From an early age, Malory Marlin knew exactly what she was good at. She had been blessed with a natural ability for the fine arts, and a creativity that complemented it.
Throughout her high school years, she consistently excelled at regular and advanced placement art classes, gaining recognition from her teachers and classmates, and even from the local community, by being named an Academic All Star in Art by the local newspaper.
As her graduation date approached, questions about her future plans were asked frequently, particularly by family and friends. Marlin always had the same answer: “I don’t know.”
Marlin, like many other young students who find themselves preferring humanities and arts over math and science, had the perception that a career in the arts was frowned upon.
“I felt like I would disappoint everyone. I mean, art is what I’m good at, but a lot of people don’t think very highly of an art degree,” said Marlin. “I found myself questioning what I would do and deciding between doing what I like or doing what will secure my future.”
It is not hard to figure out why so many students and parents find it hard to overcome the stigma of the “starving artist.” Recent studies by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University and by the U.S. Census Bureau point out that those who receive degrees in engineering, computer science, mathematics and business are more likely to find a job and to sustain stable income.
Another study by the National Association of Colleges and Employees suggested that majors in accounting, engineering and computer science are more likely to find a job right after graduation.
Meanwhile, many careers in the liberal and fine arts are consistently featured in the media as having the lowest median income and highest unemployment rate after graduation, fueling the ongoing perception that “soft degrees” are easy and not-so-useful, while those in the technical fields pay the bills.
After much soul-searching, Marlin decided to pursue a degree in what she did best, art. She is now a junior at Mississippi University for Women, and expects to graduate in 2015 with a concentration in printmaking.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Marlin. “I even missed a few scholarship deadlines just thinking about it. But I just didn’t know. Even my advisor didn’t know how to help me.”
The first person that Marlin met at MUW was Shawn Dickey, the art department chair, and her college advisor. He has seen cases like Marlin many times before.
“Yeah, I think there is a problem. We see it in high schools too, where art programs, music programs and theater programs are the first things to get cut,” he says.
Dickey happens to have a degree in biology.
“I never use it,” Dickey said. “I would rather make arts and make a living. I am not gonna be rich, but I would rather do that and be happy and express myself, than be sucked in a 9-to-5 job somewhere where I’m pushing paper, or having to do something where I’m not being creative. And that is what I tell my students.”
As the time to graduate slowly looms over her yet again, Marlin feels more prepared about her abilities, but she is still insecure about her prospects.
“Lots of people think of art as an easy thing to do, but not only is it hard, but is also very competitive. There are thousands of applicants to a few jobs out there, and even more if you move to the bigger cities,” said Marlin with concern.
Associate professor Alex Stelioes-Wills, Marlin’s teacher, says that opportunities are out there, but students need to find an edge.
“The most important thing I tell my students,” said Stelioes- Wills, “is to work hard and have passion. Go for excellence. But that goes for any major.”
“There are successful people in all fields,” she says. “So I guess it’s not what you do, but how you do it.”