You're at mid-career, in a job with a good salary and benefits, but feeling restless. Or you've been let go, for whatever reason. It might be a good time to go back to school and get that computer science training. But behind the faade, you're a painter or filmmaker or poet who'd rather go back to school for an MFA.
This can be a scary situation to confront. Pursuing an advanced degree in a discipline your family and friends might consider impractical feels as counterintuitive as striding up to a precipice and into the void with expectations of a soft landing. It cuts against conventional wisdom. But soft landings happen.
For 25 years, Linda Friend was an award-winning reporter-producer for Wisconsin Public Television. About eight years ago, she was hired by Edgewood College to teach part-time. "They wanted to build a video production department," she recalls. This intrigued her, but an advanced degree would be prerequisite to joining the faculty full-time. (She had a B.A. in art from Minnesota State University at Moorhead.)
Friend, then 54, cut back at the station so she could pursue her master's degree in journalism at the UW while teaching part-time at Edgewood and the Madison Media Institute. She kept going, pursuing an MFA in photography and video through the art department.
It took seven years to complete both degrees. "A long haul," she acknowledges, but "I'm just thrilled I did it." She was awarded her MFA this spring, the day after she turned 61.
Friend was drawn to the MFA program's discipline: "People tend to think of art as basket-weaving and stuff." But her own grad-school experience included the relentless rigor of classes, benchmarks and critiques that are not for the faint of heart.
"That's how you grow," says Friend. Between working at the station, teaching and cobbling together enough project assistantships and freelance work to help finance her MFA, she sometimes found herself thinking, "Now I know why they call it a terminal degree, because I pictured dropping dead on the stage after they handed me my diploma."
For those considering a similar mid-career change of course, "my advice is to do it," says Friend. "Once you jump in the deep end you find you already know how to swim."
Shira Apple, program manager for the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee, spent 10 years in the Navy and was well into a public-affairs career with the CIA before she heard her call to arts. She'd been taking some art classes on the side before leaving the CIA for a seven-month residency with Israel's Arad Arts Project.
She did give thought to practicality, but decided that her undergraduate business degree covered that. Accepted by Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002, she enrolled in its one-year post-baccalaureate program as a stepping-stone to its MFA program.
Now 47, Apple drew on strong problem-solving skills - along with a craving for deeper understanding of self - to overcome fears that persisted into the first year of her MFA program. She likens the experience to figuring out the right materials to use in her work, which ranges from watercolor and acrylic paintings to larger fiber installations involving hot glue and tzit tzit, the fringe on Jewish prayer shawls.
"The business community has really been looking for bringing creativity to the workplace," says Apple, noting that MFAs, as a result, have "become a very marketable commodity" and been called the new MBAs.
Even so, it took Apple eight months to land her first job after moving to Milwaukee to be closer to her siblings and their families. But it was a good job.
"You only live once," Apple concludes, "and if you don't try, you'll never know and you'll always have regrets."
Though not unheard of, going back to school to pursue an MFA is not commonplace. Judith Strand, director of UW-Madison's Adult and Student Services Center, explains that people contemplating career transitions are a significant portion of the population served by her team. Whether they come to the center because they're confronting a job loss or some other career impasse, many take the chance to reconsider what they would prefer to do with the rest of their lives.
Strand notes a recent shift toward service work and service learning, and cites new programs and majors, such as nonprofit leadership. There's also been a spike in the number of people who are returning to UW-Madison to fill in blanks in their undergraduate coursework, preparatory to enrolling in an advanced degree in disciplines contrasting with their baccalaureate - from about 250 to 400 in the last two years.
Sybil Pressprich, a senior career counselor for the center and facilitator for its weekly job-search support group and career-planning workshops, knows a few people who have left their careers to enroll in MFA programs here en route to new careers as artists and writers.
They tend, she says, to be "people at a point in their life when they feel they can step away from expectations," such as women whose family responsibilities may no longer be as pressing. "Most of them already think of themselves as artists," notes Pressprich, "who are already doing art and want to refine it."
Pressprich underlines the need "to go out and talk to people" in the profession, and get a thorough sense of what's involved. Creating art (or writing, or gardening, or whatever else you may feel compelled to do) may sound like a great way to make a living, she points out, but it may also involve substantial time and effort to market yourself and your work.
Pressprich does not, however, deny the validity of a mid-career shift toward greater personal fulfillment. Though it has since abated, she notes, "right after 9/11, we saw a pretty sizeable increase in people coming back and saying, 'I really need something that's more meaningful for me.'"