What Can You Really Do With a Degree in the Arts?

If you want to work in a creative field, you're probably better off not majoring in it.


Is my B.A. in creative writing of any use to me at all? It's hard to say. I sort of have a career in the arts in that I write and think about art all the time. But the relationship between my arts career and my actual career is tenuous. I earn my living writing, but it's not exactly the type of writing they were preparing me for back at Oberlin. Rather than poetry or fiction or even creative nonfiction, I write entries for business encyclopedias, create items for high school and elementary standardized tests, and do the occasional online study guide for Stephen King novels. Even when it comes to the critical writing I do for publications like The Atlantic, my English classes, and my second major in history, were better preparation than anything I learned in writers’ workshops.

My experience isn't unusual. In fact, according to a recent report by BFAMFAPhd, a degree in the arts only very rarely leads to a career in the arts. Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists uses 2012 Census Data to get a picture of artistic career paths. The data isn't perfect: For example, the report says that it "looked at bachelors degrees in music, drama and theater arts, film, video and photographic arts, art history and criticism, studio arts, and visual and performing arts"—which would mean that folks like me with a creative writing degree aren't counted as having arts degrees, even though writers are counted by the survey as working artists.

Still, even with such limitations, the results are startling. Out of the 2 million art graduates in the nation, only 200,000, or 10 percent, earn their living primarily as artists. The vast majority who get arts degrees, then, are like me. They may work in an arts-related profession (as, for example, as art or music teachers), but they aren't working artists.

Even more strikingly, people without arts degrees are becoming working artists. Only 15.8 percent of working artists have a B.A. or B.F.A. The rest have a range of college credentials—in communications (9.3 percent),  social sciences (9.3 percent), or the liberal arts (7.9 percent), to name the three largest groups.

Arthur Chu's undergrad degree was in history, but he might be considered a working artist now, depending on your definition. Best known for a successful run on the game show Jeopardy, Chu now does voiceover work, generally for corporate and explainer videos, though he's also done radio commercials and voicing for the Web Series Erfworld. "I've got a big passion for acting. Improv comedy, community theater and the like are a huge part of my life," he told me. "Voiceover work was something I was attracted to as something that I could do from home, that could be narrowly focused toward trying to do performance for money, which is very hard to come by in the stage-acting world."

According to Chu, his lack of training in the arts has been a disadvantage in some ways. "I only ever seriously started considering performing as even a hobby, much less a part-time career, when I hit college," he said, "by then I was up against people who'd been in the scene since they were teenagers and children, who had a tremendous background in reading plays, doing theater exercises, hanging out with theater people, etc." On the other hand, though, he said, "I've had directors say they love working with people who got into acting in later life because they have more real-life experience to draw from, as opposed to having everything filtered through the specific lens of the theater. I mean, I think the dues I put in doing low-wage labor help keep me grounded and keep me from being full of myself whatever kind of project I'm working on at the moment." His experience on Jeopardy has also helped him get work.

So there are many folks with arts degrees, like me, who are not working artists, and many people like Chu, who graduated with non-arts degrees yet did become working artists. However, the single largest group of working artists comprises people who don't have an undergraduate degree at all. Working artists are more likely to have a B.A. than American adults as a whole, 69 percent of whom don't have a four-year degree. But still, 39.9 percent of working artists didn't graduate from college.

One of those who went directly into an arts career without getting a degree is actor, screenwriter, and director Nikole Beckwith. Beckwith attended a Sudbury School in Massachusetts, where there is no set curriculum and students organize and pursue their own education. The emphasis on self-motivation and seeking out learning helped her enormously in her career, she told me. It also helped that she had been pursuing theater since she was 9. After high school, she just kept acting and doing theater work and teaching theater and improv; she was co-director of a small theater company by the time she was 25.

But, she said, "being an actor in New York not having gone through some kind of program … it was so hard. It was impossible." Without any college connections in the theater world, no one would give her a part and her extensive experience in New England theater was largely seen as irrelevant.

At the same time, part of the reason she was able to keep trying was because she was not paying back massive loans. "I forget that I'm one of the only people I know who isn't slogging through major college debt," she said. "Instead of having [to work all the time] I was able to audition and send things out and be writing and working and be trying to find out where my best foothold was in an industry that meant so much to me." She was ultimately able to start making a living as a screenwriter.

Looking at the report, and at the experiences of artists like Beckwith and Chu, it's hard to escape the conclusion that arts programs are not necessary for arts careers, and that these programs often do a poor job in explaining to students what their futures are going to look like. This is especially problematic considering that, as the report says, 7 of the 10 most expensive schools in the country are arts schools.

Certainly, when I was getting my B.A. 20 years back, no one talked about journalism, or educational writing, or criticism as options. The closest thing we got to career advice was a discussion of publishing in small literary magazines, which of course don't pay. The only working artists available as models were our instructors, who had gotten advanced degrees in writing before teaching in the academy. That's a nice career path if you can get it, but one that (as the report shows) very few people follow.

Another of the reports' authors, Blair Murphy, told me, "I believe that arts education is extremely valuable. The best programs develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, along with intellectual curiosity, creativity, and an amazing work ethic." There's some truth to that; I certainly learned valuable things in my creative writing courses. And for that matter, though it may be hard for casual readers to see, my training in poetry and fiction definitely helped shape my style of criticism.

But given the expense of a B.A., and the likelihood that a degree in the arts will not lead directly to a career in the arts, art school programs need to be a lot more honest with their students. "There's a hesitancy to talk about money and economic issues, especially when artists are in school, in a space where they're supposed to develop their practice without being influenced by the market," Murphy told me. "But there needs to be a way to allow young artists to grow as artists in a space that gives them distance from the pressure of the art market, while also being realistic about their economic lives after graduation. That's especially true," she concluded, "if they're starting their post-graduation lives burdened by student loan debt."