Letter to a Young Administrator

Posted by John Abodeely, Sep 22, 2011 5 comments

John Abodeely

A friend and colleague—one on the earlier end of her career—recently emailed me and asked what she thought of her possibly moving back to the east coast and entering a graduate program in the hope of advancing her career more quickly.

This is what I wrote her. Because her question is about career development, I have given myself permission to publish it below:

I think there are two things to keep in mind:

1. There isn't actually a wrong choice. One way or the other, things work out; you'll find a way to enjoy yourself; the important things tend to settle out the way they will: friends, family, fun, relationships of other kinds. You can pick a path—and it's important you do—but a path is nothing but a series of choices. Just make sure you choose—don't sit around too much—and you'll have good experiences, meet people, see things, etc.

The only time this doesn't hold is if you're hell-bent on some outcome: being famous, being a museum educator, etc. In these cases, you can generally mix together the things you must do (like lots of acting jobs, plastic surgery, etc.; a degree in museum education, lots of internships, etc.) with a few rule breaking successes (going indie a couple times to build your acting rep; moving to a small town museum in rural America to be director of education because, while it's not glamorous, it'll rapidly advance your career).

Now, it's not absolute that you follow these prescribed paths to meet these goals you might be hell-bent on, but it does increase the likelihood of and the pace of reaching them.

2. The recession is really bad. Really bad. I graduated in 2001, right after the dot-com bust and I thought I was getting screwed. But I just took a graduate macroeconomics course and so can say with absolute certainty, this economy. Is. Messed. Up. The worst part of this historic recession? Employment rates.

Don't—do not—take any responsibility for the circumstances that are frustrating you. It's not you. It's not your city. It's just history.

You might tell me that you don't feel responsible. However, there is a logical and very important extension of this fact: You have to just go with it. Allow this messed up moment in history to alter your planned course. Lighten your grip on your expectations and plans. Don't let them go completely, but let them become guiding ideas only.

Ask yourself critically: Why do I want this? What do I love about it? The kids? The contribution of an important field of practice, like the arts in public education? And let those deeper values help to guide your decisions. Don't get too attached to the result (a job at a museum; a salary of $x by a certain age). This will be the deal you negotiate with history, and history, generally speaking, holds the leverage.

I would suggest that, while moving back might be boring or unplanned, it is not absolutely, in the literal sense, a bad thing. Nor is changing fields; nor going for-profit; nor nannying for a while; nor traveling up and down South America for a couple years. It just is.

I know this isn't clear, nor easy information to absorb, but we know that wisdom never is. In fact, it's probably a necessary condition for wisdom.

And thanks for asking. I can't say how flattered I am that my opinion might matter to you.

You're going to do great in life, I am sure.

5 responses for Letter to a Young Administrator


September 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm

These are great words to remember, even for an early-career arts administrator (I think I can still call myself that!) One thing I know is that you can't always plan your career in the arts. When I was choosing between grad school and an internship in theatre for youth, I never imagined I'd end up working for a state arts agency. So following your passion, identifying what is important to you and going with the flow are the most important things.

  • Please login to post comments.
September 23, 2011 at 11:02 am

Thanks, Tara!

Yeah, it's amazing how things work out, huh? I can't believe I'm who and where I am today, compared to who and where I was 7 years ago. It's like a different universe.

  • Please login to post comments.
September 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Great advice, John!

I did move across the country to get a grad degree and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. My two years in the CMU MAM program were better than I could have imagined. But, that's just what worked for me. Everyone has a lot of different circumstances, hopes, and goals to weigh in a big decision like this.

  • Please login to post comments.
October 06, 2011 at 10:43 am

John --- thanks as always for your thoughtfulness. I agree with you (and wish I'd been able to write to you many years ago when I was considering grad school). The world never stops moving and career paths are never straight lines --- we adapt as circumstances change. I'm obviously a big proponent of graduate school but it's not the only path. I believe that grad school allows us to build community and make connections with people and organizations --- connections and relationships that will survive moves, jobs and recessions. Grad school also allows us to expand our world and our thinking. As you pointed out, maybe the only poor decision is not to do anything, not to build relationships, not to take chances.

  • Please login to post comments.
October 08, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Thank you for this post. I think there are a lot of us recent graduates out there who need to hear an encouraging message such as this.

Less than six months ago, I graduated with a Master's degree in Arts Management from American University. I went into the program at the very height of the recent recession in late 2008, and I came out of it on the precipice of the "double dip" recession.

I realized that my attitude going into the master's program, and my expectations for it, completely changed after the two years I spent in it. Not for good, or bad, just changed. I wrote a blog post about my experience on the day of my graduation last May. For all those considering to pursue a degree in Arts Management, and you're still on the fence, I suggest reading what I wrote. It might offer some perspective.


  • Please login to post comments.