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Sorry Arts Majors, David Byrne Says You're Screwed

Liz Dwyer

Dose of reality or total downer? Talking Heads frontman David Byrne made a fortune in the arts, but in a recent commencement speech he told grads of Columbia's School of the Arts that, just like his tune's title, they're on a "Road to Nowhere." He shared charts which "showed that only three percent of film and theatre grads, and five percent of writing and visual-arts grads, end up working in their areas of concentration," and they'll only earn a median salary of $35-45,000.

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  • Sharon Kelly

    The idea of not doing anything for money sounds great, but for the majority of us it is a beautiful theory at best. Yes, I went to college and got a degree in English. I love books and I love to write, but in the real world with its high cost of living and an ever increasing focus on money opportunities to write professionally did not materialize automatically. So I did what I had to do in order to be financially independent, get a job - no matter the field. As of today, I work in Finance. I admit I can't believe it myself: how an English major wound up being a Sr. Director in a field that I couldn't see myself majoring in while I was in college. In my case it was I did what I had to do, not what I wanted to do.

    • Liz Dwyer

      Thanks for your honesty, Sharon. Your experience is so common in our culture. I wrote something last year about how college students are no longer studying what they're interested in, but are instead going for majors that will make more cash--which begs the question, since petroleum engineers make a lot, should everyone study to be that? Obviously not, so how do we balance passion with practicality? I think David's comment below makes a good point. It might not matter so much if folks didn't have student loan debt to worry about. Then again, given that I know so many teachers, for example, who don't necessarily have significant loan debt but still have to have a second job to make ends meet, it's hard to do what you love because the cost of living is so high in so many places. In any case, I hope you're at least writing in your personal time. Don't give up! ;)

  • Alessandra Rizzotti

    Also - the idea is we should never do anything for money anyways.

    • Liz Dwyer

      I've long been an advocate of doing what you love, regardless of whether it enables you to become wealthy, but I had a long conversation with my mom about this very thing last night and she challenged me on this. "You wouldn't go work in a gas station--even if you hated every minute of it--if you needed money to feed your family?" I had to admit she was right.

      • Zoe-Zoe Sheen

        I've been thinking the very same thing! If we can't reach the full potential of our passions in this society because 'reality' gets in the way, doesn't that mean the the society we live in is broken? I know it sounds very idealistic but if so many people have to sacrifice the things they love just in order to survive in the 'real world' doesn't that mean there's something wrong with the way we're living?

      • David Loitz

        Yet no one goes to college to just feed thier family, if so you would be better off working at a gas station. We go to college hopefully because it provides us with learning/life experiences that deepen and develop our capacity to be better human beings. If the gas station can do that, I say work at the gas station. I do think we need to rethink our ideas of work and how we "feed" our families. Good showcases an array of people and project that are re-thinking all the old ideas of living and learning. I got an film degree and only thing I regret is the debt. Not because it wasn't worth it, but because paying the debt will rob me of years of my life that I can be helping others reinvent all the outdated ways of life. I am all for rethinking College and insane debt American are required to accrue as a starting point! Great conversation!

        • Liz Dwyer

          This conversation reminds me of something I wrote about a couple years ago about how dangerous it is to make college too career focused: --I think you're really on to something, David, because debt is driving so many decisions, as is fear--what if I graduate and can't find a job to pay that debt? One of my nephews who is absolutely brilliant and is about to be a senior in high school told me last night that he's not planning on applying to any big-name schools because he's terrified of the debt.

          • Alessandra Rizzotti

            I WISH I didn't go to a big-name school sometimes. Although I met people that helped me find jobs, the jobs I ended up enjoying were actually from connections I formed myself, by networking online, outside of all my school connections. It's so possible to learn and find jobs on your own, as long as you make the effort to read a lot, inform yourself, or follow the careers of people you admire in order to understand how you yourself can approach making a living.

        • Kris Giere

          I completely agree with David here. College was intended to help people grow as citizens, hence the Gen. Ed. courses. Obviously, we view it differently now, but if all a person wants is a paycheck out of the experience, he or she has short-changed the experience and will absolutely be disappointed. The experience is about personal growth through the cultural experience of education. And I agree that the cost is a major concern that must be dealt with.

      • Alessandra Rizzotti

        I wish more people had that attitude. I certainly do. A lot of my privileged friends, however, don't. What I meant by my comment was: "We should never create with the goal to earn money."

        • Graham Gardner

          Good clarification Alessandra -- I'm right there with you.
          I think people that major in the "arts" have much more flexibility in their long term careers. I may not have had a job lined up for me when I graduated in 2011 with a degree in 'Writing, Literature and Publishing' (which is just a fancy way of saying English) but I had a much broader perspective on the world than I did 4 years prior. And, after a summer of eating peanut butter sandwiches and feverishly writing cover letters I started working full time in fields that are meaningful to me and make the world a better place.

          For me, college was about learning how to: think, dream, connect, analyze, and explore. It wasn't about: memorizing facts, being trained how to use tools, learning how to make money.

          When methods and technology change exponentially the ability to adapt and work in new environments is more important than specific skills. I say start with a message and meaningful ideas, let those lead you to the medium.

          • Alessandra Rizzotti

            Exactly. Good point. There's also something to be said about continuing education in fields of interest, even if they don't apply to a career. Classes not only expand your knowledge, but also help you meet people. I took a puppeteering class once- sounds useless right? But, I created some valuable relationships.

  • Stef McDonald

    But he also added that they could be happy & satisfied!