Masters Degree? Depends…

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This post was also featured on Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog.
 

“Are you thinking about getting your Masters?”

Every time I’m asked that question, my brain has a dilemma. On one hand, I love learning as much information as I can about my field and anything that relates to it. I take what Malcolm Gladwell told Charlie Rose about the key to great journalism to heart – “It’s about teaching yourself that everything is interesting.” And I love the classroom setting – well I should say the right classroom setting, but that’s another story. I would much rather write a 20-page paper on charitable tax policy or how to engage young people, than attend another City Council meeting or board meeting some days.

But on the other hand, why would I go back to school? I’m a young professional with the world at my fingertips; I’ve got a pretty great job and on top of all that, my undergraduate degree was in Arts Management – so unless I wanted to specialize in something very specific like Arts Policy or Arts Education, I don’t need to sit in a classroom and learn about mission statements, 990s, grants, marketing, etc, from the beginning all over again. Sure I’d love to learn more about those things, – I haven’t found the magic potion to make a perfect arts organization (yet…maybe a Chemistry class?) – but as it stands right now, I have a better chance of making an impact by staying out of the classroom than going back into it.

The other question I used to get when I was in college was, “Where are you looking to work?” No doubt, most folks hear “the arts” and think NYC, DC, Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Seattle and other locations. But for me, my answer was, “I’m staying here in South Carolina.”

Here’s my theory – and spoiler alert…there’s no one solution to this either. The real reason I’m not considering going back to school for a Masters is because of what my career goal is and where I can accomplish it.

I remember telling people that, “I’m not going to NYC unless they come to me and offer a six-figure salary.” That obviously wouldn’t have happened (I’m still open to it though Mr. or Mrs. NYC-based-company-with-200k-to-spare). I knew that out of the new pool of young professionals in the arts world graduating with undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees in the arts, many of them were flocking to major metropolitan areas and looking to land a job at some of the major institutions. And you know what, that’s great. To work for organizations like the Lincoln Center, LACMA, The Met, BAM and others is a huge honor, an exciting endeavor and one that makes a resume scream. Some people thrive in that type of environment, prefer to be in a huge city, and prefer to perfect their skills in a structured industry-environment.

While in college, I looked at the field of arts management and the arts industry as a whole and I realized that for me, personally, I wanted to go to work in a geographical region I knew I could have the most impact. I wanted to be somewhere that a recent college graduate in arts management had a fighting chance to not only get a job, but to get a job that allowed him/her to make a difference almost immediately. Whether I was going to be an Executive Director or a Development Assistant, I felt that the length of time from starting a job to having my ideas put to work was going to be shorter here than anywhere else. While I would not be working with Yo Yo Ma in my prospective job, I would be working with local musicians and pioneering ways to change my community. While my organization’s name may not make my resume scream, the amount of experience I was looking to gain in my first year would.

I treated my education like a new bicycle – I wanted to test it out right away, I didn’t want to keep tweaking it for another 2-3 years. I wanted to get out there and test my education and my confidence. I wanted to have my ideas and my theories become real and not just a class project. I wanted to make mistakes that had consequences and I wanted to have successes that made a noticeable difference. I wanted to take this proverbial bike and ride it around my town – stopping to fix it up every now and then, but making it and myself stronger along the way. And I wanted to do that right away.

I think that whether or not you want to get a graduate degree is entirely up to you, but people should look around and ask themselves two questions first – “What do I want to do with my career?” and “Where can I do it?”. Do you want to focus on changing the entire industry, improve your art discipline from the administrative side out, change your local community, create your own organization, or something else?

You may find that you do in fact need a Masters degree. If you want to change the entire Broadway landscape and you want to do it in NYC, you’re either going to have to work your way up for a good number of years, or you’re going to need a Masters to really be qualified for a leadership position sooner. You’ll be able to find yourself amongst some of the best in the business, legendary artists and innovative thinkers. And that’s pretty cool.

Or you may find that your skills and your passion are best suited for a slightly smaller geographical setting and you don’t need a Masters degree. Then you might be able to work your way up quicker, see your ideas come to fruition sooner and gain really great experience. You might not have the all-glass corner office, or produce the next Tony-award winning play, or get the Picasso exhibit to come to your facility – but your arts management skills will have changed a community and the people that live there. And that’s pretty cool too.

Then again, there’s a third option that very few people get to have: extreme luck. If you have that, then you can ignore this whole thing.

George Patrick [GP] McLeer is the executive director of the Mauldin Cultural Center in Mauldin, SC. He is also the co-founder of the SC Young Professionals Arts Network and a board member of the SC Arts Alliance. He is a 2010 graduate of the Arts Management program at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC.

2 thoughts on “Masters Degree? Depends…

  1. Hi, I enjoyed reading your well-written article on whether to get a masters degree. I am from South Carolina and worked there for a few years. Now, I am getting my masters degree in arts admin in NYC. I must say, I disagree on it being a choice about where you want to work in the arts. I could not get a paying job in the South Carolina art world. I worked other jobs to support my internships and volunteer experiences. Every place I worked, my supervisors encouraged me to go back to school. They told me it would be my best chance of getting a job in the art world (especially after the financial crisis). I am glad you got a great job, but I think for a lot of us, we had to move to a large city to even land a job (in our field). I don’t plan on changing the Broadway landscape, but I do plan on making a living in the field in which I have a passion for.

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