What are you going to do with that degree?

Dealing with the dreaded question every fine arts major hears

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The Spectrum

When you’re meeting new people on campus, they typically ask you what your major is. It’s not an uncommon question, and it’s certainly not one that should stress you out. 

Yet whenever I’m asked this, my mind races and I become nervous.

It’s not because I’m ashamed of what I’m taking –– musical theater –– nor is it that I’m scared to discuss it. It’s more of me prompting myself for the dreaded “what are you going to do with that” conversation that inevitably follows.

Any performance or arts-based major knows the conversation I’m talking about. It’s the question where you have to justify your major to a random stranger or relative who can’t understand why you’re pursuing such a “competitive” career –– especially one that isn’t very “well-paid.”

Somewhere along the line, there seems to be a misconception that a performance or an arts-based class isn’t challenging enough to be considered academic. I’m here to say that is simply untrue. 

Whether it be from relatives, teachers or friends, whenever I express my enthusiasm for this passion of mine I always get the same apprehensive response.

It’s almost as if all the hard work I’ve put into this subject is being put down. Even now while I’m enrolled in this degree, I still earn similar condescending remarks. The most recent comment I’ve heard was “Do you have any real classes today?”

Now I’m sure that the person who asked this didn’t mean to be rude, but it did bring up an interesting question. What constitutes as a “real” class? As a double degree-seeking student, people seem willing enough to accept that my history classes are real. What makes musical theater any different? 

The amount of hard work my peers and I go through is incredible. We take on dance classes that force us to push our bodies to work harder than we could imagine. We constantly practice our music. We study for tests on the in-depth history of this art. 

Obviously, different arts-based majors focus on different disciplines, but the same hard work is still there.

Sometimes I get the impression that someone thinks these comments are going to “save us” from these realities. That saying them in this discussion will genuinely change my mind about what I’m passionate about.

Practically every fine arts major I’ve spoken with knows about these realities. At one time or another, we’ve all stopped in our tracks and thought “Am I really doing this? Am I strong enough to pull through the sad, but true facts about my major?” While some eventually realize that maybe this path isn’t for them, others see the challenges as a reaffirmation of their love for this subject. Every challenge brought on by this choice in career will make us grow and change for the rest of our lives. That’s the truly exciting part to me.

We know becoming “famous” for our art is a long shot, but there are many different careers that our art degree gives us. In my case, I could pursue teaching my craft, arts administration, directing, writing, reviewing or anything else.

A reality for any major is that you most likely will not be employed in a job that directly correlates to your degree. Even still, we pursue this path because that’s what we love to do.

There’s nothing wrong with asking your fellow fine arts students how they plan on navigating their career. However, don’t do it with a tone that says that their hard work and dedication is not legitimate.

And for the fine arts student that is reading this and can relate to it, the next time someone asks you “What are you going to do with that?” Tell them you’re going to do what you love.

Julianna Tracey is a staff writer and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com