Re Erin Martinelli's post below, I have to say that I think the biggest career mistake I ever made was not getting a Master of Fine Arts degree when the time was right.
When I got my BFA, the clear next step was to either get an MFA or go get a job. I decided that rather than get a master's degree, I would sit down and figure out the experience and knowledge I needed to actually master the subject.
I came up with a core list of 11 items. The list included working as an assistant for a studio pro for six months, getting pictures published in local magazines and newspapers, continuing to survey the literature, building professional portfolios in all of the (then) three major formats, and so forth. It was a tough list, pared-down but demanding.
Within the next six or seven years I managed to do all the items on my list but two. One was publishing a monograph of my own work, something I still haven't done. The other was working for six months or more in the photography department of a major museum. I lived in D.C. at the time, where there are plenty of museums, but the jobs were scarce and the academic requirements for those few jobs are strict. As one curator said to me, "Let's say I have one position open and thirty people applying, twenty-nine with advanced degrees in musuem science and you. Why would I hire you?" Good point. I ended up not being able to talk my way in.
I was told that without an MFA I'd never get a teaching job, for one thing, and teaching was what I pictured myself ending up doing. But the first job I got out of photography school was a full-time teaching job—so how hard could it be?
Well, that was wrong. I'll give you just one example, although I have a number of 'em. A few years ago I thought I had a nice job possibility lined up. A teaching position at a nice little college with a vibrant photo department had opened up, and the chairperson was a fan of my writing and very excited about the possibility of having me join the staff. We'd talked three or four times and had gotten to the stage of ironing out salary and the logistics of moving, when during the course of a conversation she said, "Oh, by the way, the Dean of Faculty needs to know—where did you get your MFA?" I hadn't withheld anything from her on purpose—it just hadn't occurred to me that this would be at issue. But when I told her I didn't have one, she said, "Ohhhh...," clearly dismayed. I knew as soon as she uttered that one syllable that I wasn't going to get that job after all. Talk about that metaphorical door slamming shut.
To this day, virtually every job I come across in the photography field that I'd be a good match for lists an MFA degree as a minimum requirement. The irony is that with the depth of my experience and knowledge in the field, I could probably teach at most photography MFA programs. But not being an MFA myself, I can't actually get a job teaching anybody. In my case it's not knowledge or experience that's at issue—it's just the sheepskin. Gotta have it. Institutions have their standards. An MFA is now just a basic foot-in-the-door requirement. It's not anything to complain about—it's just the way it is.
What can I say? We're the sum of our choices, good and bad. It wasn't very convenient or practical for me to go after an MFA at the time when it would have made sense. I wish I had, but who knew? You know what they say about hindsight.
Then again, if I had an MFA, The Online Photographer wouldn't exist and you would never have heard of me. So consider this website you're reading to be something of a silver lining!
Those two posts I promised you on Monday will be up tomorrow. Unless I land a day job between now and then.
Featured Comment by Daniel Sroka: "I followed a similar path in my career as a graphic designer. I never went to design school, mainly because I didn't know I wanted to be a designer, I just found out that I was one. Instead, I took design jobs where ever I could find them, and worked my way up the ranks. Started out at a mom-n-pop print shop running a stat camera, ended up as creative director for a major international company. Along the way, there were times that I couldn't get a job because of my lack of a design degree. Frustrating, to say the least, but what are you going to do?
"Well, I turned the tables. Once I was in a position to do my own hiring, I always looked for people with 'non-traditional' backgrounds. I didn't spurn people just because they had a design degree (I ain't petty!), but I actively looked for people that other design firms traditionally ignored. And I was never disappointed.
"Here's one example: One woman I hired had worked in the ad department at a local newspaper. She had mad skills, but never a chance to shine. Some would argue that her lack of a design education limited her creativity, and would keep her stuck in boring jobs. But once she was given the chance, she exploded. She rose through the ranks, impressed the heck out of everyone, and grew. Last I heard, she went on to become creative director herself at another major company.
"I have to say that my biggest feeling of accomplishment from all my years as a designer is having helped people like here break out of the conventions imposed on them, and give them a chance to prove their ability."
Featured Comment by Ted Fisher: "Excellent post, Mike.