Can’t afford an arts degree? You probably won’t miss much

I am occasionally sent emails from students or young people seeking a career in photography, who ask my advice on how to pursue this path and whether to go to university or not.

For a while now, I have wanted to write a blog post so I could give a cogent and useful response to those people and anyone else who is in the same boat. So here I go.

First, we must note that this is a complex topic. Whilst my opinions are strong, I want to give valid back-up to my argument, and I really don’t want to negate university in general. I am focused in this blog post on discussing arts/humanities degrees – so not just photography, but generally for those people who have a view to advancing onto a creative career. Photography is just one direction in which a creative person can go, so we all end up with the same quandaries upon leaving school/college. Also, I’m well aware that the photography world is a very vast one, with many different types and ilks of jobs. I’ve tried to address both the technical and creative sides of the spectrum, both left and right sides of every ‘photographer’s brain’ as it were, so my words can probably resonate for a range of photography directions. And of course, this post is based on my opinion, my own experiences of British university life, and impressions I’ve gleaned from others.

Let’s also get something straight before I continue – when I refer to my own experience of university, I refer to my 3-year degree in BA English & Media. I did not study photography. However, it’s the kind of degree one might study if they had a broad outlook to any kind of creative/linguistic job.

The first thing to realise is that nothing in life is in black and white. No one can really tell you whether university will be useful or not for you, first because everyone’s personalities differ, degrees differ, institutions differ, and nothing is guaranteed from, really, anything. Anything you do, be it a degree, work experience, a spurt of travel, etc, is only a tool to be used by you. Nothing really gives you anything – you can only take something from it. However, I have a couple of problems specifically, straight off the bat, with university.

The first is the classic ‘what can you learn in a classroom that is as good as learning on the job?’

The second is ‘university life is so slack that there isn’t even a classroom in which to “learn”‘.

So, starting with my first point.

‘What can you learn in a classroom that is as good as learning on the job?’

Something like photography is so apt for this provoking question. Successful photography is a blend of both conceptual and technical prowess. It’s about thinking about what you’re doing, as well as knowing how to do it: that is, creativity, as well as execution. I’m ’self-taught’, but I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of referencing one’s own work, and the healthiness of trying to place one’s own practice (and indeed, calling it a ‘practice’!) into a historical context, rather than blundering naively an assumption that everything you’re ever going to do is wonderfully unique and ‘you’. However, I just don’t think you need university to tell/show you this.

Reading magazines, journals, books, researching the history of art, is all wonderful – but you don’t need to spent £20k+ and 3 years to focus solitarily on that. I find the work of ‘higher education’ is spread out so thinly over a wide scale of time that you might realise that everything you read or learned at university could fit into your bedtime reading over the duration of 2 more useful years doing photography in the ‘real world’. Study is good. But go find a library, do your own research and reading of your own accord. Independent study is what you’ll be doing at uni anyway, you just won’t have to pay thousands to do it!

When it comes to practical skills, it is flabbergasting to see how little photography degrees teach. Some are stuck stubbornly in the darkroom age, barely updating or even diversifying their department’s equipment, and most focus far too much on theory. Theory alone does not prepare you for a career in photography. I don’t think doing some token work experience or occasionally assisting a photographer is enough either – but it certainly should be the minimum. What is important is getting one’s head into the real world as soon as possible, thinking proactively as soon as possible, especially for something like photography, which is a multifarious industry and ever-changing landscape.

It’s a bit like when you’re learning to drive. When you learn to drive you spend oodles of money, and you’ll be desperate to pass your test to put an end to the pain of handing over £20 an hour to your smug instructor. But the cost of learning equates to the continued cost you’ll spend on insurance, tax and petrol when you drive a car for real.

In the same way, learning photography should be close to the real functionality of being a photographer. If you’re already studying photography, I believe you should get as much work experience as possible, attend workshops, do your own shoots, assist photographers, start your own business in small ways as much as you can. If you’re contemplating whether to start a degree or not, I truly think your money is better spent on short snappy, practical courses, with direct hands-on action guided by real working pros.

Now onto my second point. It wouldn’t be as bad if you knew that going to university would be a place to work you to the bone, both in theory and practice. But even that’s not guaranteed!

