Chemical Engineer

Should I Finish My Degree Or Just Go to Hollywood Now?

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.

Chances Are…

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.

Film Enthusiasm

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.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Well, maybe not writers, since film sets like to pretend the writers don’t exist.↩
  2. Often times, this isn’t really true; you might find you’re a terrible director, when actually given the chance.↩
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3 Responses

  1. My personal advise to you, speaking from experience, is to attend a program that will give you an idea of what it would be like and how to follow your “dream” Its called P.A. BOOTCAMP and it is great. It helped me years ago and I am now a union costumer on Marvel shows. The site is I put it as my signature for this post, but not sure it can be viewed that way, so.. its above πŸ™‚

  2. Tessa, I’d recommend that you finish getting a degree and graduate. A degree helps tremendously with better salary no matter what job you land. However, a degree can sometimes make you overqualified for certain entry level positions.

    Having been in a similar quandary during my junior university year, I decided to stay and get the degree. For you, I’d recommend to go back to your degree listings and find a degree that you can be awarded that you feel you can complete. It may not be BS in Chemical Engineering. Maybe it’s another degree that your department can offer you.

    During my junior year, I kept my major, but changed my degree plan from Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) to Bachelor of Science (BS) because a BS is more readily accepted in a computer field. I knew I wasn’t planning on using my art degree for art. In fact, I took a profession in computers. My full degree is Bachelor of Science in Communication Arts. A generic enough sounding degree that could be applied to computers or just about any other profession.

    Look through the degree programs offered by your current department and see what other degrees they can issue. If you find one that takes less time or less classes, you can change your degree plan, graduate with a degree and still be useful in whatever profession you wish to pursue. If your university offers any film making or writing for film classes, I’d suggest you register and try to sub some of these as electives for any classes that you can get credit towards your degree. Sometimes you can negotiate these classes with your department head. It sounds like it might be somewhat too late to change your major, but it’s not too late to change your degree plan and take classes to help you towards your goal, if available.

    I’d also recommend discussing your change in goals with your degree plan advisor so they can guide you towards a degree that will help you get to where you want to be. If you’re highly disenchanted and only as a last resort, I’d suggest changing your major, but don’t drop out. You may be surprised to find how many classes you may be able to transfer in and sub for your new major classes. But, don’t be surprised if changing your major adds 1 or 2 more semesters to your degree. Though, many department heads can be accommodating towards new transfers and subbing classes, especially if the student is that far along in their degree program. And, you don’t have to change your degree plan if you don’t find something that works better. You never know what you can get until you ask.

    As for any PA advice, I’d suggest listening to what TAPA has to say this topic.

    Good luck.

  3. Finish your degree and be a chemical engineer for like 4-5 years while you plan the first movie you want to produce and save all your money. Then produce your movie and voila you’re a movie producer. πŸ™‚

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