You maybe want to go to grad school

The question I have been asked most from undergraduate students studying design is: What's your advice on grad school?

It's a complicated question and there's a different answer for everyone but I will try to gather some thoughts to help guide you through your decision. Full disclosure: I went to grad school. I have a BA from Western Michigan University and a MFA from the University of California, Irvine. I finished grad school in the fall of 2010, so both my advice and I are maybe getting old. Definitely getting old. My hips pop when I stand up. Anyways… just remember that I, like all of us, probably have some bias and as long as you are using this info to help your own brain make your own decision and not reading this as "well the internet said to…" we'll be in good shape.

Should I go?

Why do you want to? Seriously. Have an answer to that before you keep reading. You need to know why you're doing this to yourself. I hear a lot of "lack of formal/complete education in undergrad" and "I want to teach" which are both great reasons to look into graduate school. I also hear things like "well my undergrad is pretty much just a grad school prep program" or "it's what the other students did" or "I feel like I should" or "not sure, but I don't have a lot of other good direction at the moment" and that's where I start to get wishy-washy on my advice. On one hand, I see job applications saying "MFA or post-graduate degree preferred" and having that piece of paper could certainly make you stand out amongst other candidates. On the other hand, most of these job postings are simply excluding a wonderful candidate pool by adding that in. Maybe you're already qualified for that job and should apply anyway.

Grad school offers you more time to grow as a designer and a human. It's a safe(r) space to figure your shit out. And you'll likely build a network while you're studying and that could be the thing that leads you to a thriving career.

But let's remember that we're talking about a master's degree in theatre. Can you have a successful career in theatre without a master's degree? Yes. A lot of people do, you can too. Don't for a second think you need a graduate degree to work in the arts. If you didn't learn this in school, designers generally don't get hired from their resume, and they definitely don't get hired because of their degree. They get hired because a director or a production manager or another designer knows them.

How to start a design career: Do a work call, be excellent and get the designer's attention, leave them your contact info and let them know you're interested in assisting. If a lot of things work out in your favor, they will try to get you hired as their assistant eventually. You do a few shows as their assistant and then you start getting the shows the other designer is too busy for; now you're getting full design credit and making a name for yourself with companies and directors. With your name going around you get calls from new companies, etc. You grow and thrive until you realize theatre design is a pretty rough lifestyle and then slowly transition into something with more work/life balance and financial stability. A tale as old as time. At no point through that process did anyone ask to see your resume or your degree and literally no employer will have asked you about your grades. Might a graduate school make getting those connections easier? Maybe? Probably? It really depends on the grad school, its faculty/staff, AND how much you put into it.

Let's talk about money. Here's something I will stand behind: A MFA in theatre is not worth heavy student loan debt [edit: I added the word "heavy" only after realizing I immediately went on to type about my student loan debt]. How many people can you find that left grad school and could comfortably pay off their debt while working full-time in theatre? It's a rare thing! After I graduated from UC Irvine in 2010 I moved to Chicago and began my freelance career. My first steady job after getting my MFA was a retail position at the Apple Store. I worked there part time while I tried to get my foot in the door at as many theatre companies as possible. Alongside my part-time retail position, I began working for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Blue Man Group, and Million Dollar Quartet as an audio engineer. I would start my day early running student matinee performances at Chicago Shakes, then take a cab to the Apple Store for a short shift, then hop on the train or bus to run an evening show at Blue Man or MDQ. I did this 7 days a week for 10 months at which point I was able to leave Apple and work exclusively as a freelance sound person. My first year freelancing/retail earned me about $28,000. With income-based student loan payments I was looking at a very long payoff period even with only(?) $26,000 in total student loan debt. (Click here for details on how much I made freelancing)

I should stop here and add my personal experience: When I was accepted to UC Irvine I was offered a full tuition scholarship (out of state the first year, I had to prove CA residency for in-state tuition years 2&3) as well as a Teaching Assistant stipend. The stipend covered my rent on-campus in grad housing and my bills; I lived and ate off of student loan money and ended my three years at UCI with $26,000 student loan debt.

An unfortunate reality in the theatre world is that - in my experience, and watching my peers - you're probably not going to pay off your theatre degree loans by working in theatre. Or at least not theatre alone. In the Chicago market in 2010-2015, a standard assistant fee was somewhere between $500-$1000 for a full production, meaning you were expected to be there a lot. Let's say you get six of these gigs a year (wooo!) and oh shit you still only made $6k at most, all of which is 1099 untaxed income. And these fees are at larger regional theatres. If you're a hot shot and getting the full sound design fee you're looking at $800 to $1200 at smaller equity companies and $3000 to $5000 at the larger companies. Congrats, you got three of these design gigs this year! But woof, that's $15k at best, and combined with the $6k you made assisting you're well in to making over $20k a year! See how depressing this gets?