‘University life is so slack that there isn’t even a classroom in which to “learn”‘.

When I reflect on it, I realise how disappointed I was with university. When I was a child, I regarded university with awe as the esteemed pinnacle of education which would surely work one’s brain to the max. My experience was not like that at all, at least, for an humanities/arts degree. After arriving from a mentally-brisk experience at sixth form college, I soon grew to realise that intense work wasn’t the order of the day for most people once I got to the real ‘university’ beyond the pages of the glossy prospectus. University assumes no-one needs discipline, and they shouldn’t, we’re all adults now – but sadly it seems like they do. There was an all-too palpable lack of enthusiasm from a generation that cares more for discussing ‘last night’. Students on different courses of my programme varied in social class and intellect level but that didn’t discriminate when it came to drink – everyone ‘gets pissed’, either talking about in past or future tense. I despised, and still despise, how becoming regularly inebriated has become a normalised, unquestioned rite of passage for university students and for young people in general. I much preferred college (there, the beginnings of teenage binge-drinking was drowned out by the somewhat heavier schedules) and I even felt more ‘worked’ at primary school. To me, it’s bizarre that this is the time that the student forks out their weight in cash in tuition fees, which threat to augment all the more (for me, with my parent being under the primary income threshold I did not have to pay any of these). Then the long summer break came round the corner – ah ghastly! 3-4 months slap bang in the middle of the year to fanny about fancy-free? I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it.

Let’s explore the good things about going to university. For me, university was good for three things: (1) becoming independent – many will agree it is a wonderful chance to become self-sufficient. Circumstantially it eased me into flying the nest. Having a degree, any degree, is said to prove on paper that you know how to discipline yourself for a long period. The rest of my article obviously does object to the latter, and although you can gain independence through the experience, university is not the only way to do this. (2) It gave me time to think and explore. When I was applying for university degrees back at college, I did not know exactly what I wanted to do. My photography career was an unborn child. It emerged later, after my gap year experience and in the middle of my English degree. And (3), through writing those essays (not as many as I should have had to write, over the course of 36 months) with a spot of human guidance but most of which I could probably have done over an internet connection 2000 miles away, I developed what I consider to be good skills in organising an argument, thinking about more than one side to a story, and backing oneself up with cited evidence – skills to be used in both written and spoken word. Sometimes I feel I can spot people who have been to university, because they don’t come crashing down onto a conclusion 2 mins into a debate, and they can cite the odd literary reference. As well as use words like ‘juxtaposition’ of course. This reason is less critical because I don’t deem these as skills I was ‘taught’ at university (you ‘learn’ diddly squat) but ones I honed, myself, whilst being at university. College was the place that hammered me into an essay-writing groove.

Reason (2) is really the only reason that I would posit as to why studying is a good option, as opposed to going headlong throwing one’s life into the mouth of time and not having time to think about what you actually want to do. Everyone needs time to think about what they want to do, it is vital, and to that length, study is important. I’ve seen people rashly rush into jobs (like my friend giving up her GCSEs to work shifts at Kwik Save) but I think university stretches out study to the proportions of procrastination, to unnecessary lengths, ie. you don’t need 3 years to ‘think’ about what you want to do. Unlike other disciplines, a degree in an arts/humanities subject is never/rarely officially required for a job anyway, so reading poems, novels and academic books is more meaningless and irrelevant to the real world – which may well be a quite boring ‘real world’, but it’s a world we’ve all got to find employment in afterwards. After graduating I failed to get three admin jobs with my First in English and Media and long list of extra-curricular arty farty pursuits because I didn’t have enough dreary ‘office experience’! Even though I’d spent 3 years tapping away on a computer, researching, managing files and ferreting around for books and pens, it didn’t even get me a pen-pushing £12k salary job which would barely cover Brighton rent.

So what are the solutions?

I think university poorly implements ample aid for those people who want to go into something creative but are not sure exactly what (ie. me, and thousands others). What would be perfect is a kind of intense apprenticeship programme which gives students short bursts of hands-on experience trying out a host of different jobs, sampling a variety of potential creative careers so you can actually decide what you want to do initially. Interspersed with some short sessions poring over the words of Sartre and Bourdieu.

