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Work / Opinion

Studying a master’s felt like a party Stacie Woolsey wasn’t invited to, so she made her own

Following her degree, Stacie Woolsey was looking for ways to further her education, but fees made it impossible. Instead she developed her own curriculum and chose her own tutors, making her own master’s. Now a graduate of her very own kind, Stacie is rethinking the education system and opening applications for students to join her on a unique, beneficial and, most of all, affordable master’s course.

Three years ago I graduated from Kingston School of Art with a bachelor’s in graphic design. Like many others, I spent my first year out of university floating. At one point I was producing 3D lollipops of people’s faces, at another I was a creative in an ad agency. And at another, I was an ice cream woman. I clearly didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I definitely knew exactly where I wanted to be.

My work has always been experimental and multidisciplinary. I have a portfolio full of mini inventions and systems, but it became very clear that this wasn’t going to fit into a commercial creative setting very easily. I knew I needed to learn more, to develop whatever this thing I called “a practice” actually was and could be. The obvious step was to do a master’s.

I started to research the plenty of courses and institutions and what became apparent very quickly was that I was never going to be able to afford it. I was quoted £40,000 by a leading postgraduate institution to live and learn in London. With no elaborate heist planned to raise that amount of money, me furthering my education wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

I decided, if I can’t buy an education, I’ll make my own. I’ll make my own master’s.

The process of setting up my own masters began by researching artists and designers whose work I loved, regardless of discipline or learning background. I emailed, explained my situation and this idea to “Make my Own Masters” and, to my surprise, they all replied. Soon I had my own curriculum, made up of “tutors” like Thomas Thwaites, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Seetal Solanki (Ma-tt-er Studio) and Marie Tricaud (Room Y at John Lewis). I also grew conscious that I couldn’t depend solely on these extremely busy professionals for all my learning so I started to build a network of industry mentors and peers, from a range of specialisms, that I could approach for project specific help. This network grew to 103 people, who each helped guide me through this journey.

As well as tutors and briefs, the other part of a masters I needed was an environment in which to learn. I started approaching studios and creative spaces I’d previously worked at, asking them to donate a space one or two days a week. I called it “professional squatting” and I found myself in a different London location every day of the week. That was until this project eventually found a home at Makerversity in the basement of Somerset House, where I became their “maker with a mission”.

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Stacie Woolsey: Make Your Own Masters exhibition

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Stacie Woolsey: Make Your Own Masters exhibition

Despite so many positive responses, the reality was that I still needed to pay rent and buy food. In the beginning I was balancing multiple bar jobs and the odd freelance gig just to make this work, but my income was low and spare time to learn even lower. Eventually, I began to work part-time for one of my briefers, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, which provided some stability.

The result of my master’s was four projects with a range of different outcomes. The first was a new coal, developed from a project about a super material future set in the working class ex-mining communities of Doncaster. The second addressed micro plastics as a 21st century parasite; the third discussed the importance of the microbiome in early childhood; and the fourth worked to re-associate the consumption of milk as a product purely for comfort, not necessity. The title of the MA – chosen off the back of these projects as I believe an MA is a place to experiment and develop your practice – is anthropological futures: the study of contemporary and historic behaviours for future speculation. It’s design, but design that doesn’t tackle symptoms of a problem but the cause, prioritising human behaviour as that.

The issue you’re probably thinking that still remains is, how do I validate this master’s? For a long time I looked for an institution to recognise my learning, before I decided I have built this programme without an institution, it felt counter productive to go back and ask them if I had done it correctly. So, the short answer is, I haven’t validated it. Art education has always followed the same structure as the rest of academia, but art is so unlike every other subject – it’s subjective. There’s no right or wrong answer, whether it works or not changes entirely depending on the audience. I can’t tangibly grade this and neither can the industry. In industry, work is not deemed successful by a governing body, but instead proves itself through audience reaction, industry recognition and client satisfaction. Why can’t we take a similar approach to learning?

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The impact of making my own master’s has been huge. Not only has it allowed me to forge a discipline (anthropological futures) that feels aligned with my work, it’s allowed me to develop confidence in my own work, my voice and what I can bring to this industry. It’s enabled me to build a professional network of 100+ peers, mentors and briefers. I’ve developed a portfolio that has allowed me to work with brands and institutions such as Selfridges, BBC, ICA, John Lewis, Science Gallery, Dezeen and more. I’ve accessed higher paid work to maintain myself financially throughout my learning. The impact of public reach has been overwhelming too. Yet, the problem I faced still exists, and only 10% of the UK population can afford to study a master’s in London.

The question this process has led me to ask most is, if we don’t design our education to be inclusive, how can we ever expect an industry to be? I feel I have the opportunity to do something with the system I have built and therefore, my Make Your Own Masters programme will take on ten new multidisciplinary learners, starting in January 2020.

Applications are now open and M.Y.O.M 2020 is looking for ten individuals that have all faced a barrier to post-graduate education. The programme will provide them with the tools and space to build a bespoke learning pathway in order to gain access to industry, and forge their unique discipline and career. Each learner will be hosted across the creative industry as “learners in residence” by leading creative studios and businesses. This is an experiment, inviting the creative industry to be involved and support a change they would like to see.

I know there are a lot of people in a similar position to the one I was, and this may be a way to change that. Although this is definitely not an easy option. If you are thinking of applying please bear this in mind. This is shaping up to be a game changing project that will have a huge impact on the creative industry, and design education as a whole. But, I can’t do this alone. If you’re interested in helping to support the programme, or would just be interested in hearing more and being a part of the Make Your Own Masters story, please get in touch.