A Degree in the Arts: Perspectives from Postgraduates

Posted by Alexandra Milak, Oct 30, 2013 1 comment

Alexandra Malik Alexandra Malik

I remember when I applied to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). My high school experience was not ideal, and I had always dreamed of pursuing something in the arts. Sophmore year of high school I tried out for the fall drama production, and there was no going back from there. I worked hard to keep my grades up and fill my resume with impressive extracurriculars; I applied to nine different schools, really only wanting to attend NYU. The day I was accepted was probably the most memorable day of my life. It signified a turning point: I was about to embark on the journey of my dreams.

Looking back, I don’t doubt that it was the most worthwhile choice I’ve ever made (which is lucky, because I, as most high schoolers are, was pressured to make that decision when I was only seventeen years old). I learned so much about myself as a performer and a human being, and became an instrument through which characters could live, breathe, and have their stories told. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and an experience which I will never forget. That being said, during my time at NYU, I wasn’t completely honest with myself about the realities that lay ahead of me once I graduated. It was hard to keep questions about the future clear in my head because things were so uncertain post-graduation. Still I wondered, was pursuing a degree in the arts worth it?

To give and gain a little perspective, I asked a few colleagues who are all currently pursuing careers in the arts to share what can be gained from obtaining an arts degree. For those of you about to apply to arts programs or just starting your journey, let these voices guide you through your experiences. Here’s what they had to say:

Graduating with a degree in the arts means to have a degree in contextualization. By that I mean that your education will largely consist of studying the work of other artists in relation to the events happening around the time those works were created. Studying this way helped me put things into perspective and understand them in a more complete way. My focus was music, so when I hear a piece of music I’m not just listening to the melody or harmony, but I’m also listening contextually. Appreciating a piece like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is not just about how the music sounds, but it’s also about understanding that it was a piece fueled by Beethoven’s obsession with the French Revolution, that he was already starting to lose his hearing, and that this work marks the beginning of the transition from the Classical to Romantic Era of Western music. Knowing all of this allows me to experience the music much more completely.

In many respects, I am an atypical example because I am effectively working in the field I studied, doing what I was trained to do. I find that many of my peers are not directly using their degrees. So, maybe they studied art history but are now working in advertising. However, the beauty of arts education is by learning a single discipline, you’re training your brain to work differently. You learn to ask more helpful questions and try to find the right answers by understanding the context. You may not think an art history degree would help you much with advertising, but if you know the historical context of centuries of visual masterpieces, then that knowledge can be easily applied to how best to visually present a product. To take this beyond the working world, I think that art is something that is uniquely human and is also what unites us. Thus, having studied the arts, I find that it is easier to forge connections with people. You find yourself more apt at conversation. In an increasingly shrinking world, cultural literacy becomes more and more important, and I feel that as a student of the arts you are primed for this. You are more able look at things in relation to the bigger picture. You have a global perspective. You have context.” -Benjamin Jacobs, 27, Sound Designer and Composer, B.A. Music, Case Western Reserve University*

“At some point during my four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate studies, I stumbled upon some incredibly important nuggets of knowledge that have helped me begin to navigate this crazy, unforgiving place we call the ‘real world.’ Having the opportunity to learn and apply these skills in an educational environment made going to school for my art more than worth it.  People skills, especially in the arts, are of the utmost importance. They help you make connections that can later help you land great jobs. You can sit around in a practice room all day and play the most amazing etudes anyone has ever heard, but if you don’t get out there and perform with people, then you’re in for a rude awakening. This may be the single most important set of skills you learn while in college--and it applies not just to the arts, but literally everywhere. One of the biggest benefits of going to an arts college is that you already have a built-in network of alumni right after graduating. Chances are they’ll be more than willing to help you get a start professionally, or at least willing to share good, pertinent advice. This alone may be the single best reason to get an arts degree. Without it, you would indeed be back at square one. With it, you’ll already be part of an artistic network.

It’s rare to find an artist that has only one ‘iron in the fire,’ as they say. If you graduate and stumble upon a job in the arts that pays well, has reasonable hours, AND is artistically fulfilling, then lucky you. It’s rare to find a single job that fits all those requirements. The majority of graduating artists, at least at first, are going to be juggling any number of jobs and wearing any number of hats. Time is definitely of the essence, and training in an arts program definitely teaches you time management. You need to make time to practice. You need to make time to go to class. You need to coordinate schedules for rehearsals. You need to make time to study and do your homework. There’s a real possibility of overworking, burning out, getting sick, and sacrificing your relationships. You’ll have to learn this no matter what career path you choose, but it’s tricky with an arts degree because it’s harder to make the distinction between your art and your work. Practicing and performing our art is a pleasure and is fulfilling–it’s why we do what we do. But when you’re maxed out, make sure you make time for yourself. Take the time to push your limits and get to know your boundaries. Learn how to make the best use of your time so you can get more done while still having time for you.”-Ryan Andrews, 27, Freelance Composer and Performer, B.M. Music from Western Michigan University, M.M. in Jazz Composition and Production from University of Miami Frost School of Music**

“Going to school for the arts is considered risky by many. There is no guarantee of a stable career and no direct path to success. Yet, I think those who do graduate with arts degrees are given the tools to create their own future, not settle for someone else’s idea of what that should be. Those who graduate with arts degrees creatively think outside-of-the-box, know how to communicate with others, and understand the importance of resilience. I’m so grateful for my time at NYU Tisch. Yes, my training helped me grow as a performer, but more so, that BFA in drama allowed me to grow as a well-rounded and thoughtful human being.”- Rachel Sussman, 24, Theatre Producer, B.F.A. NYU Tisch School of the Arts***