As most photographers are self-employed, and largely oversee their work projects themselves, the first lesson that must be learned is that becoming a ‘photographer’, and hence becoming self-employed, is about entering the unknown: erratic income, a continued level of uncertainty. This ties into my point earlier about university offering very little of the ‘real world’. Being sheltered by the false security of a student loan and various grants, some supplemented by parents’ money perhaps (though I know many go on to live the rest of their lives blindly buttressed by parents’ dosh) is a dubious lifestyle that should come with a great return. University doesn’t deliver that great return in my opinion. Student dinners and manky halls aside, it is misleadingly comfortable.

‘Getting into the real world’ is much about shedding the innocence of being a young carefree person, and taking the brutal weight of the world onto your shoulders. I’m aware I’m essentially advocating for one to take on that weight sooner rather than later. Part of me feels that is wrong, but another part of me thinks that 16/17 year-olds nowadays are not children, and have a wisdom and drive beyond their years. They don’t need to, and shouldn’t be, ‘protected’ from the realities of a world that can be humdrum, difficult and cruel – it’s better, as in the crux of any ‘education’, for a young person to become accustomed to reality – the bad, but also the good; how hard work can pay off, and in photography’s case, how one’s passion for image-making can relate satisfactorily to that same ‘real world’.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that you make it happen. You make your own work, and in turn, your own life path. This became emphasised especially upon organising our recent Shoot Experiences together with my partner Matthew. They started off as an extension of the workshop idea – ie. people paying to come along to ‘my event’ -  but it quickly dawned on us that this wasn’t like a workshop so much – it was an environment we are creating, in which we as the hosts are making images ourselves, employing our passion for photography in a context in which other people can also collectively participate. We made a business idea as well as a creative one.

At the moment I’m seeking a photographers’ agent. It feels like trying to enter a crowded noisy party with people ten feet taller than me. Instead of loitering around waiting to be handed a golden ticket I’m making my own work, commissioning myself almost, in recent shoots such as one I did with a snake – spending money (feasibly) on my own mini productions simply because I love what I do and I’m confident to stake on it. If you want to do something, set the date and make it happen yourself. Photography is much a waiting game but you don’t have to sit down to wait.

So, all in all, what is my straightforward advice to young people?

If you’re curious about photography, but not certain it’s what you want to whole-heartedly pursue, then you might like to study something quite broad so you can keep your options open (like I did). But look at the content of any degree or course you are interested in, and makes sure it’s practically relevant to you. I would probably have gone for something of the length of 1 or 2 years; 3 years feels like too much time. Look for an apprenticeship, a vocational course, something hands-on.

If you’re more confident that you know you want to be a photographer (hard to know when you’re 16 or so, but possible, and career deviation over time is perfectly normal unless you’re torn between that and studying medicine to become a doctor!) then I’d recommend investing in practical courses, getting work experience, assisting photographers, maybe doing a 1 year vocational course just to give you time and something to hinge your everyday life upon meanwhile. I don’t think it matters what type of degree/course it is – types, credits, points, etc – for a creative career like photography, you don’t need a degree on paper anyway. I reckon that it’s skills, confidence, even some contacts & portfolio – what you take away informally – that is the most important. None of the links I have gained with companies, galleries and influential people have been made with what I had ‘on paper’, but from self-made exposure, personal introductions from contacts I made through that, and the continued process of experience.

Everyone needs time to nurture their interests and figure out what they want to do. I just think that most university degrees don’t provide the right tools.

