'You’re probably going to end up self-employed': are postgrad degrees in the creative industry a gamble?

People working in the creative industries are less likely to have master’s degrees than the UK working population as a whole. This could suggest that high levels of formal education are less of a requirement in these industries, but the qualifications profile of the workforce varies a lot. For example, crafts or design degree holders are much less frequent than in architecture, IT or advertising (all of which are defined as part of creative industries by the government). With options such as work experience, internships and voluntary work hard to come by at the moment, a master’s degrees may be more of an asset than ever. They have the potential to help you build a portfolio and enable you to build a network at the same time.

But it’s important to find the right course. So, what do you need to consider? The first thing to look at is what recent graduates from the courses you are interested in are doing. “Students need to think ahead. While there are some vocational postgraduate courses that are almost a licence to practice, like social work, teaching or engineering, spending a year and paying fees [on a creative master’s] is a big gamble,” says Tristram Hooley, chief research officer for the Institute of Student Employers. He says very few creative master’s courses are a guaranteed route to a really high salary. “You’re probably going to end up in a portfolio career, being self-employed or on multiple contracts.”

But, of course, salary is not everything. If you are passionate about the subject, look at what the career is going to be like and ask yourself if that is something you want. If it is, find out whether the course involves any work experience or placements and if it has direct involvement with employers in the industry. “A good journalism master’s course should involve plenty of contact with practicing journalists and editors,” says Jonathan Hewett, director of postgraduate journalism at City, University of London. The other point to think about is that employers are increasingly interested in people with good digital skills. According to Kalina Zlatkova, employer relations and development adviser for King’s College, tech acumen is one of the top employability skills. Master’s courses can offer this, she says.

“With the competitive graduate labour market, employers are looking for the kind of skills garnered in postgraduate courses,” she says.

Another important factor is whether the course is theory- or practice-based, as these can highly differ from one department to another. Assess how this applies to you. For instance, if you want to become a journalist you may hold a BA in English or history, which has covered the analytical, research and writing criteria, but a master’s can provide the skills needed for news and digital content creation. Or, if you hold a BA in languages or communications, you could undertake an MA or MSc in marketing to move into the industry.

Ultimately, says Zlatkova, in a competitive graduate market such as this, a postgraduate qualification undertaken during this period shows employers that you are looking to upskill and learn new material.

Experience: ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do before what I’m doing now’
Since my teens I’ve always been creative. But when I was young, going to art school wasn’t seen by my parents as getting a proper job, so I worked for 32 years as a social worker and mental health officer. Throughout this time I made and exhibited my work. I wanted to make sculptures and installations but I didn’t have the confidence to take that leap. So, when I retired at 60, I decided to apply to do an undergraduate course in the sculpture and environmental art department.

Art of Norman Sutton-Hibbert, in Glasgow, Scotland, on 25 April 2019.
Norman Sutton-Hibbert worked for 32 years as a social worker before enrolling at the Glasgow School of Art. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

I loved it and wanted to do more, so I went on to do a master’s in fine art. It was a one-year intensive course with no summer break. I wanted to concentrate on marrying up the four years of sculpting with painting. I knew from meeting other participants on the course that there was a rich sense of experience and knowledge and many people didn’t come from fine art backgrounds. There was a lot of group work, and so we would mix with one another even though everyone was on different pathways. It gave me contacts and friendships. There’s so much you gain from a master’s course that can translate to other aspects of life, such as self-confidence and being able to work collaboratively.

I was one of those graduates whose degree show work got incinerated in the fire in the Mackintosh building in 2014. Coping with this was something I took in my stride when comparing it with some of the things I’d supported others through in my time as a social worker. It was just pieces of material and wood that went up, no one was hurt. These days I continue to make art, using a wide range of media, and I’m currently preparing for a solo exhibition. I wouldn’t have been able to do before what I’m doing now and it’s given me that confidence. In terms of how it’s changed my life, it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it’s done but I know it has. I pushed my boundaries. I feel more confident about trying new work and it made me braver to go out and do what I want to do.


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