encourage applications from students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Previous experience shooting and editing is welcome but not necessary.


During the fall semester, students take the core Reporting class, then test into Video 1 (for the inexperienced) or Video 2 (for those with demonstrated experience in shooting and editing). Beginning videographers are expected to develop their skills. Concurrently, during the first semester, students learn about the documentary canon and workshop story ideas for their own films. Projects are approved for production by the time the spring semester begins.

During the spring semester, students get hands‐on production experience and learn to craft compelling stories. By the end of the semester they pitch a work‐in‐progress trailer to a group of commissioning editors from major outlets. In the past, these editors have included representatives from the Sundance Documentary Fund, HBO and CNN.

Students complete their Master's Project documentary during the summer semester. Their films are showcased at the annual Columbia Journalism School DocFest. 

In addition to the required classes, Documentary students choose from the many spring classes that are open to all students.