Feedback, objections, questions, testimonies to the opposite of everything I claim about the university culture and youth of today, all welcome…

Images used above:

The artists’ sketch (collab with Rossina Bossio)

Memoirs of a student of literature


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Posted in Essays, musings on April 13th, 2011 | 21 Comments |

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Comments for “Can’t afford an arts degree? You probably won’t miss much”

    1. Mark Blundell
      9:05 pm on April 14th, 2011

      Interesting post and one which I can see both sides of the argument.
      I left school at 16 and joined the RAF, figuring that by the time I would have finished college / university I would be ahead of those that took the academic route. My training took over a year and the first three months was taken up doing a BTEC that in ‘civvy street’ would take three. I used to wonder how we would fit it all in as well as the luxury of those at college who could take their time. But I realise now that it wasn’t just academic training, but getting us to ‘work hard’ and have a good ethic towards that work.
      At the same time I used to see friends at college or uni over the weekends and it was , as you say very drink oriented, lectures missed at the start and end of the week and little done during the (majority) of the time between said lectures, very much a slacker culture
      I left the RAF around 12 years ago and see my colleagues that attended learning establishments no better off or higher up the ladder than myself.
      I cant comment about the arts, but I can say that in the two years I have been taking pictures my skills have exponentially bettered themselves and that’s all through spending evenings in front of the PC looking at ‘how to’s’ and observing others work, seeing what I liked and working out how it was done. Weekends have been almost constantly been out shooting my subject gaining experience.
      Its a big world out there and given that a degree doesn’t guarantee a job any more self learning could well be the way forward.

    2. Stephanie
      9:23 pm on April 14th, 2011

      THANK YOU! I made the mistake. Tons of money on a photo degree and now paying back the loans. I have learned WAY more outside of school. The only thing that makes me glad I did it is that it has provided me the opportunity to teach at a university. Your latest image with the python is breathtaking btw.

    3. bradford
      10:02 pm on April 14th, 2011

      Well, this is an interesting take. I agree with the viewpoints, mostly.

      I would say that in defense of school is that most students aren’t nearly as ambitious as you are when they take course work, but get very interested and ambitous taking course work in photography.

      How? It’s simple actually. The students find course work nurturing and also by it’s very nature of other students taking an interest take their work to another level many times. Sometimes it can be through personal competition with another class member, but most times it’s by the fostering of a creative climate that encourages students.

      In the end though, the bottom line is this. You can’t teach talent. And talent in the end wins out.

    4. Suzi Smith
      10:02 pm on April 14th, 2011

      thank you for posting this. I am self-taught (or self-teaching?) as well and had been considering taking some local classes or attending a 4 year university. I bought my dslr in summer of 2009 and all of my spare time is spent reading about techniques and anything else related to photography. i cant learn enough fast enough! I was working in a portrait studio and learned quite a bit, but i am not a salesperson so i ended up in my current position which is unemployed, lol. Since then i have been trying to launch my own business. i started building my portfolio by doing free shoots for friends and family and have just recently done my first paying gig!
      thank you for helping me make a very difficult decision that i have been struggling with. Now if i can find my niche…
      btw….i am a big fan of your work.

    5. Jonathan Brusby
      10:25 pm on April 14th, 2011

      Thanks for this, Natalie – a thought-provoking and inspiring piece. Much to cogitate, but here’s a few thoughts…

      My own university experience was slightly different in that it taught me what I *didn’t* want to do – in the sense that it channelled my attentions towards the things I really enjoyed most and thought I wanted to make a career of – unfortunately it just so happened these (history and arts) were far away from what I was actually studying (engineering), and I left before finishing.

      In the years since I’ve drifted into more of a technology vocation with elements of photography and history. It’s provided valuable professional and social experiences I’d never have gained through university. But I’d still give anything to be able to take 6 months out of work and concentrate completely on developing a career in photography and film. That, as you say in your reason 2, is a huge advantage of university life. I think that opportunity to spend time thinking and exploring freely allows you to become more confident in your individual status in the long run. It’s a step I’m edging more and more towards but just need that catalyst.

      However, another problem I’ve faced has been simply not having that piece of paper. No matter what it’s in, I agree with you that the perception still persists that having a BA after your name means you’ve proved yourself more of a honed, disciplined human. I often encounter this attitude and I think it makes you grow a tougher skin overall, when you can’t just walk into a job with your degree badge on. Having said that, I’m now studying for a degree alongside work, but it takes a long time and arguably even more discipline than ambling through university. I sometimes wonder if a degree should lessen in potency over time, and be something that needs renewing through further bouts of learning – so that if, say, a 35 year old places a degree earned when they were 21 top of their CV it should be discounted when considering if they have skills for a job.

