Art School 101: Art University – Should I do an arts degree?

As it’s that time of year, I thought it might be quite useful for some of you if I wrote about my experiences of arts education. As the fees are now averaging £9000 a year, going to do an art degree might seem like a huge risk financially and something that you might want to consider very carefully. Questions you might be asking yourself: will I get a well paid job at the end of it? Will I even get a job at all!? Is it worth it? What will I learn – if anything?!

When I went to university the fees were still around £3000 a year, so the loan didn’t seem as big as £9000 a year. I imagine with any degree now at such high costs, a lot of people will be contemplating even going ahead with a degree at all, especially an art degree.

There is SO much to cover, so I’ll try to write a couple of posts over the next few weeks. In this first post, I’ll highlight a couple of things you may want to initially think about before starting your course. I hope this will be of help to someone! I’ve also fished out lots of my old illustration work that I made on my degree (the fun – omg so much bad photoshopping!) so all photos/drawings on these posts are from my time studying.

Grab a cup of tea… this isn’t short!

Why I chose to go to university

I knew I wanted to do illustration or graphic design from age 15. At 16 I went to college and did a National Diploma in Print & Publishing for two years (the equivalent UCAS points to 3 A Levels – except in a subject you want to do if you’re not just wanting to do academic subjects!) this diploma covered design, writing and marketing, as well as photography modules and learning how to use Photoshop and InDesign. I then did Art Foundation for 1 year where I specialised in illustration. It was then that I decided to apply to Kingston University for their Illustration & Animation course.

For me there was no doubt I wanted to do a degree, and I am lucky that from a young age I sort of set out what subject I was interested in, this made my decision to continue my studies much easier. I knew that to get better I needed those three years that a degree gives you – to hone my skills and practice practice practice! This is something to think about, do you actually NEED your degree to do what you want to do? Be it for time to practice, or the actual qualification to get a specific job? Ask yourself that question.

Where to go?

I wanted to go to one of the best courses (I’m sure everyone does) but I honestly don’t think I would have paid to go if I hadn’t got into one of the uni’s I wanted to go to. If I didn’t get in first time, I would have tried the year after. £3000/£9000 a year is a LOT of money to spend on an art degree and lets be brutally honest, a lot of art degrees out there are a complete doss from what I have seen/heard from friends who have gone to universities and been very disappointed with their courses.

Make sure that you are 100% certain the course you apply to is going to be good, ask previous students for advice on the specific course, do your research. If you do go to your second choice, make sure you’re happy about it. You can always take a gap year and re-apply for your first choice again. In the grand scale of life 1 year out is nothing, and a lot of students on my degree were not 19 (they were in their 20’s!). You need to be happy about your decision!


Working hard – Art school should not be a doss

If you are going to go to Art School at age 18/19 and the course isn’t as regimented and full on as some of the courses with good reputations, then you need to be VERY self motivated. Make sure that you know what you want out of it, work on your own projects in any spare time, and just work extremely hard. Kingston was very good at treating university like school – you were in at a certain time and were told off if you weren’t in! You had homework, and strict deadlines. A lot of work got done because of this, most people worked so hard and if you didn’t you got thrown off the course! Looking back, I’m so glad it was like this, it instilled a great work ethic and the precedent was set as to what real working life was going to be like.

I know most art courses are not as structured and strict though, so working hard and pushing yourself is my advice for everyone on any art course. I do know plenty of talented people who were on courses and didn’t get the most out of it. If uni isn’t challenging you, do your own projects! Don’t waste your spare time getting drunk 24/7.

I really do think it’s important to take the hard work element into consideration, doing an art degree is not the same as going to an academic university and getting a good ‘solid degree’. When you graduate with an academic degree at a uni with a 2:1 or above, many companies often see that and think ‘well, this person has a good academic grounding so I will take them on for a graduate scheme/first job’. With an art degree, it’s not as easy, you do have to prove yourself a lot more, so be prepared to work bloody hard!


The future

This sounds utterly obvious, but you really should choose your degree based on what you foresee yourself doing in the future or/and what you would LOVE to spend 3 years doing.

I did my degree because I knew I wanted to have a creative job in the future, and I knew I loved illustration. If it didn’t work out immediately (job or money wise), I would have enjoyed myself and made the most out of my three years of artistic freedom. If there had been any doubt for me personally, I wouldn’t have wasted my money or time.

