A few weeks ago, I addressed Susie's question about whether or not aspiring screenwriters should go to undergraduate film school.
I talked about how, personally, I think young screenwriters are better served by NOT going to film school… but, rather, getting as broad an education as possible and learning about a myriad of subjects, cultures, topics, etc. Basically, a writer's job is to observe, record, mimic, and recreate life, humanity… and for undergrads, I think four years of college is better spent collecting experiences, tasting as much as life as possible. In other words: building a library of experiences to write about.
Today's related question comes from Becky, who writes…
I am a junior at a university where I have been studying as an English major with a concentration in language, media, communications [and] journalism, everything from news articles to feature writing and critical reviews of films/TV/etc.
I am wondering… what is the best way to step into the industry: real experience in a job, or going to grad school to learn techniques, etc? Is graduate school, specifically designed for television writing and studying, really worth it?... What is your best advice for an undergraduate passionate about television writing and confused about how to approach the future and pursuing a career?
The main difference between most undergraduate programs and graduate programs is that undergrad programs give a broader, more smorgasbord-approach to knowledge, experience, and education… while graduate programs—particularly those specializing in a specific discipline like screenwriting—are highly focused and intensive.
In other words, many undergraduate programs may specialize in film, but they're still designed to give students a broad, liberal education: a bit of screenwriting, a bit of history, a bit of criticism, a bit of production, etc.
Good graduate programs laser-focus on one particular craft: screenwriting, directing, cinematography, TV-writing (which is quite different from feature writing), lighting, dramaturgy, etc. They're like gyms for professional athletes… and you want to go to the gym designed to meet your particular professional needs. A basketball player trains differently than a swimmer, a marathon-runner trains differently than a jockey… and while every sport may utilize a bit of cross-training, athletes exercise the muscles and skills they most need to use.
Writers and artists work the same way, so my first piece of advice is:
Don't go to grad school until you know, without a doubt, precisely what you want to do.
Grad school, unlike undergrad, is not a place to "find yourself" or figure out your life. It's where you go once you've made those discoveries and you're ready to arm yourself for a specific career.
I say this because, from your email, you seem a bit torn between journalism and writing for scripted TV shows.
While these are obviously both—to a certain extent—"literary" careers, they aren't interchangeable. I know people who have transitioned from one to the other, but the truth is: they're totally different types of writing. Their career paths are different; there's no easy, established route linking the two. People who hop from journalism to TV (or vice-versa) are making a huge career switch, just like someone who switches from being an electrician to a clothing designer.
So the first question to ask is: what do I truly, in my heart of hearts, want to do?
If the answer is "journalism," you should not be going to grad school for TV-writing. If the answer is "TV-writing," don't try to break in by becoming a journalist.
Now… is going to grad school more valuable than diving into the "real world?"
And honestly: I have no idea. …Because the answer is different for each person.
Whether you go to grad school or not, you will eventually have to dive into the "real world." An MFA from USC will not catapult you into a TV-writing job on Community. You will still begin as some kind of assistant—a runner, a PA, an intern—fetching coffee, making copies, reading scripts, etc.
(This is true throughout the industry. Aspiring agents who get an MBA, for example, do not graduate into a job as an agent; they begin in the mailroom, sorting packages alongside interns and recent college graduates.)
What grad school WILL give you is time to focus on your writing without having to juggle anything else. You'll have two years to do nothing but write, get feedback, experiment with stories, structures, mediums, formats, characters. You'll have two years to do nothing but grow as a writer.
So the question is: is this something you feel you need?
Some people do; some don't. Some would rather exercise their muscles traveling the world, writing in journals. Many need to maintain a day job, so they spend every minute outside the office reading and writing. Others would rather join a writers workshop… or a sketch group… or a theater company… and grow their writing that way.
There's no universal answer, or even a formula, to determine whether or not grad school is right for you. It depends on you, your needs, your learning styles.
I will also say this…
1.) As Norman Steinberg pointed out a couple weeks ago, there are few "real" TV-writing graduate programs. Several film schools offer "screenwriting" for features, and some offer a joint TV/film degree. Many offer TV classes as part of a screenwriting MFA. Some even offer "certificate programs."
