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Pivot Pointe
June 22, 2022

Career Transition With Abby Bushnell

Pursuing a clinical child psychology Master's/Ph.D. program at DePaul University of Chicago

Originally from Massachusetts, Abby began her training at the Boston Ballet School. She went on to have her career dancing in Europe with Dresden Semperoper Ballet, the Slovak National Ballet, and the Czech National Ballet. Currently, Abby is finishing her sixth and final season with the Czech National Ballet. Over her career, Abby has danced classical and contemporary works and has performed across Europe and Asia. While dancing, Abby was able to pursue and complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in creative writing. In the fall, Abby will be attending graduate school at DePaul University for a combined master's and Ph.D. program in clinical child psychology.

Having just completed her final season with the Czech National Ballet, we asked Abby to share her recent career transition process.

Photo by Pavel Hejny

At what stage in your career did you realize it was time to start planning your career transition?

Abby Bushnell: It was in the back of my mind for several years. I couldn’t see myself teaching ballet long-term after retiring, so I knew I wanted to try something completely different. The thought of choosing something else, however, was daunting, and over a couple of years, I envisioned my life after ballet in different possible careers. I never had any lofty dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I took things as they came. With ballet, we have this opportunity after our careers to become a child again and ask ourselves what do we want to be? As an adult, this can be a scary thing. It wasn’t until the pandemic when we were all stuck at home that I decided to enroll in college. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I am not sure I would be where I am now. Each summer, as I got older, I would realize I need to start planning my next steps, but once the season would start, all thoughts of career transition would disappear as I would be so busy and engrossed with rehearsals, performances, and tours. The time stuck at home gave me the freedom and space to look into universities and the possibility of studying again.

For many dancers who want to retrain and get a college degree remotely, how does it work?

Abby: There are several online universities, but credibility can be an issue with for-profit online universities. There are, however, many universities that have both online and in-person degrees. If you have a school in mind, it could be worth contacting them to ask about remote courses. Schools may have certain majors that are available completely online, and others that require in-person learning. I hope that having experienced the pandemic, schools will be more flexible with online learning to accommodate those with work and or family obligations. For me continuing my career and doing schoolwork remotely was the best option, and I’m so glad I was able to make it work.

While I can attest to it being extremely hard to motivate yourself to complete a free online course, they are a great resource to see if you are interested in the subject before committing to university courses.
Photo by Youn Sik Kim

Given that you studied at the Houston Ballet Academy, which offers no academic studies, did you have to take any bridging courses/classes?

Abby: Houston Ballet did not have any academic studies, which was challenging. I can imagine it was very difficult for parents to find quality remote high schools for their kids, and I know some were dissatisfied with the quality of their programs. I was enrolled with North Atlantic Regional High School and did all my work remotely as a self-taught homeschool student. I was able to take several AP classes, which in the end, transferred for college credit. My parents made sure my education was still a priority, and I took the SATs and applied to colleges like other high school students despite being at ballet school. It wasn’t certain that I would get a contract after Houston Ballet, so I continued to pursue my academics the best I could. Online learning was a transition; some aspects I liked, but I missed those special moments in the classroom with teachers that would stick in my memory.

What inspired you to undertake a psychology degree?

Abby: Over the years of being in a company, I missed school. I started challenging myself to see how many books I could read in a year, and my reading interests began to veer towards popular psychology books. Books from Oliver Sacks first piqued my interest, and then I started taking free online intro to psychology courses. While I can attest to it being extremely hard to motivate yourself to complete a free online course, they are a great resource to see if you are interested in the subject before committing to university courses. So, by the time I enrolled in school, I figured why not try majoring in psychology.

And what was the total financial investment in such a decision?

Abby: While family support is a huge advantage when pursuing higher education, there are always scholarships, loans, and grant opportunities for students. Nevertheless, tuition in the US can be a huge financial burden. Community colleges are a good option for lower tuition rates, and students can transfer to four-year institutions later. If you plan to enroll in a college in the US, make sure to create a Federal Student Aid account to see which type of aid you are eligible for.