      I love your idea of having ’sampler apprenticeships’…I’ve often thought this would be a brilliant option for young people today. 18 is ridiculously early to know what sparks your passions the most and trying a diverse range of activities would be a great help in deciding. Just like playing lots of sports at school might hone your enthusiasm to a particular one (or none!).

      And like you, when I got to university I was instantly disappointed. My A-Levels had been really focussed and it was almost like a step back…I didn’t fit well with the culture either. I remember sitting at the back of lectures among chatter and hangovers watching the mature students sitting attentively at the front and thinking that’s where I’d rather be. It is astounding to think how much is being paid by students to take so little advantage of the full university experience…but that’s the beauty of hindsight!

    6. John Lever
      11:57 pm on April 14th, 2011

      Many good points, Natalie. First, to clarify, your “college” translates roughly to American “high school +1 (or 2)” – is this right?

      Your argument is spot on for the humanities, although I do believe that the coursework instructs one to think cohesively and articulate an argument (to which you also alluded). Certainly, on a different topic, the higher degrees are really required for technical/professional fields such as engineering. I’ve argued that perhaps a great degree would consist of a mini-MBA; i.e. 2-3 years of humanities + 2 years of intensive business study. I would think the end result would be a business practitioner with an expanded world view.

      Thanks for the article!

    7. Lucinda
      9:20 am on April 15th, 2011

      Your blog post draws on some really interesting points but I think the title is misleading. Rather than writing a critique of arts degrees, I would have been interested to read a blog post about your experience and success as a self-taught photographer illustrating your route into the industry.

      Universities cannot promise you a salary upon graduating but what they can offer is to facilitate and culture creative talent and conceptual thinking. Most importantly, university gives you the opportunity to spend three years completely emerged in your practise with a supportive yet critical peer group – who will become the contacts that form your network upon graduating. Having said this, university may not be for everyone and there are platforms available that aim to emulate a peer lead environment, like Flickr.

      I write this having graduated from a BA in photography at Nottingham Trent University in 2007. I would not change that experience and hope to encourage young people to pursue careers in photography no matter what path they decide to take.

      I really appreciate this interview clip with Stewart Lee talking about further education within the arts:

      *I don’t mean to post this to raise any political debate but to illustrate how we view the arts

    8. Jeff
      9:34 am on April 15th, 2011

      An interesting post, Natalie. I’m a self taught graphic designer and photographer. I did go to university and left with a BA and MS in Economics, which I never directly used. The experience was, however, very useful in that it ignited me intellectually, taught me to think independently, and allowed me to develop research skills in an inspiring environment. Art school provides context for ideas and provides a structured environment where work can be critiqued and defended. Art school grads also tend to be good at talking about their work – this is very important I think. I also can’t help but notice in virtually every major photography competition that the winners are graduates of some MFA programme, so I suspect the art school experience is good for networking and becoming a member of the ‘club’… Of course there are exceptions. Blinding talent will usually carry the day, but not always. At the end of the day, a talented, motivated, ambitious and focused individual can achieve anything, with or without university. I’m a big fan of your work, by the way!

    9. Paul Woods
      10:28 am on April 15th, 2011

      A very interesting read, Natalie, and I just want to respond with two points.

      The first is that for creative subjects, be it photography or painting, or even writing, the university system in this country does not work. Like you say, you can’t really learn the things that you need to learn for those subjects in the classroom. The government in the UK has all but done away with vocational training and apprenticeships, and those that are still available are looked down upon by employers. And as Jonathan says, if you don’t have that piece of paper with “Degree” written on it, then you’re really at a disadvantage in today’s employment arena. The university system does work more for science/mathematical/engineering subjects because teaching seems to have degenerated to somewhere where the lecturer recites some information, the students copy it down, they memorise what they’ve written for an exam, and then they forget about it forevermore. Anything more than that would put too much pressure on the lecturers and the students, and surely — oh no! — grades would drop, and “D” students really would get Ds instead of the Bs they’re paying £9,000 a year for.

