No College Degree

Jen writes in:

I’ve been a PA, Set Dresser, Costume Assistant, and Location Scout on films, commercials, and photo shoots. I’m thinking of moving to LA soon. My goal is to be a writer. I thought the best way to start, is to get a job as a reader at a studio or an assistant in the writing department for a tv show. I didn’t finish my college degree. It seems to be a requirement on the UTA job list. With this in mind, is it likely I’d land a job as a low level reader or writing assistant? Is it all based on who you know?

As you’ve read many times on this blog, you don’t need to go to film school.

But not having a college degree at all can be harmful to your prospects, as Jen attests.

It’s not that going to university necessarily makes you smarter.1 All a degree really proves is that you were able to maintain a minimum grade point average long enough to finish college.  So why is this a requirement for so many jobs?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Think about it– four years2 is a big commitment. For most college-aged students, it’s about 20% of their lives. It shows an ability to follow through on long-term goals. Yes, you could point to some rich, legacy students who can skate by on their family name, or athletes who get tutored through remedial courses,3 but they’re the exception.

Back to Jen’s question: what if you didn’t get your degree, for whatever reason? Honestly, it doesn’t matter if it was a good reason (working hard to support your family) or a shitty one (you got kicked out for partying too hard). In most cases, all you’ve got is a resume and a cover letter, neither of which is long enough to accommodate your life story.

At this point, you probably don’t want to go back to school, and who can blame you? But you can get production experience without a degree, as Jen clearly shows. And with that experience comes a network of friends and acquaintances who like you, like your work, and want to help you out.

So, in a sense, yes,  it is “all based on who you know.” But that doesn’t mean you have to be a Barrymore or a Coppola to get ahead. No matter what your job is, do your best; be the most fantastic PA/set dresser/costume assistant/location scout there is.

Then, make it known that you want to be a writer. Or at least a writer’s assistant. Tell anyone who will listen. When they see what a hard worker you are, they’ll think, “Yeah, I bet she could get my coffee and erase the white boards.”

Don’t be obnoxious about it, but don’t be shy, either. Your path may be more circuitous than people who went to college, but if you forge ahead, you can still arrive at the same destination.

I don’t know why, but that just made me think of this scene:

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Hell, it can make you dumber.
  2. Or more.
  3. Note I said “some,” not “all.” No snotty comments, please.
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