While I was hoping to enroll in a European university, the programs in English can be limited, and UK tuition for non-European students can be just as expensive as US tuition. Unfortunately, I did not receive a big scholarship to support artists looking for career changes as I naively imagined, but I was awarded a small grant from the university for my independent research work. It was something I never expected to receive, but my advisor encouraged me to go for it!

You never know what might happen, and holding yourself back because of fear, or an assumption that you won’t succeed isn’t helpful.
Photo by Youn Sik Kim

Was it known to other dancers that you were pursuing your studies while dancing?

Abby: I did not make it known at first that I was studying. I did not want many people to know, and I also feared that the staff would think that I was not fully committed to ballet. As time went on, it became obvious that I was studying as I would be on my laptop during the breaks. By my last year, there were several times I would be on my computer during a show or be in my statistics zoom class backstage trying to warm up at the same time. My director or the staff would see me, but I was no longer paranoid that they wouldn’t cast me or something. At that point, I had already made up my mind that it would be my last season, so I was more concerned about my productivity than how people perceived my commitment to dance. Other dancers also had started studying during the pandemic, so I was not the only one, but I did get comments asking about my plans and if I was leaving the company because I was always studying. I felt somehow my schoolwork was seen as threatening, and while other dancers may have found it inspiring, not everyone felt that way.

Were there times when your studies and dancing conflicted with one another? And how did you manage that?

Abby: The time difference between living in Europe and my university being in the US worked in my favor. I would have my day in Europe, dancing and rehearsing, and then when I got home, my US day would begin. For those classes and lab meetings that had zoom calls, I was able to pick times that were after my workday. There were periods where this worked very well for me, and other times when I had performances and time conflicts. Except for one or two, my professors were very understanding of my situation and would allow for exceptions, including not deducting points for missed classes. There were times when my workload was heavy, and so I would miss training or leave work early for a lab meeting, but in general, I did not have any major conflicts that I couldn't work around.

Being able to manage the workload while dancing was something I was concerned about before starting school. Even at the start of each semester, I would panic and think that this would be the semester where I wasn’t going to manage all of the work. But once you are in it, things are always different; being organized and managing my time well kept me from being overwhelmed. There were only a couple of nights that I had to stay up very late to complete an assignment. But it certainly was a big commitment; I took on a full course load and was involved in two research labs that included extra research work. This was something I wanted to do to have a competitive application for graduate school, and naturally, my commitment to ballet waned. Instead of doing exercises in my spare time, I was hunched over my laptop, but at that point in my career, I was comfortable with the shift I was making.

Photo by Serghei Gherciu

With this being your last season, how do you feel about leaving the ballet industry?

Abby: I feel fine about leaving; it is the end of the season, so stopping feels like a normal summer holiday. However, once the summer ends, and I realize that I have nothing to get back in shape for, and no performances to look forward to, I’m sure it will be a strange feeling. However, I have had a long career, danced, and experienced things I never would have expected. I know that a ballet career does not last forever, so I am not struggling with leaving. I also have a secure position that I am moving into, with a set trajectory for the next five or six years. In a way, continuing to graduate school felt like a more comfortable option for me compared to finding a new job after ballet.

Looking back has your career transition been as daunting as you originally thought (early on in your ballet career)?

Abby: Early on in my career, I did not think concretely about my transition or how it would look, and it took me a few years before I made any steps toward a career transition. My university has offered great support for my undergraduate career, as well as my future trajectory and career options. The transition, however, has been very smooth, and I am really lucky to have been accepted into graduate school.

What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or about to go on the journey?

Abby: I think the best advice is just to try. You never know what might happen, and holding yourself back because of fear, or an assumption that you won’t succeed isn’t helpful. The change can be scary, and there’s nothing wrong with letting it sit in the back of your mind for a while, but if it is something you want to do, then it will be worth it, even if the transition isn’t initially successful.

Top image by Serghei Gherciu

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