      My other point is that university is what you make of it. It is an excellent place to become independent and to adopt a worldview that you find suitable for you. Again, there is a culture in the UK that you go to university just because that’s what happens next after school… not because you want to learn! And that breeds a lot of “beer culture”, where a university degree becomes an exercise in seeing how much you can drink while still getting a pass in your lecture courses. However, if you want to study and learn, there is that opportunity if you’re motivated enough. There will be a few likeminded people, and although you may come into clashes with the “beer culture” crowd, they can be minimised (especially if you live outside of halls with likeminded people after your first year).

      So my recommendation for photographers is that perhaps it’s best to hedge your bets? Why not go for a degree which requires very little contact time (e.g., English or History) so that there’s lots of extracurricular time for you to develop your skills and business as a photographer. And if you find out that at the end of three years you don’t have what it takes to get along in the commercial world of photography, you still have that piece of paper marked “Degree” that you can wave under people’s noses in order to get a decent job. Until the system changes (which I doubt it will any time soon), that seems to be the best of both worlds to me.

    10. Hmmm
      11:56 am on April 15th, 2011

      I thought I would agree with you, but actually this is a very strange blogpost. Full of completely sweeping, generalizing statements that are far too connected to your specific life experience (which is fine, for a bio-blogpost, not useful for giving general advice). There are so many more upsides to University (by the way, I actually agree with you, just not the way youve explained yourself) and every positive you gave you instantly, often in the same sentence, rebuked – which made the post seem very strange and defensive/angry, I’m not sure what the right word is.

      Also, and maybe this was just my reading, but it reaked once or twice of an advertisement for YOUR workshops/ Shootexperiences! It really did. If that wasnt intentional ( I hope not) then I just wanted to let you know. That gave it a really sinister, self serving tone, which coupled with my earlier point, just left me with an odd feeling…

    11. Miss Aniela
      12:16 pm on April 15th, 2011

      Thanks for the input with the comments…

      One point I did not touch upon so much is the importance of feeling part of ‘creative climate’ as Bradford said above. The feeling and atmosphere of a peer group to which to relate is a big positive factor to studies. I really craved that at university but personally did not get it. I guess that’s where Flickr came in, as a surrogate online peer group. I also craved that sense of solidarity of being part of ‘organised’ study, just like an ‘organised’ religion, and indeed you’d get that feeling at the beginning of term with the new handbooks and bright bushy tails of a packed out lecture hall… which fell tepidly empty each term far too soon for my liking.

      I could make a list of all the things that I did hone/develop/learn at university, some of those skills might be ones I’d never get if I didn’t go – but the list still falls so very short of what one really SHOULD get from a 3 year expansive, expensive experience.

      Needless to say, but I will reiterate, the engine to all of my thoughts here is simply my own experience, and own opinion – of my own working ethic and personality, even.

      @Lucinda, I am glad that you feel you have had a positive experience of studying a photography BA.

      I specifically chose to write about the lack of structure generally encountered in arts degrees, so I’m not sure exactly how to respond to your first comment. I believe it’s relevant to a lot of young people who, like me, want to do something creative but don’t know straight off the bat that it’s necessarily photography, so they go to study something quite broad/humanitarian. However, i am concerned about the inconsequence of aimlessly rolling into university as some kind of prescribed rite of passage, because its the ‘done thing’, rather than having a proactive goal and being made to think about art as a business.

      In a future blog post I’d be happy to write more about my life since graduating.

    12. Olga
      1:33 pm on April 15th, 2011

      Hello Natalie,
      Very interesting article and I mostly agree with your point of view.
      I have got MA in Anthropology of Culture and I studied in three different countries: Poland, Finland and UK.
      I came to London a few years ago to do BA in photography at The London College of Communication (University of Arts), which I dropped after a year.

      The course not only was very expensive but also the tutors weren’t enough prepare to teach. I felt I know more then they can tell me. Obviously, I already had a good knowledge in history of photography and art but I was hopping I can learn more about technical things.
      We had only one tutorial every two weeks, one workshop every month and twice a week a lecture.There was no one there who could really teach the technical stuff or business side of being a photographer. That was the reason why I dropped the course.
      I learned everything later on when I started working as a studio photographer.

