LD On The DL: The Argument Against Graduate School


I recently got into trouble on a friend’s Facebook page. He published a status update expressing concern and angst over his upcoming graduate thesis project and review. I told him it didn’t really matter and to relax. I may have expressed myself in a sarcastic and condescending manner in an utterly failed attempt at humor. In a very mature and roundabout way my friend told me to, “F*** off.” The adult thing for me to do -- and perhaps the point of Facebook status updates in general -- would have been to reassure him that everything would eventually work out. Unfortunately, as my wife often reminds me, I have a hard time expressing how I feel unless it’s written in paragraph form and heavily edited.

This whole graduate school thing, however, has stuck with me for several weeks now. I seem to have arrived at an age where many of my compatriots are removing themselves from the workforce part or full-time, paying inordinate sums of money, and galavanting off to work really, really hard in this niche ecosystem that feels oddly detached from the main economy and, specifically, our industry. I asked my colleagues their reasons and opinions for attending graduate school. I got back a lot of arguments which I’ve distilled and listed below.

You will hone your craft.

The most common argument I heard for attending graduate school was to hone one’s craft. The thought goes, I want to be a better Sound Designer, so I need further instruction on sound design. Or, I want to be a better actor, singer, or dancer so I must learn advanced techniques only found in a graduate school environment. In this mode of thought graduate school becomes an advanced vocational training arena, harnessing good talent and making it great.

By that logic, then, people with a masters degrees would be better than people without a masters degree. Armed with more advanced techniques, they would be better trained, more skilled, and outperform their colleagues without a similar degree. To carry this to its logical conclusion, a Lighting Designer with a MFA can better light the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet than, say, me. The same could be said for acting. An actor without a MFA will never be as good as an actor with one. Largely, however, nobody thinks like this, and collecting data to prove such assertions would be problematic.

Despite the zero-sum nature of our business (if you get hired, then I don’t) and thus the inherent competitiveness, perhaps people feel graduate school actuates their own inner greatness. Okay, but since when has inner greatness had anything to do with success in the arts? Most great artists never get anywhere professionally, while complete hacks have entire museums dedicated to their work. How performers get hired can be maddeningly superficial, having nothing to do with talent. How designers get hired also lacks any semblance of fairness. We all know the LDs who find regular work that just hang an entire shop’s worth of gear and figure it out in tech, who ask the moving light programmer to, “Show me something,” or whose army of assistants do much of the intellectual heavy lifting. That’s not inner (or outer) greatness. They’ve just been around for so long nobody knows who else to call.

Lastly, that honed craft is only a tiny part of our overall job. I wrote about this when I discussed my unease with interns. Client service and small business skills are critical to functioning in the larger economy. Lead generation skills help guarantee future work. Billing and accounting skills ensure smart handling of invoices, deductions, and bills. Honing one's craft should include these business basics. However graduate programs focus on art, in denial that the rest has equal if not more importance in today’s world.

You will make more money.

In many areas of the economy, earning a graduate degree means a bump in pay. My mother, who taught 8th grade English for 10 years in Florida, got more money after she received her masters. That extra salary adds up over the years, and can directly affect pension payouts in retirement. For her in that particular work environment, it was a prudent move.

In other jobs in law or finance a masters degree can also open the door to upper-management. Management positions equate to higher pay, but also mean more power and professional status. Often these firms will pay for all or part of the tuition while an employee goes part-time, as long as that employee commits to staying at the firm for two or three years.

I have not seen evidence that any of this translates to our industry. Local 829’s rate card does not differentiate on the educational status of the designer. Equity does not pay actors with more education differently. To my knowledge IATSE does not care, either. Masters or not, you take the ETCP exams the same as everybody else. The notion any theater company would have enough funds to send its technical or creative staff to graduate school is laughable. As a freelancer no potential client cared how many degrees I possessed. My current employer didn’t really either. Rather, they were more concerned with my past experience in TV lighting and ... at the risk of sounding like a broken record ... client service.

