Many years ago, I found myself brooding on the corner of 122nd Street and Broadway. I had only been in New York for a few minutes and I was already locked out of my new apartment and I was homesick. What’s more, I’d managed to break two promises I’d made to myself just a year earlier.
The first promise: I was done with school. The second: I’d never leave California again. But there I was 3,000 miles from home, convinced I’d made the two biggest mistakes of my young life.
Thankfully, a few days after my less-than-auspicious start, I settled into the hustle and bustle of New York City and the graduate program I had packed my bags for. And it’s a good thing, too, because the next three years studying theater at Columbia University turned out to be immensely influential in shaping my craftsmanship as a storyteller and outlook on the world.
All that said, pursuing an MFA is not for everyone. It’s a big deal full of variables you should consider before investing in the cost and time you’ll spend fighting over rehearsal space. Plus, any graduate program worth its salt is a mental, emotional, and spiritual investment that will test on a daily basis. So before you start back-to-school shopping, here are a few things to consider before committing to an MFA program.
As of the writing of this article, the average cost of an MFA in acting is about $100,000. The good news is that graduates with a Master’s degree typically earn 15 percent higher overall income than those with only a Bachelor’s. The not-so0good news is that it’s unlikely the Census Bureau was talking about actors when it conducted this study.
That said, for those who can’t picture life without a stage, a strong graduate program can provide helpful tools and resources for trekking the artist’s path. Like many opportunities, you’ll ultimately get out what you put in. Only the rewards you’ll reap likely won’t help cover the cost of tuition. At least not initially.
Ask yourself if you’re willing to shoulder significant student debt to pursue a career filled with challenges, a stable income being the most notable.
Three years can feel like the bat of an eye or a total slog depending on what you’re doing. Make no mistake, if you decide to pursue an MFA you will work hard. Your new teachers and classmates will push you beyond your perceived limitations. Remember, it’s their job is to mold you into the most compelling storyteller and individual you can be. Most of the lessons you’ll walk away with will transcend the stage and serve you beyond the audition room but as all meaningful transformations do, that evolution takes time.
Do you have the patience and, more importantly, the interest in seeing that growth develop? Can you dig deep each day and find the courage to be vulnerable, wildly imperfect, and firmly critiqued? If you can, the rewards can be immeasurable.
An MFA is not the only means to a successful acting career. If you decide to pass on grad school, don’t think for a second you’re any less of an actor. It’s likely many of the actors you admire most didn’t attend a fancy drama school or the ones who did often waved “adios” long before that boring commencement speech.
The question to ask yourself is what type of learning environment you thrive in? For some, the rigor and structure of a conservatory is a good fit while others get the most out of individual workshops. Ultimately, it’s up to you to assess how serious you are about pursuing a professional career as an actor and what path will provide the best opportunity to develop your craft.
Keep in mind conservatories aren’t necessarily looking for the next Brando or Blanchett. Ultimately, they want a group of people who will bring out the best in each other. So being overlooked from a program you had your heart set on is often less about talent than harmony.
Still, if you have your sights set on an MFA keep plugging along. With careful consideration and the right preparation, you can absolutely find a program that’s right for you.
Just remember: there are other ways to pursue your dreams.
*This post was originally published on June 19, 2018. It has since been updated.
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