how to live your life

Wait, should I go to grad school?: a discussion with MFA student, Allison Davis

Like many new adults, adrift in a sea of undesirable career options ,with a lack of firm real-world skills, you may have asked yourself, “Wait, should I go to grad school?” We know that we have, usually while toiling away at our dayjobs, and so we decided to ask people who are actually in grad school, what it’s actually like. First up is Allison Davis, an old friend, who left a successful career as tv/ad/doc producer to go back to school to change her career course.

Ok, so first of all, what are you studying and where? 

I am an MFA Candidate in Dramatic Writing at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. The translation is that I write for stage and screen.

What were you doing before you went back to school and what made you feel like you needed to further your education?

I freelancing as a writer and producer, and was working as a production manager for ITVS, a company that funds and co-produces documentaries for PBS.  It was an amazing job – good hours, great benefits, noble work on award winning documentarians on subjects that I cared about and stood behind – but I was still writing anytime I could.  Before and after work, lunch breaks, etc….  It got to the point that my “job” was getting in the way of my “work” and I knew I had to commit myself to what I clearly loved, or I would never be happy.

Did you always think you were going to go back to school or did it come up pretty quickly?

I actually never thought I’d go back to school. I’d studied film in undergrad, and was working in my field, what else was there?  But almost everyone who was doing what I really wanted to do had committed to studying it. And that made sense to me.

What kinds of misgivings did you have before you went to school such as debt, wasting of money or time, not having a ‘student’ mindset, etc…?

Yup, all of those things.  My biggest hesitation was definitely the $$, which was solved by being granted a fellowship by the department.  Otherwise there’s no way I could’ve done it.  I couldn’t shake the idea of going into debt of more than $100K , I literally started hyperventilating every time I thought about it.  A friend told me not to go if you can’t get at least 60% of it paid for through grants and scholarships, and he’s right.  It’s just not worth it.  Sorry everybody.  Also, I was working in the field, and was hesitant to be “away” for 2 years.  But I figured the industry will be there.

What’s been the best part of going back to school?

Ah, there’s quite a few.  Being surrounded by people who nerd out about the same things I do.  Just being able to eat, drink and sleep what I love, and not have to think about how this will advance my career or negotiate a contract, just a safe place to work on my craft and experiment and make mistakes.  I’m living in this creative bubble.  And I am growing and changing every day. You know how in Ironman, when the suit is forming around Robert Downey Jr., and there’s all those close ups of the metal snapping into place?  I feel like that is happening to me over the course of the program, and I am becoming a writer.

What’s the biggest difference you’ve found between being a grad student and being a professional?

Being a student is a million times more challenging.  As a professional, you’re hired to do a job, you get good at it, and then you do it ad naseum, and your whole worth is being an authority on whatever you’re doing.  As a student, I am challenged every single day – what am I doing, why am I doing it, who is it for, why does it matter.  I have my ass handed to me at least once a week.  I’m constantly humbled and striving to do better.  And my whole worth is my ability to learn and do better than I did yesterday.  It’s great.

How much did just needing a change play into your decision to go back to school?

There’s that definition of crazy as being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  I realized nothing would change if I didn’t change anything.  I was producing and sort of dancing around being a writer, but I didn’t feel like one and folks kept hiring me as a producer, since that’s what they knew me as.  So I had to put the brakes on and do an about face to sort of rebrand myself.  I don’t think everyone has to go that route, but I did.

What’s next, after graduating?

School isn’t an end, it’s a means.  The great part about this program is that we are trained in theater, TV and film writing, and my background as a producer means that I know how to hustle.  So I will be writing, submitting, producing, and getting my work out there however I can. The hustle never stops.  No matter what field you’re in, whether you go to school or not, you always have to sing for your supper.

Any parting advice?

For anyone considering grad school in any field, I would ask yourself, what do you want to study?  Not how will grad school help in 20 years, or what will this mean for me, or any of that bigger picture stuff.  Just, right now, today, what do you want to know more about?  What do you want to DO today?  Because that’s really what it’s all about.


You can follow Allison on Twitter and Tumblr.


Henry Goldman is the founder of yr an adult. You can also follow him on twitter, you know, if you want.