It can also be important for your future to consider where you do your degree. Will people recognize your course? What will potential employers or clients think? Obviously this is not the be all and end all, as in the creative industry your portfolio IS what gets you work, but it should be something to think about because it can help. Look at the connections the University says it has, what do the alumni of the course go on to do? These can be pointers as to what industry and clients think about the course.

The above is one of the reasons that I chose to apply to Kingston, as it does have a very good reputation as one of the best courses for Illustration. I’d be lying if I said that this hadn’t helped me since graduating, it has been recognized and I have been contacted based purely on the fact that I graduated from that specific course. Industry are aware it exists. However, as mentioned earlier it certainly is not the be-all and end-all. Your future success is inherently down to the work you do, and how hard you work. But a great course can get you some free exposure and a couple of good connections.

Do not be fooled though, attending a reputable course does in no way make anyone have an easy ride (uni’s do like to over exaggerate how well you’ll do after the course  – while luring you in to apply and give them loads of money!). All it has done, at best, is opened a couple of doors for me that might not have been there if I hadn’t been to Kingston/uni in London. Working on my own projects and keeping to the ethics that my degree taught me is the approach that has won me work and jobs.


Real life

I don’t want to shatter anyone’s dreams of becoming a full time artist, but you do have to be realistic and realize that the cost of living in this country right now is extremely high in comparison to the wages that we are earning. It is not impossible to go into self-employment full time straight from University, I know a few people who did (though some moved home to do so, or away from London).

Most of us will work other jobs doing different types of work, while doing our own work so that we can live comfortably and not have to starve/move to the middle of nowhere/live with parents. Especially when starting out, there was no way on earth I was in any financial position to work for myself from graduating. I did not move back home, my parents give me no money and I had a huge overdraft to pay back. Illustration does not make you rich, and it definitely does not make you rich when you just start out. Think about these questions when you commit to three years of a course: are you paving the way for what you want to do in the future? Will you commit to your art afterwards and continue to work on your own projects, even if you have to work unrelated jobs or be skint? Ask yourself truthfully! If the answers to any of these questions is no, then think hard about why you are investing in your degree.

Phew, this post is long, apologies! But hopefully I have now covered the basics and given you a bit of ‘food for thought’ as they say.

In my next post I’ll cover what it was actually like for me at art university, what I thought I learned – what could have been better, and if I thought it was worth it. So do keep your eyes peeled!

Please do let me know in the comments below if you found this post useful!


8 Responses to “Art School 101: Art University – Should I do an arts degree?”

  1. I’m about to start my final year on I&A at Kingston so it was quite fun to read this and see what it’s like on the other side! I was wondering if you had any moments (brief or ones that lasted a little bit longer than you’d have liked) when you really questioned what you’d chosen to do? I’m in the position of loving the course but it not necessarily being right for me or what I would have chosen given what I’ve experienced if that makes sense. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to go to any other university though!

    • Hi Hannah!

      I don’t think I ever questioned it to the point where I regretted doing the course, but I did question the type of work that I was doing at uni. I felt like Kingston especially trained you to be a certain type of illustrator – conceptual and editorial or narrative based? If that makes sense. I like illustrating products and nice things but it was kind of frowned upon on the course to be doing work that ‘didn’t have a point’ (I hope you know what I mean!). Since leaving uni i’ve not done much conceptual or editorial work. Obviously all work has a concept (which is a good skill to learn) but I do mainly get asked to do fairly decorative/product work and I know that’s what I want to do when I do my own work too!

      When I finished uni, I actually gave myself a break from the whole thing for a couple of months. I was a bit bored of feeling like I was making work for other people and doing a type of illustration I wasn’t keen on. I started to just make work for fun again, for myself and I started to feel much better about illustration again, and fall in love with it. It was good to have time away from the degree to step back and think about what I liked and what I actually wanted to do with my skills, so I’d suggest giving yourself a little space and room to think once your degree is over too :)

      It’s always good to be questioning and thinking about what you do – i know it can feel a but rubbish – but it’s good to keep thinking! Xx

  2. I love this post! I did my Fine Art Foundation and felt a bit overwhelmed at the thought of doing a three year degree – I never had a ‘thing’ and always made work which was hugely varied in medium, I felt like I couldn’t keep doing that for three years. I think I doubted my creativity too much. So I went and did English BA because I knew I’d be able to get an OK grade and a ‘solid degree’ like you say – and I hated the whole thing! It also took up so much of my time that I didn’t have much time or inclination to make my own work any more, and I’ve completely got out of the habit and lost all confidence in my ability. I miss art so much and I so wish I’d gone with my gut and done an art degree despite what my parents & teachers said about it (I got a whole lot of ‘art is a waste of a brain’ which is utterly ridiculous but very demoralising to hear when you’re 15 and it’s what you love).

