MidLife Student Crisis
February 13, 2012 7:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm in my 40's and doing okay without a Master's degree -- should I get one anyway?

First things first: I know already that it is a long-ish shot that I will end up making money from the field I've chosen. But it's theater, and I knew that going in. I do have a BFA in drama, but through a long and circuitous career path I've ended up as a literary manager instead -- it's a job that I didn't even know was a THING when I was a kid, but I've come to love it, and for someone without any training I'm not doing bad (I've been running a playwriting contest for about 9 years now, I've done some production research and writing for two other theater companies as well).

I have just discovered that a state school near me offers a dramaturgy/literary management MFA, and the tuition is very low. What I'm wondering is whether it'd be worth it, since I've already gotten some work without it. I don't get diddley-squat in terms of pay right now, and have to have a day job; but so do 85% of the people working in theater as well. I'm fairly sure that even with an MFA, a well-paying job in theater would be hard to come by. I'd also be in my mid-40's when I was done, and that's a really late start on a career change.

On the other hand, I'm about 2 months into a day job at a bank and already cringing at the thought of a long stint here (the current game plan is to stick it out here until my debt is completely paid down in about 2 years), and maybe a degree would at least help me get a day job closer to my own interests.

So: is it worth going back for a masters' in something you love, but know you won't get rich at, when you're middle aged? Please advise.
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Education (11 answers total)
Unless the tuition is so low that you wouldn't need to go into any debt for it, I'd say it is not worth it, in general. Is your lack of a Master's costing you jobs? In certain fields it is a prerequisite for even being considered for some positions, but I can't imagine that the theater world works like that. I suspect you'd do better off to spend the time you would spend on the degree doing volunteer work in the field and building up your resume and professional network that way. You can get your degree (and maybe even get it paid for) once you have a full time gig. I know that's what I would recommend to people thinking about getting the same Master's Degree I have. I don't have specific knowledge of the theater industry, though.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:55 AM on February 13, 2012

Best answer: Can you go talk to the faculty about your interests and get their read on whether it might help your career? Perhaps there's a way to start slowly so you can explore the program without committing to finishing the degree. Admittedly, I know nothing about your field, but I think you should start working towards the MFA because doing so will:

  • reinforce (to yourself and others) that the bank job is a means to an end and that you have other plans;

  • be a fun way to meet other people and stretch yourself;

  • confer a credential that might be useful in ways you can't yet imagine.

  • You don't have to finish it if you discover you dislike the program, find the students callow or whatever... but you might love it. Start with just one class so it doesn't get in the way of your other activities.

    PS: 40 isn't that old!
    posted by carmicha at 8:02 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

    In certain fields, degrees, often useless, are taken seriously. The arts isn't usually one of these.
    posted by Obscure Reference at 8:03 AM on February 13, 2012

    If you can comfortably pay off the debt without a pay increase from what you are earning now, regardless of what the MFA does or does not do for you in terms of specific jobs, then I would say go for it. Otherwise, I am not sure you can depend on an MFA to leverage you into better paying roles. Having one may well open the door to qualifying you for a whole range of employment you are not currently eligible for; I'm not sure how it is where you are, but when I started in non-profits our development director had an MFA. She moved from our small non-profit to a development role at a very prestigious arts university a couple of years later.
    posted by DarlingBri at 8:06 AM on February 13, 2012

    Yes, it's totally worth it, because you said "for something you love". Do it for love, and the bonus is, learning keeps you young. If you can afford it, yes, do it. You love it!
    posted by thinkpiece at 8:22 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: carmicha, you inspired me to check out the faculty to even find out who I'd ask about that -- and it turns out one of the faculty members at the university went through the same undergrad program as me in the very same place, and ALSO runs a playwriting contest through the university (and one of their winners was one of my contest's finalists, even). I've added him to a short list of people I'm going to reach out to and ask "would an MFA be a good idea for me at this juncture", as he seems uniquely suited.

    All the advice, pro and con, is helpful, everyone; keep it coming, and thanks!
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:27 AM on February 13, 2012

    I got my masters (in my late 20's though!) to round out my self-taught knowledge in my field and it really gave me a new perspective on the industry I work in and help me find ways to continue my education by opening my eyes to how vast the field really is. I've gotten better jobs and better pay because of it. That said, I went heavily into debt that I will probably be paying off for a long time and I really did have a lot to learn. Also, my field web strategy and project management so it inherently benefits from education. I don't regret getting my degree at all, but it did kind of burn me out in terms of further education because it was a lot of work.

    For you it sounds like you need to evaluate whether or not you will enjoy the experience, whether or not you actually need the education to go to the next level in this field, and whether or not you are really willing to commit to the expense and time commitment that goes along with a graduate degree. I really like the idea of going and talking to faculty within the department about whether or not the program is really right for you [which upon preview it looks like you're going to do so yay!].
    posted by Kimberly at 8:31 AM on February 13, 2012

    Different plate of beans, but I just spoke to my photography professor (I'm currently auditing a class) about possibly getting a photography MFA. In her opinion, unless I wanted to teach someday, I should just keep auditing classes (at a 50% "discount" from credited classes).

    I can still list the classes on my resume (if they're ever relevant to anything I apply for), I'll just indicate they were not for credit.
    posted by JoanArkham at 8:47 AM on February 13, 2012

    After years of experience in teaching, I decided in my mid-40's to get a second master's degree (I had elementary education and went for special education).

    Pro: The 2nd M.Ed. bumped me up in the union payscale.
    Con: When I was looking for a new position, the 2 advanced degrees overpriced me for many positions.

    Pro: My tuition was 1/2 paid by my employer; there's no way I would have taken on that debt otherwise.

    Pro: The idea of stretching myself and learning new ways of teaching was really appealing.

    Biggest con: Although it was nice to network and meet other teachers, the second degree program was a complete joke, academically speaking. My classmates and I didn't learn anything that we didn't already know, having all been teachers for many years, where your knowledge base comes from the actual work, working with peers and professional development. So the actual experience of forcing myself to pay money to drag myself to class twice weekly was really bad.

    However...your situation does seem a whole lot different than mine. But if it turns out that this program will put you into debt to tell you things you already know, then I'd not consider it.
    posted by kinetic at 8:50 AM on February 13, 2012

    It sounds like it very likely is not worth it as a career-enhancing or money-making project- it probably won't pay for itself.

    But if you think of it as a consumption good, it might very well be worth it. That is, it might enrich your life more than anything else you could do with the same amount of money and time. It's perfectly reasonable to love school, and to desire the opportunity to immerse yourself in your passion for theater.

    If tuition is really that low, and you can do it without making significant sacrifices elsewhere, it seems like a pretty good deal to me.
    posted by Clambone at 8:51 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    In terms of budgeting the degree, don't forget to factor in the cost of books. It is extremely easy to spend a few hundred dollars on books every semester.

    On the other side of budgeting, if you're a full time student, and if your debt is from school loans, they will go on vacation while you're enrolled.

    Personally, I'd take a couple of classes that can be applied to the degree and see if they're useful/interesting.
    posted by sciencegeek at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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