The “more power” argument for the entertainment industry fails, too. On a show by show or single event basis, no C-level or VP roles exist. Considering all the design firms throughout the world, how many Presidents and VPs can possibly exist? Forty? Most of those positions are staffed by much older people who either own the company, who were an early partner in the company, who put in 20 years of hard labor in the trenches (probably for the company), or all three. I see no evidence offered into the public dialogue suggesting a MFA equates to more money or more power in this particular industry.

You will make connections.

How important is access? In my opinion, very important. Sitting at the table and taking part in the discussion means building future relationships in the hopes that, someday, nobody will know who else to call but you. I want to be an excellent designer in New York, so I go to a New York school to get my masters, the thought goes. Next stop, Tony!

I cede this point. Graduate schools do (hopefully) help provide connections to their students, provided the school has connections in the sub-section of the industry and municipality the student desires to eventually work in.

That’s a big if. Furthermore, it raises a lot of questions. How many connections are we talking about? How many of these connections are people who can possibly employ me? Or, if not employ, how many connections are people who will be good mentors? What is a connection worth in dollars? I’m laying out cash for a service, so what portion of that money goes towards the institution’s cultivation of connections I may benefit from? How are faculty encouraged to foster connections for their students? What does “connection” mean to this particular institution?

I think schools bump into an inherent dissonance by over emphasizing the connection aspect, which runs smack into a larger debate regarding which type of education graduate schools provide. “Connections” imply a business-centric approach, the “Who you know is more important than what you know,” attitude. However, refining one’s craft remains the dominant reason behind attending graduate school. Neither approach necessarily mutually excludes the other. However, I think most schools see connections as a value-add to refining ones craft. Rather, the opposite is probably true.

You will be able to teach college.

Wait. Did you hear that noise? My head just hit the table in exasperation. To me this feels like a system acting to perpetuate and legitimize itself using an incestuous feedback loop. Those with a masters degree are more likely to sell others on the benefits of having a masters degree. Thus, it behooves non-profit, for-profit, and private schools (all of which are ultimately just large corporations that need income, or in a non-profit university's case, cheap labor) to employ faculty already steeped in a product and way of thinking the company needs sold.

Successful teachers do possess a wealth of information regarding their specialty or craft, but they also know how to teach. Professors can be mentors, counselors, coaches, mother or father figures, and disciplinarians all at the same time. Teaching skills are certainly interdisciplinary, but it’s unlikely the bulk of MFA programs not specifically related to education cover teaching skills with any sincerity. Knowing a lot about something does not a good teacher make. Furthermore, receiving a masters as a plan B (in case this artist thing fails) does a disservice to teaching, the next generation, and the industry as a whole.

You will find yourself.

I identify with Buddhism. I meditate frequently. I deeply believe denial is a cancer that undermines our future successes. Soul searching, vision quests, walk-abouts, yoga retreats, silent retreats, ritualized suffering (Lent, Ramadan) ... I get it. I totally understand. I would never deny anyone the chance to explore this life and figure out their place in it. Is graduate school such an experience? Perhaps.

It certainly possess some similarities. Students suffer and work extremely hard. Often they are separated from loved ones or family for a period of time as they complete assignments and tasks that outsiders have difficulty relating to. An intense bond forms between those in the cohort group. Achieving the degree heralds a new, adult phase of life or the start of a new career phase. Through some period of suffering comes (maybe) self but certainly career enlightenment, which definitely has some Buddhist overtones.

One important area graduate school differs from the above examples has to do with the lingering after effects. A friend of mine starved himself for two weeks at this retreat, and he began to hallucinate. A sort of vision quest born from acute hunger. Once the experience ended, he ate food and regular life resumed. People attend week long retreats where talking is prohibited. Once over, they come away with a different perspective but otherwise unharmed. Millions of Muslims fast for Ramadan and Catholics give up something they love for Lent. Rarely does anyone suffer lasting injury. With graduate school, the opposite is true. The experience indirectly causes the student continuing harm in the form of debt.

Significant debt weighs on the self, marriage, and the economy in lasting and documented ways. Consider, someone with a $100,000 of student loan debt. Assuming a 2% interest rate, to pay it off in 5 years will require $1752.78 monthly payment, essentially a second rent for a Manhattan apartment. The monthly draw drops to $920.13 per month to retire the debt in 10 years. That equates to a lot of extra design fees. A MFA designer or actor would need to work inordinately more per year for a period of several years to pay off the debt. Given the economics of our industry, that does not seem possible or likely.

