Tessa writes in:
I’m currently studying Chemical Engineering in New Mexico and I really hate it. I no longer wish to pursue this degree even though I only have one and a half years left. I already know every career choice it opens for me, and I don’t want to do those things. My resume is heavily built for the field, and as a young chemE I’d be competitive, but I actually want to produce TV shows.
I mentioned my dream to a friend and she mentioned that she knew the government official whose job it is to offer incentives to film makers to come to New Mexico to make movies, and perhaps he could help me … So she reached out to him for me, and he offered the phone number of a man who would give me a production assistants job if I was willing to work hard and name dropped my connection.
I have yet to make the phone call but I think that if I want to do it, I need to decide sooner rather than later.
My question is, would taking the job put me on the right path to eventually becoming a TV producer? How often does this REALLY happen, and how long does it take?
Also, I already know that my parents will encourage me to finish my degree for the sake of having it. An engineering degree would be worthless for what I want, right?
A PA gig is the first step to becoming a producer, but that doesn’t mean you will become a producer. In fact, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll become a producer.
It’s like asking if you’ll be the CEO when you start at any entry level position. Yes, being in the industry is a start, but there are so few CEO positions, there’s not much chance you, specifically, will become one. And that’s nothing to say of the many producers who got there through their connections, which you don’t have.
Even if you do make it as a producer, we’re talking 20 years from now. (Again, excepting blind luck or being independently wealthy; with those, you might be a producer tomorrow.)
Money, Money, Money
You are almost certain to make more money and work fewer hours as a chemical engineer. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, chemical engineers have the highest starting salary of any college major, averaging $68,445. That’s probably twice what a PA makes in a good year.
That’s just income. To work in the film industry, you’re going to have to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, so your meager PA salary gets stretched even thinner. I don’t know where chemical engineers engineer their chemicals, but they probably have options outside New York and LA.
“But,” you may say, “I don’t care about money. I don’t like chemical engineering anymore.”
Here’s the thing: most people don’t like the jobs they have. That’s why they have to pay you to do it. Otherwise, it’s a hobby.
And let’s be clear, you may not like working in film, either. It can be extremely tedious; most PA jobs are 8 hours of work stretched out over 12 hour days. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait on a film set.
It can also be very frustrating. On every set, you’ll see people living your dream, whether they’re producers, directors, actors, or writers.1 Many people grow bitter watching talentless hacks doing jobs they just know they themselves would be better at.2
Forge Your Own Path
The real question is, why are you trying to follow a path at all? If your sights are on the top job, just skip the ladder altogether and buy your way to the top. If you save your money, you can produce your own movie without having to ask permission from a studio or network.
Right now, you have a very romantic notion of the film business in your head. Don’t spoil it now by turning it into a job.