Any grad school worth your money will have faculty who are: currently designing themselves AND have a reasonable idea about how to live as a freelance designer. Right? That's what they're taking your money to teach you. It's fair to expect that of your professors. Ask them what and when their last three designs were and ask them if they're comfortable sharing what their design fee was. If they're not comfortable telling you that, they'll never actually help you learn how to represent yourself or operate as a business. A grad school without clear curriculum covering the business of design isn't worth your time or money. That school only exists within the "educational design" bubble and is of little to no use to you outside of education. And if they aren't designing at all, how do you expect to learn from them what it's like to be a designer?

Let's expand on the "business of sound design" aspect of your graduate education. Your school should confidently send you into the professional world with a good handle on the following:
-Current examples of Commercial/LORT/small company design fees.
-Proper financial habits of working as a 1099 business.
-Real-world examples of contract negotiation. I would trust my professor a LOT more if they used their most recent contract in this lesson.
-Basic contract language, and language designers should add regarding liability.
-Liability insurance, how and where to obtain it, and how much it costs.
-Liability regarding use of any copy-written material in your design.
-Student loan payoff strategies and opportunities like non-profit employment years.

You DESERVE to know what your financial life might be like after school! If your grad school isn't teaching you this who do they expect to do so? Ask them.

JUST AS IMPORTANT… Do the following exercise: pick the city you imagine yourself designing in professionally, and right now go look into what job you'd apply for after graduation. Literally find a job you would apply for and see if it offers good pay, benefits, retirement, work/life balance. If you can't find a job after a week of looking, what the hell do you think you're going to do when you're in the exact same boat but now with more student loan debt? I can't be serious enough about this!

How do I choose?

I personally believe your school should be able to offer you more than your formal education. Look into the school's affiliations with professional companies. Do students have the opportunities to work, learn, and earn while they study? Look at the city around your school. Are there professional companies? Can you work calls with the local IATSE? Can you be an assistant somewhere in town?

I'll use my experience at UC Irvine as an example. While a student there, I was able to: assist a professional designer at South Coast Repertory Theatre, be employed as A2 for a musical at South Coast Repertory, work as sound engineer for three different productions at Laguna Playhouse, assist my professor on two different designs with two different theatre companies in LA. I think that's a wonderful benefit of choosing a school in a geographic location surrounded by professional opportunity. Are you going to have the same opportunities at all schools? No. Ask about life outside the grad program, because there's just as much value in learning from other companies as there is from your professors. Ask about the connections and affiliations with other companies in town and really dig into whether there are any opportunities for you to thrive off-campus.

Talk to the current students in the program. Ask them what they wish the department had now that they've been there a while and be honest about what your deal-breakers are. Are you interested in technology and gear? Ask what the school's equipment policy is. Is there a chance you'll see new gear while you're a student? Is the gear there something you're going to learn from or be excited by? If you don't care about the gear and are all about the art, will there be opportunities for you to experiment and grow in a challenging environment? If you think you like a school because you feel like it'll be pretty easy and not challenge you too much… Do. Not. Go. You can skip that grad school and start working professionally!

Ask the school what their alums are doing, and be serious when you ask. See if you can find the 6 (more if you can) most recent alums and find out what opportunities they found after graduation. Your school should be proud of their alum and willing to gush about all of the cool things they're off doing professionally. [bias alert!] I'll again use UC Irvine as an example. The sound department has put forth the "effort" of listing their alumni with bios on their website. All of them. And the current students. And even a list of the undergraduate students that graduated with honors in sound. Do you want to see what the student path was like for UCI students? Just check the site! Everything should be that easy. If the school can't really share anything tangible regarding their alumni, I would mark that as a red flag.

Seriously, though, the school's alumni - especially the ones from recent past - will tell a greater story about that school than anything else.


I can't stress enough that you're choosing a family for the next two or three years of your life. Likely a VERY CLOSE family. You really really have to like the vibe of the city, the school, the campus, the staff, the current students, your housing situation, your financial situation, how far you are from home/family/significant other, etc. Grad school should be a place you want to be.

Other options:

There are so many opportunities for people with technical/design/entertainment backgrounds to have a great career without a master's degree. Production companies are constantly looking for intelligent and reliable staff. Tours are looking for the same. Most cities have call lists for entertainment labor jobs. Theatre companies are almost always looking for labor. Look outside of theatre - TV, film, video, post-production, streaming, commercial install, commercial consulting, etc. are all viable paths from a background in theatre.

I'll be honest with you - I don't know very many wealthy designers. The designers I would consider commercially/financially successful usually do so at the expense of spending over half of their lives away from home. You can't be getting into theatre design for a financial windfall. Knowing that, you really really really need to plan on pushing through some thick shit to find success.

I hope reading this helped. I will do my best to add / change / update this page as well as seek out the viewpoints of others.

Good luck. I'm rooting for you!