Student Loan Debt vs Following Your Dreams

A question originally posted as a comment:

Hi Liz!

I am considering returning to school for an MA in Art Therapy and have quite a few questions for you. I am 25 years old with a MST in Elementary education, certified in NJ to teach K-5 and students with disabilities. After earning my degree I received a Fulbright to go teach English in Malaysia for a year. I returned about a year ago and have been struggling to find a teaching position, or any job with a salary for that matter. During my time abroad things about my life and my career choice became more clear to me and I have decided I do not wish to pursue a career in education. (Although I think it’s a very admirable profession!)

Art, photography and painting particularly, is something I have always been incredibly passionate about. I’ve come to realize that it’s something that needs to be an integral part of my life. Earlier, I never had enough confidence in myself as an artist to think that I could somehow make a career out of it. I had been interested in the little I knew about art therapy, but never bothered to pursue or study it. I now realize much more how art is more about the creative process than the outcome.

What originally attracted me to teaching was the thought that I would be helping people. That ultimately, I would be making a difference in the lives of others. I really enjoy making art, I enjoy working one-on-one with children and adults, and I am incredibly patient. At the end of the day I want to have been able to employ all of these things in order to impact others positively, which is why I feel Art Therapy is the right career for me.

I feel like I am finally in the direction of the right path but there are a lot of important factors to consider. I have about $60,000 in existing student loan debt. I am working full-time as a nanny and continuing to apply to full-time teaching and entry-level salary positions in order to pay off this debt. Therefore it is very important to me that I plan this next step in my life carefully before taking out even MORE loans and accruing MORE debt. I am in the process of scheduling information interviews with university programs that have been approved by the AATA in NY, NJ and PA (Drexel’s program looks fantastic) in order to choose the program that is best for my needs. I would like to set up some sort of internship or shadowing experience with an art therapist who works in a nearby facility or organization so that I can confirm that this is the direction I want to go in. (I did work at a children’s hospital in the Bronx for 5 months before Malaysia where I worked alongside an art therapist and liked it.) I am also trying to find out more about what the job market is like for an art therapist. I have read the job prospects are excellent, yet when I do job searches nothing really comes up. I know therapists average about $35-45,000 a year and while making $ is not important to me I do need to make sure I can support myself and pay off my loans upon finishing my MA program.

So I am hoping you can help with answering the following questions:
– Can you recommend an organization or a resource to contact for an internship/shadowing experience in the tri-state area? I tried emailing the AATA weeks ago but no one has responded.
– To your knowledge, what is the job market like for art therapy? Is there a certain area of the country where that field is in higher demand? I am not at all opposed to relocation.
– Are there any other alternative routes to the end goal I have in sight?

Really anything and everything you can share with me would be so GREATLY appreciated. I wouldn’t mind your personal opinion either! What would you do in my shoes?

I’ve found your blog incredibly insightful and empowering – so thank you! And my apologies for the life story, I just thought you might be better able to assist me if I provided you with a bit of a background.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Hi Nina,

I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner to your email and post. I feel torn about how to guide you because I know how powerful the need to follow your dreams can be, and how art therapy can feel so right. But the reality of Art Therapy is that you should expect to earn approx 35-40K out of school. The potential of bringing in a bigger paycheck may grow (private practice, working for the gov’t in some capacity), but it will take years and many people don’t earn very much more than 50K. Your area – NJ, PA, NY are hubs for art therapy. If you’re not seeing art therapy jobs advertised, I would take that as a bad sign. And, as someone who learned new skills (graphic design and web design) after graduating school so that I can supplement my income, and possibly even change career paths, I gotta tell you that making 40-50K a year doesn’t cut it in CA (and probably where you live as well)…even if your partner makes 2-3x more than you. Not if you want a family.

My advise is not to take on more debt to get an art therapy degree. You’ll have a hell of a time paying off your first student loan on an art therapist’s budget. Plus, an art therapy MA can easily be 60K-70K after tuition, living expenses, etc… I recently read in the Wall Street Journal how young people are delaying things like buying a car, a house, getting married or having children because of their 4-digit student loan debt repayments. I think my grandfather had some excellent words of wisdom for me (and all of us) when he said, “the most money I ever made was never paying interest”.

So, if I were in your shoes, knowing what I know now, I would get an MA in a field that would yield a much higher return on invenstment. There are so many ways of helping people that doesn’t involve drowning in debt. If you like healthcare, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc… are rewarding, much higher paying and are in high demand. Even working in a business setting can offer you lots of opportunity to help people. For example, I’ve been interested in working at start-ups within the education field. That could be a good choice for you too, given your background. A revolution beginning to take hold in the education sector, democratizing education.

Actually, that’s another reason why I wouldn’t get into student loan debt right now. There are so many places online to self-educate, that once you have a good basis, why not learn on your own and do something that isn’t bogged down by licensing and bureaucracy to help people? That’s the thing I like about working in the business world – if you have the skills to pay the bills, then you’ll move forward and have the potential to do much more with your career than if you stayed in a blue model job.

That being said, it does sadden me deeply that I’m encouraging you to look elsewhere for your career. I wish art therapy was evolving with the times, but it’s not (AATA not responding to your question is an indicator…) And it’s not 2004, a year before I started grad school, when art therapy was declared a “Hot Job”. The recession combined with the changing nature of work in general is transforming the needs of the work force in unprecedented ways. If there is any way to merge your interests in goals with technology, I encourage you to do so.

—Lecture Ended—

To answer your other questions:

I don’t know any organizations that help connect those who want internships/volunteer work in art therapy prior to entering the field. But, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Try the Art Therapy Alliance message board on LinkedIn
  2. Email local organizations with art therapists, asking if they are open to an intern
  3. Email art therapy schools in your area to see if they have any ideas

A side route to art therapy is to get your MA in Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy or other MA’s in the psych field, and then get an art therapy post-MA certificate. This is a good option because it may help you be more mobile (if you ever need to move to another state) and it may open up more jobs to you.

I hope this answer helps!

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