What good is my arts degree?

Posted on Posted in About Us, Education

Those of you who have studied a creative subject will be familiar with the common rhetoric – arts degrees are a useless waste of time with no job at the other end.

Now, I know that’s not true: my three years at university were the most insightful and formative of my life thus far, and I am now working in the industry. However, I often feel that I have to justify my decision to drop tens of thousands on a qualification in the arts and, furthermore, I do find myself wondering if a degree is the right decision for everybody with an interest in the field.

With this in mind, a few of us wanted to share our experiences as recent graduates of theatre arts, so we met at our old university for a chat about post-grad life. Our aim was to give those who are thinking about a degree in the arts (with a bias towards theatre) a more informed perspective on whether or not it is the right decision for them.

Taking part in this discussion were Victoria, Carl, Katie and myself. All of us graduated from Middlesex University last July with a BA in Theatre Arts. All of us received our degree with a grade of 2:1 or higher. All of us are now working and living in London.

You may assume that I’m kneeling but I’m actually standing in the hole where my £27,000 used to be.

B: To start things off: why did you decide to study Theatre Arts, and what is it that you now do for a living?

V: I knew that I wanted to study performance, but I didn’t know whether I wanted to do dance or theatre until the end of my A-Levels. I realised that I wanted to do physical theatre and this felt like the appropriate course to do so.

I work front of house at the Dominion Theatre, which is currently showing an American in Paris.

C: I don’t know, really. I studied performing arts at college and I think I really started to hone in on what I wanted to do. Whether or not I did it as a career, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to pursue so I thought I’d go to uni and gain actual experience and meet people with the same minds.

I work as a manager at a Japanese restaurant.

K: I really enjoyed doing drama at GCSE and A-Level, and I’m not very smart so I couldn’t do any of the other subjects. Similarly to Vicky, I applied to two other unis to do dance and theatre as a joint honours but I really liked the course that they did at Middlesex so that persuaded me to go down the theatre route.

I work at Sadler’s Wells dance theatre as a barmaid.

B: Would you say that the skills and experience gained during your degree come into play when you’re at work?

V: No! (Laughs)

B: No? Doesn’t help at all?

V: Nope. Someone asked me this on the phone the other day when they do that six monthly check-up on how you’re progressing since uni. They were like, “do you need your degree?” I was like “no!”

C: It helps in subtle ways. I think that working in performing arts and stuff helps with people interacting with people. And, like, I think it helps sometimes that you read situations and body language as an actor, so when you’re speaking to people sometimes you know how to approach them and speak to them. I guess I could do the job without having the degree, but there are things that overlay because I’m used to the dealing with complaints and stuff; apparently I have a good manner of speaking to people and persuading them!

K: It does and it doesn’t. Because my work is a creative environment it helps when you’re talking to other people and it helps to stay within the creative loop. So, we’ll all be sitting down at lunchtime and we’ll talk about some issue or a play that we’ve seen, so it has helped in that way to keep my interest in theatre, because I don’t think that if I did it as a degree I would have kept it going and stayed a part of Broken Chair and everything like that. Yeah, it has helped me to keep creative but it hasn’t helped in actually physically getting a job.

B: Do you not think that having the degree has made you more employable in the field?

K: It’s made me more employable in the field because it was a performance degree, but not as – because I just work the bars there – it hasn’t made me more employable as a barmaid. I don’t really know what I want to do as I progress, so I’ve got this degree and I’ve kind of come out of it as a performer, but I don’t know… I know I want to stay in the arts and that’s why I got the job at Saddler’s, but I don’t want to be on the bar for the rest of my life. Perhaps the degree will help in the future when I realise what this little thing called my brain wants to do.

V: I’m very much in the middle of job hunting, and I’m very much finding that I’m over-qualified or under-qualified for everything. So if I want to go into, for example, theatre marketing, I have to do an internship! But I’m not allowed to do an internship because I have a level three qualification. So, if I was younger and wanted to go into theatre marketing I would have been better off taking an internship after my A-Levels instead of studying for a degree. There’s no way for me in the career ladder at the moment.

C: I think a degree helps! It’s made me more motivated to want to pursue more and realise my potential. If I hadn’t come to uni I think I would have done a nine to five job sat in an office somewhere, but now I’m like – I want to do something more creative and I think you make sacrifices in other places to do certain things and it’s made me a bit more determined to find something in the field. Even if it is front of house or something, I want to do it because it’s still close to the arts.

B: Work aside, does your degree come into your day to day life at all?

V: Well, obviously we all do Broken Chair and that’s something we wouldn’t do if it wasn’t for our degree. I also at some point in my life want to build up the bollocks to do stand-up comedy again! That’s something I never would have done if not for my degree and I’ll regret it forever if I don’t try to do it again.