    I think a lot of this post applies to other subjects too, and it’d be useful not just for art degrees. The degrees of university led teaching vs independent learning vary SO massively – I had 8 hours a week in university classes but 40+ hours reading/writing/research, no one checking I was doing my work apart from the shame in seminars if you were asked to contribute and you hadn’t done the reading!

    I also took an ‘unscheduled’ gap year. I was supposed to go to UCL to do Psychology with Neuroscience, but missed my Chemistry grade by half a UMS mark. I decided against my second choice, and applied last minute for a Foundation at a college near me, interviewed five days before term started and got in! I was so shy and my illness made it quite hard to make friends & enjoy the course, but it turned out to be such a fun year and I really miss it. Foundation year FTW! How did you find yours?


    • Hi Laura,

      I’m sorry to hear you hated your degree, at least now you know what you are interested in though and in a way perhaps it took you to do that to really solidify what you want your future to be?

      I think the best thing about arts is that you can keep it up as a hobby or in your free time and build it up yourself and practice.

      I did like Art Foundation but I sort of knew from the beginning which path I would choose, so found some of it a bit rubbish but overall I enjoyed the freedom a lot! There was also less pressure about your work on foundation than on an actual degree too which was nice!


  3. Charlotte

    I did a degree in Illustration and I have to say the course didn’t really teach me a lot! In hindsight I wish I’d done a structured course like the one you did at Kingston. My course was much like yours in a way though, that your artwork had to have a ‘context’ but I just wanted to draw toys for my Honours project but they wouldn’t let me! It made me create work that I wasn’t happy doing at all and when I look back over the work I created during my final year I hate it all. I kind of fell out of love with illustration after that (that was two years ago) and now I’m only just falling back in love with it… time out has really made me see what I enjoy about illustration and the kind of work I should be making. I now work full time in retail and yes its soul destroying at times but it enables me to be creative and illustrate in my spare time.

  4. Great post!! I’m actually going to start my course (printed textiles and surface pattern) in a couple of weeks but man I wish I had found this when I was applying. This is the type of stuff which would have eased my mind- trying to find art course related topics using google is so hard! I hate it when people assume doing an art degree is easy because it’s A LOT of bloody hard work if you really want to get somewhere, especially since it isn’t *really* about the grade in the long run. I guess I’m talking from my experience at college but I still worked my butt off.

    If you have a passion for it then that’s the best thing in the world. Even if after my degree I am working part time somewhere else and part time freelance, I’ll still be happy. :) Thanks for this! I just found your blog today and I love your work!

  5. Hi Hannah,

    I love your work and and this post has been really good to read! Its good to hear how you didn’t just jump straight into your degree and I think sometimes it can be intimidating for people to think people leave school, know what they want to do and get straight into the place they want. I am someone who chose marketing to study when I left school at 16 and once I was in employment and finished my degree, I was working on more creative projects. I found out what graphic design is and what a career in that could be.

    I decided at 26 to go to college for 2 years to get a diploma in graphic design which was really good. It was a course filled with every part of art & design, learning about photography, type, printing, screen printing -and the college environment was really supportive.

    I then decided to apply to art school to continue studying Graphic Design to get my degree as in the two years at college, I didn’t quite feel like my portfolio was strong enough to get employment. I am now at djcad and will be for the next 3 years which is a long time when you’re a mature student but i think (so far!) i have made the right decision. In Scotland, we are VERY lucky in that our fees are much lower and if they hadn’t been I’m sure my decision would have been different. As this was my second degree it was important to me that i go to a recognised place so I’m in a better position when I leave but it also feels a wee bit elitist and wrong to admit!

    All in all, I think as you said if you put the effort and hard work in you’ll come out better for it in the end!

    Thanks again for this post!

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