      It is not only me who was disappointed but many international students as well. Later on I talked to other students who studied art/photography in UK but came from abroad. Unfortunately they had similar point of view to mine.
      Here I must say, the art/photography courses in UK have got a great reputation but not necessary offer what they promise in their brochures.
      So, I would also advices to look around for the photography courses outside UK. In most EU countries education is free and you do not really need to know perfectly the language, if you study art. I know it from my own experiences.

    13. Miss Aniela
      4:00 pm on April 15th, 2011

      @ Hmmm

      Your comment had not appeared when I responded earlier, so just wanted to add my thoughts back.

      I’m sorry that you have taken my blog post in a negative way. But I’m not sure how to apologise for simply trying to be as honest as possible, so I put it down to reader interpretation. Naturally my words are personal, of course – we all primarily make sense of life through our own experiences. If this were an essay to be formally published in a careers guidebook, it would not be anecdotal and emotive. I purposefully tried to write an honest, no-holds-barred testimony that I don’t see often. I thought out the good as well as the bad, but the rationale I applied to that same line of thinking meant that most ‘good’ things weren’t exclusive to university and therefore in my books didn’t count as a special reason to go.

      Regarding the mention of my shoot experiences, on first hand I’m embarrassed that the one time I mentioned it was taken by you as somewhat sly ‘advertising’ or unnecessarily commercial. But it’s intrinsically connected to the theme at hand. Whatever I write at any one time is fuelled by my ongoing development as a business person and artist and whatever I am doing. Everything is passionately interconnected and naturally I’ll mention things I’ve done recently because they’re exactly relevant. My workshops and shoot experiences have made me WANT to write a post like this, because the skills involved in organising the events are such a mixed bag and most of which are not taught on a typical arts degree.

      Plus, if someone reads my blog post, sees the mention of the workshops/shoots and decides they want to attend, so be it – after all, they have come to read a blog post about learning and getting practical experience. I think it’s a most appropriate mention, and no where better placed than on my own blog.

    14. Victoria Penrose
      9:30 pm on April 15th, 2011

      Thanks for posting this Natalie! I wish this sort of straight forward advice had been something I could have read before going forward to study photography.
      Though I initally went to university to study fashion design and swapped in the first few weeks, so the research I did in to photography courses & institutions was next to none.
      I hoped studying photography would help me to learn more about something I already enjoyed doing for myself, and I have learnt alot in the last 3 years but how much of that was from the course I honestly couldn’t say!
      And to top it off my university experience has been a constant stream of disappointments. I always imagined being around lots of like-minded people with as much passion for photography as myself, but have not found this to be the case. Partying & drinking has always seemed to be more important but is something I personally prefer not to do, so to me university has been quite a lonely experience.
      And then ofcourse there is the problem of feeling the need to please the tutors, who from my own experience, seem to prefer a certain type of work. This has led to that soul-destroying feeling of being told to change everything to suit their tastes, abandoning something I may have put a lot of effort in to, to continue with something I have no inspiration for. I guess it could be seen as “testing”, maybe getting me ready for real life, who knows! All I know is I am more than finished with university and find any excuse to just be taking pictures for myself, avoiding pictures for university as much as I can!

    15. Hannah
      6:31 am on April 21st, 2011

      Interesting post, I think people will find thought provoking.

      I think one’s personal experience really, really depends on the character in question, their motivation, and which uni they might attend. Luckily the university I am studying at uses practising industry pros, and teaches us as if we were assistants, and I feel I have learnt a hell of a lot of vital information (especially technically) in my first year alone. (Despite the fact a year ago I didn’t think I gave a shit technically, now I found the info very useful, and have found it has improved my work).

      It took me some getting used to, as you say, the timetables can be pretty sparse. But if you are motivated, this allows you the opportunity to continue personal work, alongside heavier college projects, workshops, internships, and take up assisting jobs in the real world. This way, you are getting education from all sides of the spectrum.

      Whilst I agree university isn’t always the right track for a creative mindset, I think it works for me personally, at the moment. The other HUGE positive is that you get to meet thousands of other creative passionates, and collaborate with them on projects.

