What are you going to do with that?

The dreaded question: Practically every time I tell people I am graduating from an MFA program I get the question: “What are you going to do with that?” and my answer is usually “um…” While it’s a valid question the undertone is more about why I would choose to go for an advanced degree in the arts. The question implies that an MFA is not only a waste of time and money, but an endeavor that won’t provide anything worthwhile. The question irritates me because of the implications it has, and because I don’t have a good elevator pitch. And I can’t help but wonder if those pursuing an MBA get asked the same thing as often.

MFA degrees on the rise?
It took me about 30 seconds of searching on the internet to come across this article: M.F.A.s: An Increasingly Popular, Increasingly Bad Financial Decision. The article is from 2014 but the points are still valid. Even though the prospects of making a good living aren’t great, the chart below illustrates the consistent increase in Americans pursuing an art degree.

MFA earned

In 2013, 2.1 million workers held positions as artists. Research also indicates that artists are more entrepreneurial than the rest of the workforce—3.5 times more likely to be self-employed and they are less likely to have full-year or full-time employment so they often have day jobs.

It would appear that there isn’t much reason to get an advanced art degree. It’s expensive and you can’t make a lot of money making art. So why are more Americans choosing to go to art school? In fact, more artists have bachelor’s degrees or higher than other workers. If you aren’t going to make more money, you don’t really need an advanced degree because you can teach yourself everything and you’re likely to need to keep your day job, why do it? It certainly isn’t for the return on the investment. Or is it?

The reasons
When I began my degree I intended to teach. I envisioned myself being in a college classroom teaching young artists about marketing their art. I saw myself helping to banish the starving artist stereotype. At the time I had recently lost my mother to cancer, I was unemployed, and I didn’t want to find another soul-sucking corporate marketing job. So pursuing a degree in something I love seemed like a good thing. Now, years later, I still think teaching will be part of my career but I no longer see myself in a classroom. I am more likely to either teach at an online program or create my own course and sell it through my website.

Classmates I have spoken with shared that they decided to go to school to be able to change careers, pursue something they are passionate about, or further their teaching abilities. Others wanted to travel to exotic locations, to shed light on the world’s issues, to spend more time outside or to experience the joy of creating something unique. Not one mentioned that they’re doing it for the money. That’s not why we choose art.

Yet there is, in my opinion, a high return on investment. Not in the money spent (sadly) but in the quality of our work. When I look back on my photography at the beginning of school and what I am creating now I can see a big improvement and I know it has to do with the amount of time and effort I have invested. Without the challenges from professors (who at the time pissed me off) I might not have tried something completely out of my comfort zone.

I know of successful photographers that are completely self-taught. That’s great. To me that’s proof that if you want something badly enough you can go out and get it. I admire that because it takes guts and determination. It also takes a certain personality type which I am certain that I am not. For me, an education has provided structure. Without that I never would’ve had the discipline to get where I am on my own. It’s also given me the opportunity to learn from people I never would have met before (both professors and classmates).

So what ARE you going to do with it?

Getting an art education is a very personal choice and an MFA is not for everyone. It takes lots and lots of work (can I get an AMEN?!) and there have been many times when we have all wanted to quit. Besides that, we will all have to face those nightmare-inducing loans. Given the chance to do it all again I would still choose to do it, though.

Now my elevator pitch is this:

I’m not actually going to do something with my MFA because that wasn’t the reason I signed up for the program. I began because I love photography and I wanted to be better at it. Now I’m almost done and I can see how much I have improved creatively, technically and even personally. Thanks to that I now create better work and I have more opportunities as a photographer.

PS A great book I read recently on the topic of “the calling” is The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do by Jeff Goins. I, like I’m sure many others, thought I had my calling nailed and I’ve discovered there’s so much more to it than what I imagined. It’s been eye-opening and I highly recommend it — even if you already know your calling.