Masters Degree and Student Loan Debt…Should I Go There?

Posted with Leah’s permission:

“Hi Liz,

I’m enrolled to start at Drexel this fall. But I’ve suddenly developed some weird cloud over my head about the enormous debt I’m going to face when I get out…(all the financial doomsday prophesies don’t help either) I mean, I am passionate about it, but it’s like some fear bug hopped on the train and is trying to get me to pull the brake. How has it been since you graduated? Did it take time to find work? What has been most rewarding from the degree? I’m beginning to think I should just continue volunteering and working a mediocre job to pay the bills.. but I don’t want to settle yet.


Hi Leah,

I can understand where you’re coming from. The idea of being buried under a sea of debt is scary, and I applaud your practical thinking!

For me (and most of the people I graduated with), I had no problem finding a job after leaving school…but that doesn’t mean that the jobs turned out to be “dream jobs”. In the psyc field, you need to pay your dues for a few years after graduating before you can begin being selective about the work you do. For example, it takes approximately 2 years of full time work before you gain enough hours to become licensed (as an Art Therapist and as a Licensed Professional Counselor). Also, the pay scale is not great for many of these jobs.

That being said, if you love art therapy, there maybe something you can do to help repay your student loan debt quickly. Since I’m not American, I never had to deal with the student loan system…so I’m unclear as to how this works. However, it’s my understanding that if you take a job with qualified agencies who work with underserved populations, and you work for X amount of time, your student loan will be forgiven. I did a quick google search, and here’s some info I came up with: At first glance, it seems that you need to get licensed first and then you can try for one of these jobs.

Going back to my Drexel degree—There were many rewarding parts of my education. Firstly, my cohort really connected with one another, and I keep in touch with many of my old classmates, even though I live across the country. I can say the same about the faculty. I found them to be nurturing and they really helped me to establish myself as a professional in the mental health field. Also, I found that the amount of learning that took place during my grad school education was tremendous! I grumbled about it while I was reading hundreds of pages a night and writing papers, but in retrospect, I got a lot out of it and found myself more prepared than most new therapists to work in mental health.

I hope this helps clarify things for you :) It’s one of those things that you need to decide to jump into somewhat blind…we cannot foresee what the future holds, but we can make an educated choice. I also would encourage you to check out my post about getting a Doctorate degree and Cathy Malchiodi’s 6 posts on choosing art therapy as a field.

Warm Regards,
– Liz

The Drexel Creative Arts Therapy Program

Left as a comment, Lauren asks:

How competitive is it to get into the Creative arts therapy program at Drexel? To my knowledge, it seems like the most intensive art therapy graduate program. Can you describe your experience in the program?

Any type of information would be really helpful! Thanks.

Hi Lauren,

At this point, I’m not sure how many people apply to the Drexel CAT program vs. how many are accepted. I remember there was a group interview (with multiple potential students, the director and assistant director of the program), which was followed by an individual interview. I brought my portfolio with me, which I went over during my 1:1 interview. I also had strong grades and Miller Analogies Test scores, which helped to seal the deal, although I think there’s some leniency afforded to those who seem like a “good fit” in the program.

The Drexel art therapy program was intensive—5 days a week, full time classes and internships, plus lots of reading and writing to do at home. There was still time for fun, but it was a pretty big adjustment for everyone in the program.

My background in taking lots of psychology courses (and history courses, that have huge reading and writing assignments) during my undergrad was extremely beneficial. Many students who had a fine arts background, with very little experience in academia, seemed overwhelmed by the workload and expectations for writing quality. They all made it through, but many needed extra support to help with their writing skills.

The program begins by teaching the basics of psychodynamic theory at the same time as teaching about the basics of art therapy theory, which is rooted in psychodynamic theory. If you already have taken a course on psychodynamic theory before entering the Drexel program, you’ll find the first semester much easier.

Some students took issue to the emphasis on psychodynamic theory, which is very prominent during the first year (in your second year there are courses focusing on various other paradigms). During your internships, you may experience the use of only cognitive behavioral therapy or behavioral therapy, and wonder why you need to know about psychodynamics. In my experience, however, this solid foundation in psychodynamics has made me a better therapist—one that can move dynamically between the practical solutions provided by CBT (or DBT) and the unconscious world that emerges through the artwork. Feedback given to me by seasoned therapists and psychiatrists have emphasized that this ability is unusual in younger therapists, since younger therapists tend to have little or no training in the unconscious, defense mechanisms and personality structures.

I have no experience with any other art therapy program—I’m sure they all teach the “art of art therapy”—but I feel that Drexel gave me a solid academic foundation and prepared me to be a solid clinician.

Now, if only I could get a license to practice counseling in California! Then I’d be set ;)

Considering Art Therapy in California

Here’s a question that was emailed to me by Nicole A. and was posted with her permission;

I have been considering Art Therapy as a career path. I love both art and psychology and thought that it would be a great way to combine my passions. I work full-time, have two kids and a mortgage, so I’m only able to take a few classes at a time. Once I finish my AA, and both of my kids are in school, I will be able to transfer to SJSU and be a full-time student. I have read that to be a registered art therapist, you must have your master’s. I just wanted to know if I will be able to find work in the feild after I earn my BA, while working on my master’s. I want to set my goals high, but because of my responsibilities I want to be realistic. I’m also curious what kind of salary an art theraptist with a private practice in California might earn on average?

Hey Nicole,

You definitely need a masters degree to be an art therapist. In California, most art therapy masters programs offer the option of being on a license track for an MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist). Having a state license is absolutely essential for both your job and earning prospects, so getting a dual MFT and art therapy degree is a very good option.

A new law passed in ’09 making LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor) an option for CA licensure too. The LPCC isn’t available until next year, so I doubt any schools will be advertising this at the moment, but by the time you finnish your BA, I’m sure an LPCC track will be available as well.

Also, you don’t nessesarily need a masters in art therapy to ultimately become an art therapist. For example, you can have a masters degree in Nursing or Social Work and then go for a bit more schooling, pursuing an Art Therapy certificate. For example, NDNU has a Post Masters Advanced Standing option, where you take an extra 30 credits after you complete a masters degree in a related field. Nursing or social work are good options; A nurse’s earning potentials in California is quite high—especially if you have an RN (registered nurse) license and work as a supervisor or in administration. Social Workers have a lot of respect in the California mental health community and job opportunity, although many positions are looking for either an MFT or LCSW (Licensed Social Worker).

I dont work in private practice so I couldn’t tell you accurately about salary expectations. What I do know is that if you’re interested in serving underprivileged populations, meaning that you’ll be accepting medicare or medical as payment, you will earn very very little money. I attended a seminar once where the art therapist in private practice joked that she envies the Starbucks worker, because they probably make more money than she does—and with less stress. That being said, if you decide not to accept insurance, and only out of pocket pay, I think your earning potential can be rather high…but one must consider how long it takes to develop the clientele. For this reason, many people work part time in a “regular” job while developing their private practice.

In California, as an unlicensed art therapist (for example, while you’re completing your post masters training hours to become licensed, which takes about 2 years) you can expect to make about $30-40,000. As an art therapist with an MFT license, you can expect around $45,000-65,000 depending on where you work…maybe more. Working for the government (the VA or for the county) is much more lucrative than a non-profit. RNs can make between 65-80k easy. I’m not sure if having an art therapy credential would raise your earning potential as an RN, but it would certainly open some interesting doors!

Good luck with your pursuits and much respect for going back to school with 2 kids. My mom got her BA in nursing and then her MA in education while I was growing up. It was tough for her, but it was certainly worth it!

– Liz