      As for student culture and getting pissed 24/7, again, I really think that depends on the university you attend and the people in quesiton. Obviously there is the culture in each and every place, although it is more prominent in some than others. I have never felt forced to become part of this, and the majority of my class are the same. To be honest, we are often too busy, and too work minded to waste our money on alcohol every night. There are FAR better ways of having a good time.


      To me, university is as valuable as making your own route. On the whole fees issue, it is ridiculous, and I can understand how this would completely alter one’s choices. I just feel going it alone isn’t easy when one hasn’t got a strong support network, and you can start to build this up in an academy, surrounded by friends of similar passions.

      There are plenty of wonderful universities and courses out there, as there are assisting posts and workshops. You just have to find what works for you.

    16. Miss Aniela
      7:28 am on April 22nd, 2011

      @ Hannah

      Well, thank you for your input! You sound like a shining example of everything to do RIGHT at university, and also sound fortunate to have found an appropriate institution and degree programme.

      If only everyone would be inclined to engage in practical, real-life activities alongside studies. Not everyone will, simply because they are marooned in a somewhat sleepy, perfunctory ’study’ based outlook from school… I know that feeling myself. Someone suggested to me that people should take a couple of years out, then go into study with a more informed world view and attitude towards study, I think that sounds like a great idea.

      I think I wanted to communicate the risk of going to university because of all the factors i outlined, but you sound like your experience has paid off.

      Thanks for all the comments!

    17. Chris Alford
      7:51 pm on April 24th, 2011

      Hello Miss Aniela Great blog. I believe not all Photography degrees are equal, some are brilliant some are terrible. Most photography students are only thinking of doing the end of degree gallery show and not the bigger picture.

      One photographer I know called Peter Dench said in spite of having 2.1 first class with honors and “knowing prison photography within the context of Foucault philosophy” said he never benefitted from a photography degree.

      Too many art degrees are academic for the sake of academia thinking like an ant-hill industry. (producing students like a ford car factory line)
      Photography or other arts degree should be like a cold shower or asking a dentists question? Something to get your teeth into… something relevant and substantial you can make a living from.

      There is not much information from Universities about their Photography degrees, I think they should be, perhaps it should by law?

      I have chosen to apply for this year in Coventry for a Photography degree. The reason why I have chosen Coventry to apply for is the great degree of transparency in their course.

      The lecturers are all continually practicing photographers and have gained many contacts over the years, so much so the students are given a handout of photographic contacts when they start and by the 2nd year are out in the physical world having or getting their work published.

      I have much to think about after reading this blog. I hope the comment I have left you is interesting. Thanks and Best Wishes Chris.

    18. Sam Salt
      1:38 pm on June 28th, 2011

      I was very interested to read your blog as someone who has taught in a university for 20 years. I can give a view from the other side as it were but let me say upfront that I very largely agree with your analysis.

      What I would and do say to prospective students is that unless you are utterly motivated and committed to whatever it is you want to do then don’t study for a degree. If you already have drive and commitment then why do you need a degree to legitimise what you are already doing?

      The best students I come across are hard-working and will do anything to get good results. They’ll read more, they’ll practice more, they’ll network and they will get the job done. They sometimes credit us as tutors for helping to motivate them but the credit is all theirs for coming up with something worthwhile.

      I’ve been uncomfortable with the direction that universities have been going for sometime and the introduction of higher fees has finally bought me to the point where I’d say a university degree is over-priced and not worth it. Look at how many hours contact you get and work out the hourly cost, then ask yourself – is it worth it?

      Achieving a degree, even if it’s a first class degree, does not show you are necessarily capable of anything in the world of work. Knowing what I know about the university system and how students can game their way through the system I’d never employ someone because they had a degree. I’d want to see a portfolio of their work and set them some simple tasks to see if they could perform.

      I realise that what I have written is likely to be seen as quite cynical so I’ll conclude by saying that universities can offer great opportunities if you are prepared to take advantage of them and I have seen some brilliant students who have gone on to do great things (including one who now runs his own company with a multi-million pound turnover). You need to be very clear about what you are paying for and be absolutely sure that you are better motivated and harder-working then every other student you encounter. It’s up to you to squeeze every last drop out of the experience if you do decide to go for it.

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