I have a Ph.D. in education and before I quit working to be home with kids and pursue fiction writing, I taught at a major university, was part of research projects, and worked in countless classrooms all over the country...but my work being class-room based, I don't have publishing credits. Now I'm looking to parlay my experience into writing--Parents, Brain Child, etc. I'm just starting to think about querying and wonder how hard is it to break into major magazines, even with credentials?
I've gotten several variations of this question, so I'm basically going to address the overall question that was asked: how hard is it to break into the majors, and how can I go about doing it?
Well, listen, here's the bad news: it's not easy. I can't really sugar-coat that. I think of freelance writing a lot like acting: there are thousands upon thousands of writers who probably ooze talent and are entirely competent, but only a few crack the upper tier. And cracking it just isn't that simple, even though the job might seem like anyone can do it. (Trust me, I get those emails from friends of friends of friends: "Hiya! I want to do what you do - it seems so easy and perfect! Can you get me an assignment!?!?" Ha! If only. (**ETA: I don't mean to imply that I mind getting asked for help from friends of friends! This happens all the time, and I'm always happy to help. It's the ones that have the assumption that they can just slide into my position that give me pause...and a chuckle...and annoyance.**) But a lot of people can't do it. Freelance writing isn't a snap: it requires constant hustling, more social skills than you'd imagine, dealing with the ebbs and flows of the marketplace, meeting deadlines (often rigid ones), managing demands of editors, delivering revisions per an editor's (often times multiple editors') requests, developing unique story ideas (yes, I know, you often feel like these stories aren't that different than one another, but sending an editor an idea called, "The Ten Healthiest Foods for Your Body," won't cut it...trust me), finding the right experts and research to back up your writing, knowing the tone of each distinctive magazine (i.e., I write for both Women's Health and Woman's Day...not exactly the same voice or readership), etc, etc, etc.
So with those illusions out of the way, let me offer a glimmer of hope! The first thing that you'll need to start freelancing is some clips. Now, how the hell do you gather clips when you've never been published, and yet you need the clips to GET published? Well, yes, that's a little tricky. The catch-22 my friend. Here's the honest answer: you're probably not going to land your first clip at Glamour, Parents or Men's Health (or wherever). These editors get dozens of dozens of queries each week, and they're not going to take a chance and pay an unknown commodity $2 a word. They simply don't have to: they have a pool of writers whom they know can deliver what they need. (Not to say that they don't use writers outside of the pool - they do - but even those writers have similar credits. Or they get referrals from other editors...and yep, these editors are at other major mags, so the problem for a newbie remains.)
What I suggest instead (and I teach an annual workshop on this for Woman's Day, and I know that some attendees have had success with this route) is gathering clips in regional, local or online publications. The web is a fantastic way to get your start. Sites constantly need fresh content, and because the turnover rate is so high (and the pay rates a little lower), they work with a diverse pool of writers. Ditto newspapers (your local paper is a gold mine) or regional magazines. Start there. Build your portfolio of clips. Then, when you develop a perfect query for InStyle, you have something to prove to the editor that you can deliver.
Another smart route is to pitch the FOB section of the magazine. FOB stands for front-of-book, and it's a literal term: this is the first 1/3-1/2 of the magazine that contains those quick little articles that you read while on the treadmill. When you pitch an editor an FOB, you can often pitch him or her multiple ideas, and he'll pick and choose what might work for him. (Good places to find FOB ideas are in recently released research, studies or newly released books.) Assigning you a 200 word FOB involves much less risk for a new-to-you editor...Essentially, if you suck, he can rewrite it (or reassign it), and he isn't out a lot of time or money. But if you come through, you can build a relationship with him, which might eventually lead to bigger and more lucrative assignments. I got my start at Cooking Light and Men's Health, among others, in the FOB depts, and have since graduated to features.
I wish I could say that your background - whether it's a Ph.D or as a top chef - gives you an automatic in. While it might help you hone your pitches and sway an editor if she's unsure about assigning to you, it won't really open doors. Why? Because editors at the major magazines need someone who can write. And until you've shown them that you can, the rest of it is irrelevant.