C writes: I'm contemplating applying to an agent trainee program and wanted to pick your brain about a few things. I want to write for TV and from the jobs I see on the tracking boards, 99% of them require at least a year at an agency. If I advance to the interview stage, do I lie when asked if I want to be an agent? Plus, there's my MFA in Writing & Producing for Television. Do these programs know people apply for other reasons besides the agent track?
Working at an agency is a great idea for an aspiring writer. You'll start working with agents, writers, directors, managers and assistants to managers, producers, studio executives and network executives. Although the pay is dismal and everyone's experience is different (my boss was nicer and had a lower volume desk than most), I'm really glad I worked as an assistant at an agency. Like you, I soon realized that I would have a hard time even getting an inerview to be a development assistant without a year of agency experience. I didn't end up continuing on that development path, but the agency experience was still valuable: it's how I met my manager, the first producer/director I developed a script with, and the first producer who hired me for a paid assignment. I'm not sure where I'd be had I not worked there.
I don't think you have to outright lie in an agency assistant job interview. It's true that some agencies will not want to hear that you're a writer (they worry that you're just trying to get them to represent you, and that you suck as a writer), so I wouldn't specifically say that you're still a writer. Still, you don't have to talk about how much you want to be an agent, either. Just spin it that you're not sure what exactly you want to be -- you want to find out more about agenting and producing, and you want to learn as much as you can, etc. -- and you'll be fine. And yes, agents and HR reps know that lots of people apply to agencies just to get some experience before moving on to other things. Usually, as long as you stay for the amount of time you promised, agents will even make calls to help you get your next job. (For more on interviewing, check out my old post about interview tips.)
The trainee program is a bit different; when it comes to trainees, agencies are looking for people who definitely want to become agents. They'd be putting too much of an investment in you if you're just looking to do a year and get out. This might be a moot point, though; usually, trainees are chosen from people who are already assistants inside the agency. Where I worked, even some seasoned assistants were rejected when they applied to be trainees. I know UTA will advertise for its trainee program on the UTA list, but I'd be surprised to learn that outsiders were chosen. (Please comment if you know otherwise.) Also, be aware that agencies and their trainee programs can be very political. You might be brilliant and hard-working, but if you're not on the right side of the right people, you're doomed. Some of this stuff is totally out of your control.
For both assistant and trainee positions, an MFA can only be an asset. Yes, it might betray your writing aspirations, but it's not like people commonly get MFAs in Talent Representation. Lots of agents went to film school (plenty for writing/producing), and although entertainment professionals hold a variety of degrees, I don't see how an MFA in Writing & Producing could ever be seen as a bad thing.