The long, sleepless nights have finally paid off. The bachelor’s degree is yours and there’s a picture of you, certificate in hand, to prove it. But, as the celebrations begin to die down, a creeping existential angst surmounts you. What lies next? Who do I want to be? What do I want to spend my days doing? Finding a replacement to the long weeks of university term time can be tough and, to many, a postgraduate degree can seem like the obvious choice.
In 2016/2017, the number of students enrolling in postgraduate degrees reached 430,000. But if you’re the person spending months teetering between the choice of academia and experience, we can hardly blame you. On the one hand, stats have shown that a master’s (MA) can increase the possibility of a full-time job by 15%, but on the other hand, the average cost of a postgrad is estimated at £8,000. A master’s will give you the opportunity to refine your skills with expert supervision, whereas experience can offer countless practical insights. While a postgraduate allows you to master a niche area, you might find this restrictive if you change your mind at a later date.
Yes, there’s a lot to bear in mind when it comes to deciding on pursuing or discontinuing higher education. To help you decide whether a master’s might be the right fit for you, we’ve caught up with six renowned creatives to see what their personal experience has taught them about postgraduate study as they put forward their arguments for and against postgraduate study.
Whether it’s illustration, graphic design or photography you’re interested in, check out what Nadia Lee Cohen and Sophy Hollington, Adrian Shaughnessy, Astrid Stavro, Stacie Woolsey and Gabriel Schucan think of studying for an MA.
Astrid Stavro, graphic designer and founder of Studio Astrid Stavro
There are few things that would make me happier than studying an MA at The Royal College of Art (RCA), again and again. It was the best time of my life. An MA is a place of cultural and intellectual nourishment. A place of self-discovery where students are encouraged to think outside the box, hone their skills and forge their future. It’s the place where you discover that there are no limits or boundaries to knowledge.
The two years at the RCA expanded my mind in multiple directions. I remember being constantly wowed by the work of my classmates, by their ways of thinking and seeing. For example, a student-focused almost exclusively on bread as a metaphor for ‘global communication’. Another student studied the concept of infinity through moiré patterns. For two long years, every project they developed stemmed from those core ideas. An MA is a parenthesis, a place of deep exploration. Perhaps the best part is that it stays with you forever, the glorious sensation of being a student until the very end.
Nadia Lee Cohen, photographer and filmmaker
I didn’t feel ready to go out and work; London College of Fashion felt like home and I wanted to stay as long as I could. My postgraduate gave me complete creative freedom, something that is very hard to achieve when you leave education and start making a living as an artist. The most valuable aspect of my master’s degree was the opportunity I had to travel when I received a grant to go to the US and complete my masters project. It opened my eyes to how inspirational and paramount seeing a fresh landscape is for a photographer.
Adrian Shaughnessy, graphic designer and co-founder of Unit Editions
An MA is for people who want a deeper understanding of their discipline. It is not for everyone. A good undergraduate course will equip students with most of what they need to know to survive in the world of work. But only if it is in the knowledge that work – and life – is a never-ending process of learning. An MA, on the other hand, allows students to reflect more deeply on matters of craft, theory and the cultural context in which their craft is practiced. A good MA is not taught. It is a period of independent learning that prepares individuals for a life of learning.
Sophy Hollington, illustrator and The New York Times-collaborator
My decision to defer/relinquish a place on the RCA visual communications MA, was made for so many reasons. The cosmic fees, the displacement of the whole department to White City, my lack lustre response to the end of year show (this isn’t to say the work was bad – it wasn’t, but I struggled to connect with what was there) and a very strong feeling that the whole institution was becoming a flailing cash-cow, like many of the more ‘prestigious’ places of learning in the UK.
It just so happened that, at the exact time I applied, my work was picking up and I was finally busy with commissions most of the time. It dawned on me that throwing a full-time masters into the mix would involve compromising the career I’d been painstakingly working at for seven years. I think I would’ve gotten something out of the course, for sure. But when so much money is at stake it just didn’t seem good value in my case. I’ve come to the conclusion that working really really hard on your own time is probably just as (if not more) effective and a hell of a lot cheaper if the career you see for yourself is a solitary, creative one, like that of a freelance illustrator or artist.
Stacie Woolsey, designer and founder of M_Y_O_M: Make Your Own Masters
To me, an MA has real value if you know exactly why you’re doing it and what you want from it. However, I do think there’s room for a little rethink. We don’t need to go against these structures, but to pluck alternatives from them – especially when we live in a time where we can find the how’s and why’s of everything on the internet. Maybe a bit of professional guidance is all we need.
The idea to design my own master’s never came from an anti-establishment mindset, it simply stemmed from the fact that I couldn’t afford to do one. I became a pickpocket of design education. One of the biggest things I’ve learnt from doing this is that people are unbelievably kind when they understand you simply want to learn from them. I’m learning in a really new, personal way and I definitely owe a few kidneys to people that I can’t thank enough for all of their time and patience.
Gabriel Schucan, storyboard artist and filmmaker
Like most children I liked to draw and I simply stuck with it – both as a tool for scientific exploration and as a means of creative expression. When it came to choosing what subject to pursue in higher education, I ended up going for the most abstract subject: Maths.
My thinking was that I can keep a more open mind if I don’t immerse myself in art, its history and theory. In retrospect, I see the benefits of choosing a creative degree in the work and vocabulary of my colleagues who did go down a more artistic route. Towards the end of my studies, I saw my final exams as a test to prove to myself that, if I set my mind to it, I can achieve anything – even if it’s a master’s in Maths, which is completely unrelated to what I want to do.
Supported by Lecture in Progress
If you’re after more advice and insight into creative work and careers, check out Lecture in Progress, It’s Nice That’s sister company. Student membership is free and includes exclusive promotions from partner companies. To sign up, visit lectureinprogress.com