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Using Your Performing Arts Degree to Land the Job

Illustration of a  music box with a ballerina dancing in the middle
Illustration by Marian Blair

Whether it took you to your tiptoes as a ballerina, or to the depths of your soul to belt out those bass notes, studying the performing arts is something to be proud of.

However, what may have started as starry-eyed Broadway dreams might feel different a decade or so later. Perhaps your interests have shifted and now, you’re looking for an opportunity to apply your love of performance to a more mainstream sector.

So, how can you present yourself as a competitive candidate in the nonprofit world with little else but performance on your resume? Here are three ways to transition from stage (literal or virtual) to sector.

Sell it in the interview

Own your background, or work it; just don’t be ashamed of it.

If you’ve only recently had to buy your first suit-sans-sparkles, don’t feel like an outsider, have confidence; you're qualified! When you land the interview, be prepared and be sure to focus on making a professional impression that emphasizes how your experience and passion connect with the organization’s objectives.

  • Make your case. Prepare a confident response to the question: “Why do you think you’re qualified for the job?” and be able to calmly list your transferrable skills. For example, if you’re interested in working as a volunteer coordinator, talk about your leadership position as first chair, or your experience managing and organizing large ensembles or casts for rehearsals as an assistant director. If you’re interested in development, bring up your responsibilities mixing with patrons at fundraising gala events, or share a story about that time you spearheaded your theater’s membership drive.
  • Your passion is an asset. Be able to explain your motivation to work with the employer in question. If you love their mission but are not acquainted with their history or accomplishments, do your research! Prepare and practice explaining why their objectives speak to you.
  • Know your strengths. As a performer, you studied hard and pushed yourself to achieve. You’re someone who’s not afraid to go the extra mile. In the interview, communicate these attributes by using past competitions, endless hours of practice, and hard fought achievements to show you’re a dedicated individual.
  • And finally, share your story. Good hiring managers are interested in who you are as a person, so prepare and rehearse a short and engaging anecdote around why you chose your particular area of performance, be it modern dance, the oboe, or acting. It’s a great way to warm up an interview and initiate those important interpersonal connections.

If you got them (transferable skills), flaunt them

Training in the performing arts is serious stuff; it’s highly competitive and you’re constantly asked to put your body and soul on display for the critique of others. To succeed in that world, you went above and beyond the normative career and collegiate experience to make your mark, and that work doesn’t need to go to waste. Maybe you won’t be doing your high-kicks in the conference room, but there are other qualities you should highlight.

Here are some examples of how you can rewrite your performance proficiencies into transferable skills:

Leadership, public speaking skills
  • Directing
  • Stage manager
  • Conducting
Communication skills
  • Rehearsals
  • Critique class
Ability to collaborate with diverse groups
  • Accompanying
  • Joint performance projects
  • Ensemble rehearsals
  • Ensemble performances
Self-starter, dedicated, and not afraid of long-term commitment
  • Countless hours learning scripts or musical pieces
  • Numerous rehearsals
  • Coordinating or planning practice sessions and rehearsals
Detail oriented
  • Memorizing scripts
  • Learning musical compositions
  • Composing musical pieces

Get your foot in the door

Nonprofits have a reputation for embracing the creative and welcoming people with diverse backgrounds and change-making organizations look for passionate and committed people who think outside the box. Two leading ways to get your foot in the door are volunteering and networking.

Volunteer: Most nonprofits have volunteer opportunities. The volunteer to career model is mutually beneficial since you need the experience and the organization needs your help. Volunteering is a great way to give back and it’s kind of like a rent to own plan, you can try on the different positions and mission opportunities to see what fits.

Network: If your list of contacts is mostly fellow performers and you’re looking to make a professional shift, you’re going to have to grow your network. Reach out, follow up, outline a plan, go to events, galas, meet-ups, and set up a few informational interviews. To start making new connections in a totally different field, you’ll have to try new things. Here is a guide to reaching out.

Step one involves doing a bit of online recon. Idealist has plenty of resources to connect people with ideas. If you could make it in the performance world, you can make it anywhere. Focus on your story, your passion, and those ever-important transferable skills, volunteer, and utilize a new network. Get on out there and break a leg!


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About the Author | With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline Rodriguez understands the chaotic course of career change. She’s been a reporter, teacher, and co-manager of a yoga resort. Her passions include women’s rights and encouraging girls to study science.

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