B: I guess you get back what you put in.

V: Yeah! I came to Middlesex to learn, not to get a job out of it. You don’t do a theatre degree to get a career; you do it because there’s something that you want to learn about. So I learned about it and I got what I want from it, and now I’ve finished it and I’m fifty grand in debt and I’m thinking “at least I know more things about theatre!” (Laughs)

B: As you mentioned tuition fees, do you think that the debt you’ve accrued justifies your degree?

V: I think that – bear with me here – our degree was like a Pizza Hut all you can eat buffet. You spend seven-pound fifty and you get as long as you want with the buffet: you eat what you want. But that’s like this, if you only go for one plate it’s your own fault. I had every plate! Y’know what I’m saying? We were in the rehearsal room from ten o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night. We ate the buffet.

Pizza Hut we love you. Give us free stuff.

K: Ben make that the title of the blog post. We ate the buffet! And everything is just a (incomprehensible laughing)

V: Do you know what I mean though? I got value for my money. Other people who went home at twelve o’clock every day won’t have got their value for money. I sweated in this room every day for three years.

B: Something that I’ve found with technical theatre – granted that I didn’t do a huge amount of it while I was at university – I’ve found that coming out of university and trying to get technical theatre jobs – there’s stuff that you learn during your studies and then there’s so much that you just cannot know unless you’re picking it up as a working professional. But then people want you to know these things if they’re hiring you! It’s a catch twenty-two. But if you keep applying and have a good attitude then work comes your way in dribs and drabs. So, I almost feel like, if somebody knew that they wanted to do technical theatre right from the off, it might be better to just start looking for freelance work and save yourself the fifty grand in tuition fees. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and my degree course really helped me to hone in on that, but for what I do for a living now I’m sure somebody without the degree wouldn’t take too long to catch up. I don’t regret going to university because it’s given me a sense of direction. I had an amazing time, I learnt so much, I met you guys and I feel really excited about where we’re going with Broken Chair. It’s just that, career wise, if you already know where you want to go, you should think about whether or not you need a degree to get there.

On that note, who do you guys think should study a degree in the arts?

V: People who aren’t good at anything else. (Laughs)

C: No! You need to stop saying that! I think that it takes a lot of discipline to go to uni because a lot of people fob it off. With us, we’re in a world where you’ve got to be creative and sometimes you’re putting a lot of dedication, time and energy into a piece that doesn’t get the grades you wanted. This helps you to deal with rejection and, like, not everyone understanding your thoughts and feelings. Like, you know you can put a piece on that you really think is speaking something and people will judge it and say that’s only a 2:2. And a lot of times when you’re writing an essay, for example, it’s judged on phrasing, how it’s written, sources you’ve used, but actually, to put a play on… It’s people who are dedicated and really want to push themselves forward and maybe need that spark of encouragement – because some people got that at uni. I’m not sure everyone would pursue the arts without that little kick in the bum from studying a degree. Some of us are thinking that we’ve spent so much money on uni and our degree that I have to stick with it and I have to spent the next few years trying to get a job in the arts. Whereas some people from back home, even the ones who studied an arts subject at college, if they didn’t go to uni everyone now is in a nine to five job. No one is doing art unless they went to uni; those are the ones who are doing stuff. So, I think it’s like, although we might say “I don’t think it’s valuable” there is stuff we are now doing – Broken Chair – a company that is now under the mentoring scheme of Tangled Feet and are going to be doing shows that people are going to come and see… We did Brighton, we did Edinburgh, and I don’t think that would have happened to any of us as individuals if we didn’t study at Middlesex.

To offer some afterthoughts on this conversation –

While many of the people that I studied with are currently working jobs that are entry level or unrelated to their degree, this is not a unique failure of the arts. I have met chemists, architects, physicists… All working ‘for now’ jobs while they fight to establish themselves in the field. This is just a part of being young and chasing your ambitions in a difficult climate.

That said, I do want to stress a harsh truth: getting a degree in theatre arts is not much of an advantage. Of course, having a degree is better than none in terms of general employment, but when it comes to the arts industry you will still struggle to find work.

Why then, am I glad for my degree? Because I measure its worth not in the jobs that it has secured me, but in the experience, character and connections that I built over the three year course. This is manifest in Broken Chair, the theatre company that would not exist had we not taken our degree and then decided to take it further. Where it is difficult to find work we are making work for ourselves, and I couldn’t be happier to be sharing that experience with a bunch of like-minded graduates.

Do you have something to add to the conversation? We would love to hear from graduates of other art forms and people at different stages of their career. How did getting a degree impact your life? You can let us know in the comments, or click any of the social media buttons below to visit our Facebook, Twitter, etc.

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