What Does a Masters Degree Mean?

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview for a marketing-adjacent position at a company. I checked all the boxes and felt like I would be a good fit within the department, but a number of concerns came up during the interview. One red flag question I have found over the years I’ve been working is, “what do you do with your degree?”

The Master of Fine Arts

For some background, I’ve been working in the screen printing & signage industry since 2009, working at screen printing shops throughout my undergraduate and graduate programs. After graduating, I moved to working at a textile printing distributor, where I worked for four years before moving on to another company in the same industry. In both of my professional roles I worked in the marketing department, functioning in a marketing-adjacent role where I managed products, website content, and social media.

The MFA, like most advanced degrees in the humanities, is not vocational. There isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between what is studied and what you do with the degree upon graduation. The benefit of an MFA is that you learn a number of skills that are crucial to succeed in any job position.

Working Alone

The most visible aspect of the Master of Fine Arts degree is the requirement that you can work independently on projects that vary in scope from the small, homework-type assignment while also managing large scale projects, like writing a thesis and mounting an exhibit. You have to keep track of how your work has changed and be able to understand how changes affect your message.

Working With Small Groups

You are also tasked regularly to work in small groups, finding consensus and delivering a good resulting product. Whether it was a standard group assignment in which multiple people work on a presentation or a paper or working to curate an exhibit and managing the tastes of a dozen people, the MFA prepared me to deal with conflict and keep my ego in check.

Utilizing the Right Tool for the Job

Sometimes you realize that the tool you like to use is not the right tool to achieve your goals. Using my thesis exhibit as an example, I always considered myself an oil painter, but the message I was trying to convey – impermanence and transparency – was better conveyed through the use of watercolor and graphite. My thesis show had no oil paintings in it, because the medium wouldn’t have been the message.

Constantly Learning

What gnaws on me the most, looking back at the interview, was when my interviewer asked, “why should we hire you, versus someone who has a degree in marketing?” When I graduated from college in 2010, Facebook was only available to people with .edu addresses and other social media was in its infancy. Someone with a degree in marketing who would’ve graduated at the same time as me would be lost in the woods if they didn’t continue to adapt and develop their skills.

The MFA showed that adapting to new situations and learning new tools and techniques is crucial to your success within the program, and gave me the ability to transfer this adaptability to other aspects of my life.

So, the MFA

When I graduated from college in 2010, the country’s economy was just emerging from the worst recession in generations. The job market was weak, and I had the opportunity to put off entering the market for a few years by enrolling in a Master of Fine Arts program, a choice I am glad I made.

The skills I learned haven’t been directly applicable to any position I’ve had, but the general framework has been immensely valuable to every company I’ve had the opportunity to work for.

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