What Do You Do with a Degree in Food?

Although I didn’t officially celebrate graduation until May, it has now been one year since I finished the coursework for my gastronomy master’s degree. I am reflecting on what this degree has done for me and whether it was worth it.

I won’t sugarcoat things. Grad school is ridiculously expensive. When self-financing a degree, it can be difficult to make ends meet. I did not have a full-time job for the entire duration of my studies, plus I now owe the government a lot of money. Some people in my program did maintain full-time work, but I ended up with a variety of part-time jobs for about two and a half years. If I did not have the extra money from my student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to cover all my expenses.

This was a decision I made, and I am aware of that. I am not complaining about the experience. I just want people to understand what they could be signing up for if they pursue a similar path. I probably could have obtained full-time employment after my first semester, but I chose to work part-time jobs so I could be a grad assistant for the culinary arts program. The university only lets students work 20 hours a week, which is why I supplemented this job with other sources of income, but my particular department had some unconventional benefits. Well, not so much unconventional for the food industry but certainly compared to other academic programs. I unofficially got paid in food.

Culinary programs go through a lot of food, but there is naturally going to be excess. You never want a student’s education to be shorted because you didn’t buy enough ingredients. So at the end of the week, we essentially got to go “shopping” in the kitchen and take whatever we wanted from the unused ingredients. Sometimes this included meats, cheeses, and even stocks, but it was mainly a LOT of produce. I went through a period of making a weekly frittata full of all the veggies I brought home, and I’d have breakfast set for another week. I also loved assessing my produce and devising a plan for weekend meal planning. It was my favorite game that I sometimes try to replicate in the grocery store. It’s not as fun when you have to pay for the food.

Since I was no longer a student after December 2021, I could no longer be a graduate assistant, but I did manage to stick around for another six months in a temporary full-time administrative role for the Food & Wine department. This transitional period was rather beneficial for me. I got to spend a little more time around my BU people, but I also had time to search for jobs without the stress of coursework.

As much as I would love to hang out in the BU Food & Wine department indefinitely, the time came for me to move on professionally. Do I come to visit any chance I get? Pretty much, but I’m not on-site five days a week like I used to be. I do miss everyone and the environment, but at some point, I had to start building my new career.

How would I define this new career path? Maybe I still don’t have a complete answer to that question, but I can tell you what it has looked like so far. In May, I started working for Wulf’s Fish, a seafood company located in Boston’s Seaport district. My work life is hard to put into a sentence or two, so I plan to devote another post to this later. What I will say is that I am a fish gal now. I live, breathe, and eat fish (literally). I am greeted every day by the smell of the ocean, and I have functionally turned into a pescatarian (with the occasional meat slipping onto my plate).

When I am not selling fish, I am probably at my studio apartment in the South Shore where I cook, read, write, and yeah watch a lot of television. I’ve never had a TV in my bedroom before, but when your living room is your bedroom, you can watch TV from anywhere.

I know I haven’t been active on here much, but I have been doing a lot of writing. Shortly before I got my job offer, I got hired as a freelance food writer for Tasting Table. That’s a literal dream come true for me…getting paid to write about food. Someone actually wanted to pay me to write articles on food. When I got my full-time job, I knew I had to find a way to keep the writing gig. It’s a good little boost in income, and I am getting to build a portfolio of published work. I have managed to keep up with producing at least a couple articles per month by writing after dinner and on the weekends. When my editor found out what I am doing for work, he asked if I wanted to be the unofficial seafood writer having first dibs on seafood articles. Like how cool is that? I have never had a beat before. If you are curious and want to read some of my work, you can see my published articles here. I just got an article published about myths surrounding the lobster industry, and that was one of my favorites to write.

So I guess I haven’t answered my initial question yet. Is it worth it to get a degree like this? Well, I think so, but here are some additional factors that made it right for me. I left a completely unrelated industry and had zero experience in the field aside from my high school job at Subway and my brief stint as a restaurant host in D.C. I found value in not just getting experience in the field but getting an in-depth understanding of how food interacts with every facet of our life and society. My academic research allowed me to challenge the nature of our food system and pursue alternative strategies for feeding the world. No matter what I do in my career, I will take this knowledge with me. I may even be able to get to tap into work on food justice one day. At the very least, I hope to get involved more with my local food system and efforts for increasing access to food in my community.

This doesn’t mean that this degree is right for everyone. Someone with a background in the food industry who has a strong professional network may not need the degree to pursue the types of jobs I was applying to, but there are a lot of benefits still to be gained from the program, but you will have to weight the costs against those benefits to determine for yourself. If you have aspirations of working in academia focusing on food research, a master’s program like this would be an excellent first choice.

If you want to jump into a career in the restaurant industry, especially in the back of the house, a culinary program like the one at BU might be a better fit than a full master’s program. I understand that culinary school is very costly and is not for everyone. You can learn a lot by starting on the line and working your way up the brigade. Also know that even with a culinary degree, you will likely still start as a line cook. If being a chef is of interest to you, I do recommend programs like the culinary arts certificate at BU. It is a more condensed version of culinary school and you can learn valuable techniques from very skilled chefs in a shorter time period (and for less money).

Even though I had no intention of going into restaurant work, I know this program made me such a better cook. You don’t have to use these skills in a restaurant setting. It can also be beneficial for food writers, recipe developers, food stylists, personal chefs, and other food jobs that require technical cooking skills. The culinary arts course changed how I feed myself, but it has also set me up to be a better recipe writer, and no doubt it has helped drastically with my food articles and several functions of my job at Wulf’s.

If any of this sounds like a career you’d like to have, I’d recommend at least researching these programs (or other similar ones). I feel so much better prepared to thrive in this field than before, and it helped me build a strong network in the food industry that I don’t know if I could have done on my own. This was a life-altering experience, and I can’t help but thank myself for being brave enough to abandon an established life, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something even better.