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Careers Clinic: Is it worth doing a postgraduate acting course?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I took a literature and drama degree at university. Both elements have helped get my twin careers off the ground: freelance proofreader and actor.

So far, my acting hasn’t resulted in nearly as many jobs as the proofreading. For this reason, I have been considering doing a drama school MA. Although I have had occasional acting jobs in small plays and commercials, I feel a postgraduate degree would give me more confidence to approach agents and increase my chances of better-paid work.

I’ve spoken to actor friends – some self-taught, some with BAs like me – who disagree. The way they look at it, all an MA would achieve is a year or more out of the acting game, just to get letters after my name. Not only would those letters not increase my castings, but I’d be paying through the nose for the privilege. It has certainly made me pause for thought. What’s your take?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I don’t think the ‘time out’ argument is relevant. Assuming you’re aiming for a lifelong career, you will have quite a few years ahead of you to ‘get on with it’, whether or not you do an MA.

The cost of training definitely needs to be considered. I’ve looked at the practicalities of raising funding for training in previous columns, but however you make that happen, the outlay is substantial enough that you need to have specific goals rather than vague hopes for what your qualification will bring you.

To get the obvious out of the way first: yes, it’s highly unlikely that having two letters after your name will magically guarantee you more work. On the other hand – and contrary to what a more negative view of the ‘just letters after your name’ stereotype may suggest – the best acting MA courses are not built around dry lectures and dissertations. Rather, they offer practical and immersive hands-on training.

Increasingly, these courses focus on input from people currently working in the industry and offer support from liaison workers who connect you to representation and other opportunities when you graduate. That’s all good stuff, but there’s no denying that it takes time.

If your previous academic experience has been at university, full-time drama training can be a shock to the system. Many university courses have quite a bit of time between classes, giving you the chance to do side work.

The main reason drama students don’t normally audition for outside jobs while training is a practical one: the intensity of training is such that dividing your energy between outside acting of any substance and coursework would be detrimental to both.

As the content of your MA is going to become such a big part of your life for a year or two, it’s important to find a course with the right focus. It might be an area of acting you feel your university course didn’t cover in depth, or a whole new area such as theatremaking or directing that you feel drawn to.

If you can’t identify an area that enthuses you enough to commit wholeheartedly, maybe your friends are right. In that case, short part-time courses might your best option. Give yourself the best chance of making the right choice by basing it on information, not just opinion. Talk to admissions departments, who really are there to help, not just sell you a course. Try to connect with past and current students on courses you are considering to find out not only what the course is like, but, crucially, what their career path has been afterwards.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

Read more advice on how to choose your drama school

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