“Graduating with a degree in the arts has meant developing skills which open up many opportunities, but do not have any obvious application. In many other fields (business, law, etc), your career path is pretty fixed, and you know which titles and salary ranges to expect in five or ten years. I have a BFA with a concentration in painting, but I did not pursue a career in painting full time after graduation. For personal and practical reasons, I did not have much choice but to find a paid job right away. I applied for positions in all kinds of creative organizations and non-profits, and ended up at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. My BFA and work experience, which included unpaid jobs at museums and paid desk jobs, made me a perfect fit for my current position, and I think many people with an arts background become uniquely and unpredictably qualified for particular jobs because of their education. Many of these organizations and creative non-profits see an education in the arts as a unique quality and a real asset, not just a minimum qualification. I am inspired everyday in my current position and pursuing my own creative projects - while saving money to get a masters degree - which makes me happy and is made possible by my job, and furthermore, by my degree in the arts.” -Ana Felisa Manlapig, 24, Painter, Operations Analyst at American Museum of Natural History, B.F.A. Studio Art, NYU****

There are (more than a few) moments in this economy, in New York City, and in the acting business when it is easy to despair as an artist trying to ‘make it.’ How will I get that job? Where do I meet the right industry people? Am I good enough to compete with my peers in this field? But then I remind myself of a few important things and hang on to them.

I have a B.F.A. after all! And while I hope to continue to learn and grow for the rest of my career, my fellow students and I spent four years devoting our lives to learning the craft of acting. Months and months of vocal training, movement work, scene study, performance, and studying the history and context of performance–we are experts in our field. When it feels like I know nothing, I remember how much I’ve learned, and what a fantastic foundation I have to build upon.

Perhaps most importantly, I spent four years learning how to look people in the eye when I’m speaking or listening, to move through the world in a way that is healthy and aligned, and, in the midst of a stressful time, to be present in my life–-an on-going pursuit to be sure, but a vital practice to both my artist self and my everyday self. This kind of knowledge helps me through all the challenges I face so that when life feels overwhelming, I can be confident that I am a well-rounded artist and human being who is present and capable of performing in this ‘real-world.’” -Maggie McDowell, 24,  Actress, B.F.A. Acting, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU*****

We definitely live in an uncertain world, and your journey is practically just beginning if you’re just entering college. Once you graduate, you’ll enter the adult world where you’ll be responsible for things you were never prepared to be responsible for. The ‘real world’ is waiting, so when you’re swimming in it post-graduation, tap in to everything you learned while pursuing your arts degree. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I graduated two years ago from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a B.F.A. in acting, and have worked professionally as an actress in New York City since then. I’ve also worked alongside college students helping them get into the arts programs of their dreams so they can pursue their own artistic journeys. My degree in the arts has not only allowed me to land jobs in the theatre all around New York City, but it has allowed me to connect to future generations of potential artists all around the world. As my friends mentioned above, if you can connect what you learn in conservatory or college to yourself as a human being, you’ll be able to make a difference in the world around you AND pursue your art. I think that’s worth it.

*Benjamin Jacobs is a sound designer and composer living in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in suburban New Jersey and attended Case Western Reserve University where he received a B.A. in music and audio production in conjunction with the Cleveland Institute of Music. Upon graduation he spent time as a production assistant at New York’s famed Avatar Recording Studios before settling in at the music production company Q Department. There he continues to create original music and sound design for commercials, television and film. You can hear his work all over the television and Internet.

**Ryan Andrews is a freelance composer and performer living in Los Angeles. He graduated with a degree in jazz performance from Western Michigan University in 2009, and a Master’s in jazz composition and production from the University of Miami in 2012. You can hear his music in movie trailers and promos for films such as Insidious: Chapter 2.

***Rachel Sussman is a New York City-based producer and co-founder of the Indigo Theatre Project, which is committed to producing play readings to help non-profit organizations. As an independent producer, Rachel has worked with theaters all over the country, including the Second Stage Theater, Goodspeed Musicals’ Johnny Mercer Colony, The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the iEmmys), and the New York Musical Theatre Festival, of which she is a past president of the Student Leadership Program. Currently, she is the creative development associate at RKO Stage Productions (Top Hat, Olivier Award for Best Musical, Big Fish on Broadway this Fall). She is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

****Ana Felisa Manlapig is an artist and data analyst born in Jersey City, NJ, and living in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her BFA from New York University in 2011, studying painting, sculpture, and environmental Studies. Since 2011, she has been working at the American Museum of Natural History as the operations analyst. Outside of her museum work, she is continuing to paint and draw.

*****Maggie McDowell is a Brooklyn-based theatre artist and recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has worked at several classical regional theaters around the country, including leading roles with the Texas Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, and Cape May Stages, and is creating her own movement-based work around New York City.

This is an edited repost from the DecisionDesk blog.


1 responses for A Degree in the Arts: Perspectives from Postgraduates


December 02, 2013 at 3:39 pm

I've just, belatedly, read this excellent post. The stories that Alexandra shares resonate with our findings at the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) - where over 100,000 arts alumni have shared their experiences over the last six years. Clearly, a degree in the arts can provide a wealth of skills and outcomes.

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