Unsolicited Advice: Navigating your educational path


This post was originally published September 22, 2012

Hannah asked: I’m currently a Creative Writing Student due to graduate next year but I want to pursue a career in illustration. My university have offered to transfer me to the 2nd year of their Graphic Communication course but it will mean delaying graduating till 2014 as I have to re-take a year. It isn’t a problem financially but I have had a lot of conflicting advice, especially from friends currently studying illustration who all seem to think I could pursue an illustration degree if I am self taught. Any idea?

Navigating the world of arts education is an interesting and tricky thing to do. You’re hardly the first person to rethink their career path while in the middle of a program, and it doesn’t help that programs vary greatly between institutions and instructors. Not to mention different learning styles — only you know just how much you get out of each course you take, what matters, and what you feel like you’re just making your way through.

The truth is, nobody ever asks me about my degree. Sure, it’s come up, but in our visual industry, the work usually speaks for itself. That’s not to say education is irrelevant! But education and training should be inherent in the work itself, so unless you’re doing a specific degree program at a school known for that superior program, where you will network and really benefit from the best minds in and out of the classroom, I don’t know how important the specifics are. I’m hesitant to give you an outright answer, because the right decision is yours to make alone (and sometimes the “wrong” decision turns out to be the right one years later). But what I will say, with 100% confidence, is that your degree does not need to define the work that you do.

Ultimately, it’s the work you have to show that will steer employers and clients in your direction. That work may be of a different discipline, or it may vary greatly from the kind of work you anticipated creating. Ideally, your passion for the work that you are doing will be inherent in the final product, and that’s what people will reach out to you for. So whether you end up with an undergraduate degree in creative writing but have a rich design & illustration portfolio, or if you switch to design but then stay very illustration-focused, you may still find that your work takes on it’s own direction and lead you to another unseen career path. There is no “wrong” answer here.

As always, I will mention that I’m no expert, just someone navigating the real world along with everyone else. So I did what I do best… I asked some friends what they thought! What I heard back more or less echoed my own thoughts — you can do whatever you want beyond the perceived limitation of your degree, clients and employers will look at your body of work. If you want to be an illustrator, illustrate! If you’re good, people will notice.

Jenna Ullrich is an old classmate and co-worker of mine who always found a way to balance her varied skill set in her work. Though her degree focus was in design, she took lots of printmaking courses and that influence has helped her craft her aesthetic:

“You can have your cake and eat it too by taking extra courses that let you illustrate. Use your time in college to have fun and make awesome things. I definitely took advantage of this by majoring in graphic design and minoring in print media with some photo courses on the side too. Personally, I use illustration frequently within my design work so it’s totally possible for both disciplines to coexist in your career. It’s good to pursue things outside of your major as a lot of jobs out there are looking for people who have ‘back of the napkin skills.’ No joke, that was written in more than one job description. Recently, I’ve been designing infographics which require both my illustration and design skill sets. There’s no limit to where your talents can take you and you’ll go further if you love what your doing.”

Bethany Ng is someone I met this year when we interviewed together. She’s a great example of someone who navigated through a complex course system to earn a degree, and then ended up doing something completely different anyway because of the work that was reflected in her portfolio.

“My illustration career sort of happened on accident. I went to school to become a graphic designer, but through the bureaucracy of the state school I went to (they were going to make me retake multiple classes I had already completed at another college) I actually have a degree in Multimedia. This is in the most literal sense though as in ‘multiple mediums.’ I spent a lot of my undergrad in screen printing, letterpress, photography and furniture building. Additionally I took some standard drawing courses and typography as well.”

Bethany carved out her own educational path that included study in lots of different media and ended up well prepared for the surprises life had to offer — she agrees that the specific degree focus may not matter if you have a well-rounded education.

“If you want to be an illustrator you certainly do not have to have a degree in illustration. It is actually extremely rare that anyone asks me where I graduated from and what my degree is in. Instead they look at my style and body of work. I got work as an illustrator because my book was full of illustration, not because I had a degree in illustration.”

“Taking courses in illustration will certainly help you develop your talent and make you a more well-rounded creative. And being an illustrator with design skills is something very valuable and a quality that many studios and agencies look for.”

The truth is, even for those of us who do know what they want to be when we grow up at an early age, and study in a specific program, life often surprises us. Many grow up into the world and find that their careers are based in something they never could have anticipated.

Gemma Correll is a talented illustrator whose charming and clever work has appeared in countless places, online and in print. She echoed the idea that you may not end up doing what you thought you’d do while getting your degree, but that all of your education is relevant and helpful in defining your aesthetic and work.

“I don’t think it’s at all essential to have a degree in the area you end up working in. All artforms are linked and skills you learn in one area are transferable to another. The things you do outside of college work might end up being more important in informing your career choices than the things you do at college. My boyfriend did a fine art degree but is now working as a freelance illustrator. The work I do now is more closely related to the zines and drawings I made for ‘fun’ outside of my assignments that to the work I did at college. There are people working as illustrators who don’t have a degree at all, or one in a completely (apparently) unrelated subject. If you can make a decent portfolio, whether it’s from your college work or the drawings you do at the weekends in your sketchbook there is absolutely no reason why you can’t work as an illustrator.”

There are countless examples of well-regarded designers, illustrators, photographers, and more, who trained in one thing (or nothing!) and make a living doing what they love to do. School should not be about rushing through a program, but new experiences and opportunities to figure out what you love most. Take as many varied courses as you can, explore different media, and walk away with a whole bunch of hidden talents and abilities that you can apply in the future.

Real life is full of surprises, and it’s very hard to predict exactly where any of us are headed. By keeping yourself on your toes, creating work you love in addition to your coursework (or “day job” work), you will continue to grow with your work, build a portfolio of things you love, and others will take notice. As always, it’s hard work and true passion that will define you as an artist, not the piece of paper with your name printed on it.

Adam J. Kurtz is an artist and author whose illustrative work is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness.

AdviceAlyssa Nassner