But few offer actual TV-writing degrees… which I find sad and ridiculous, since writing TV shows and movies are totally different forms requiring totally different processes and skill sets (not to mention, the TV and film industries operate differently).
Having said this, UCLA has experimented with a "Showrunners Program," and Norman recently launched an innovative TV program at Long Island University. But these programs tend to be exceptions, and finding a worthwhile graduate program focusing solely on TV-writing isn't easy to do.
(This doesn't mean you won't learn anything in a screenwriting program offering TV classes. Hopefully, you will; you'll learn about constructing a scene, dialogue, conflict, character, etc. And this may be satisfying. But if your passion is television, I'm not sure how completely an MFA in film will prepare you. It's like—if you want to be a doctor and can't find a med school, is going to veterinary school a good second-choice? It might be. But it might not.)
2.) While the quality of a school's education is important, I think it's less important than the quality (and quantity) of the school's connections to the industry. In other words, Podunk University may have outstanding screenwriting teachers and a rigorous program, but if it doesn't have strong ties to working professionals and high-level alumni… it's not a great program.
I went through UCLA's MFA Playwriting program, where I had some amazing teachers and some not-so-amazing teachers. But much of the sheer knowledge I gained at UCLA wasn't much different than knowledge I could've gained in screenwriting books or other classes.
What I could not have picked up in other books or classes, however, was the quality of relationships.
While at UCLA, I applied to a mentor program for graduating grad students; through this program, I met Warren Littlefield, who—at the time—was president of NBC. He later hired me as an executive at his TV production company, where I worked for almost five years.
I also met Gil Cates, who—at the time—was dean of the school and producer of the Academy Awards. He hired me as his Oscar intern, which led to production jobs on the Emmys and several other award shows.
I'm not saying this to namedrop or advocate for UCLA. I'm saying this because these relationships were more valuable than anything I could've learned in a class; in fact, these relationships alone, and the impact they've had on my career, were worth the price of tuition.
So as you're looking at grad schools, it's important to investigate and weigh where they have connections.
Is the school's faculty loaded with professional screenwriters still working in the trenches of Hollywood? Do professors have long lists of credits you've heard of? Do teachers regularly bring in working professionals as guest speakers, lecturers, and adjuncts? Does the school offer internship opportunities at successful agencies, studios, or production companies? Where do most graduate land their first jobs?
(None of this is to downplay the importance of simply being an outstanding teacher. Being a great teacher is HARD… at least as hard as being a great writer… and I'm not a fan of people who claim the best writing teachers are only those who have had successful writing careers. I know tons of wonderful writing teachers who have never had a writing career; and I know tons of excellent writers who couldn't teach to save their life. But a great grad school should offer both… and one of the top criteria for evaluating a school should be the employability of its students. And without sufficient connections to the professional world, it's nearly impossible to get people employed.)
Now, the truth is… and I know people hate it when I say this, but the truth is the truth… it will be extremely hard to find a great grad school offering a sufficient level of relevant professional alumni and connections outside of Los Angeles.
(Even Norman's Long Island University program, one of the most innovative TV-writing programs out there, is located in Brooklyn—not exactly the heart of the TV industry… and this is a hurdle the program will have to overcome. Fortunately, it has at its helm one of the most accomplished, connected writers in Hollywood… giving it an edge many programs never enjoy.)
Anyway, Becky, this has been a bit of a long-winded answers to nowhere. I think grad school can be incredibly valuable for the right person. And while I can't tell you—or give you an equation—whether or not it's appropriate for you, I think the two biggest factors are:
- Do you know exactly what you want to do? And…
- Can you go to a school that A) specializes in your field, and B) has a large amount of professional and alumni connections working in the industry?
If the answer to either of those is "no," you may want to rethink or hold off on grad school. Or perhaps try a different path—like diving into the "real world," getting a job in the industry (which, by the way, is how many people begin their careers; most working writers I know do not have their MFA's).
Lemme know what you decide, Becky, and thanks again for the question! Keep in touch… and feel free to post more questions, thoughts, or comments below… or simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.