Money spent servicing or repaying large debt is money not spent on retirement savings, or business software like Lightwright, QLab, Vectorworks, Adobe Creative Suite, or Final Cut Pro. Or a computer to run it all. It’s also money not spent on continuing education like LDI, USITT, or NAB. It’s money not spent on amazing vacations with a spouse or partner. It’s money not spent on house or car down payments. These little harms add up taking an enormous, cumulative toll.

Graduate school may be enlightening and a great place to find yourself, however the steep costs risk undermining any new beginning’s success from taking root. With years and years of austerity, life and relationships put on pause risk wilting.

You need a challenge.

Well good for you.

Other ways exist of satiating the above reasons without attending graduate school and paying the huge costs. Classes exist for honing every craft imaginable for a fraction of the price. Professional groups exist online and elsewhere where ideas can be exchanged. Continuing educational opportunities abound in many large cities.

Earning more money in the arts is a fool’s errand. Since the laws of supply and demand never yield, making more money in New York City will continue to be incredibly difficult. There is too much supply to create any serious demand. Other areas of the country have a lot better balance, plus graduate schools there are cheaper to begin with. Young professionals will make more money automatically by not trying to work in New York.

There are infinite ways to make connections. Take a well known sound designer to lunch. Odds are they aren’t making much money anyway and would appreciate a free meal. Plus, taking every single regularly working designer to lunch might still be cheaper than graduate school. People love to talk about themselves. Use social media to the fullest extent without getting staker-ish. Go to conventions. Have drinks. Live in and among those you eventually want to work with.

If you love teaching, then teach! Pursue the latest teaching philosophies and help fix an incestuous and broken system.

I cannot begin to fully depict here all the ways which exist to find one’s self without the financial hangover of graduate school. When I first started I worked for a decor lighting company. Running 4/0 feeder through tents in The Hamptons or thousands of feet of multi-cable through The Central Park Zoo at 1 A.M made me acutely aware of what I was made of. I learned more in those few years about me and this industry than I have before or since.

Need a challenge in life? Start a business. Or climb a tall mountain.

My basic concern against graduate school boils down to money. With any investment we usually expect data delineating our potential returns. With stocks and bonds, we look to independent authorities to verify what those returns are likely to be. Whatever graduate school may be, ultimately it is an investment. The cost in dollars and time should yield some kind of return also in dollars. However little data exists in our industry for what those returns are.

I’m an economist at heart. I want to see the data and statistics before doing almost anything. Show me the numbers. Graduate schools trumpet their famous graduates, but how many many people aren’t famous? How many people left the industry in 5, 10, or 20 years? How long did it take for other people with similar loan packages to repay it? Show me graphs and charts that mathematically depict the advantages before I spend real money. I want a control group -- industry workers without an advanced degree -- juxtaposed against the group with one. What story do the numbers tell us? How much of an advantage does graduate school endow? How does that advantage compare with the cost?

My arguments against graduate school don’t apply to all industries. They also don’t apply to those whose employers pay their way, students who have a full ride, or people who possess wealth enough to cover the costs. While the advantages of attending are still dubious and the money probably still better invested elsewhere, at least the dire financial consequences are removed from the equation. In years past before the unfortunate explosion of tuition, maybe graduate school made better sense.

It breaks my heart to see young people heading off to graduate school. The mode of thinking -- that having more degrees equates to greater, overall potential -- seems borrowed from other professions to lend itself credibility but that still do not readily apply to artistic pursuits. With unemployment so high for recent college graduates, I fear many head to graduate school because they don’t know what else to do. Students, consciously or not, take it on faith this experience will ultimately be a net positive for them. Faith the system readily exploits.

Matters of faith have typically been out of bounds for rational discussion, and graduate school is no exception. The new economics of today’s world require we change our thinking. Money and (especially) time are preciously limited resources. Before investing either, do the math.

Lance Darcy is a Lighting Designer and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.

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