Creative Profession: Academic Studies vs. Self-Learning ?

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A comprehensive answer with a surprising conclusion - the cheapest, most flexible and fastest way to learn a creative profession.

college creative studies

Picture by Sean MacEntee

Deciding how to learn your craft is one of the most crucial career decisions you’ll ever make. And yet, you’re forced to make that crucial decision completely blindfolded, not knowing anything yet about the workings of your industry.

As an industry veteran and a long-time teacher, I’ve been asked this question many times: what’s the best way to learn a creative profession? Over the years I tried to adjust my answer to match the rapid market and industry changes.

Here is my most updated answer: the cheapest, fastest, most flexible way of becoming a creative pro.

What are my options?

The 3 main options you have today for learning your craft:

  1. Take a full 3-4 years course, one that probably includes a diploma of some sort.
  2. Take a relatively short 1 year course in one of the many art colleges out there.
  3. Just learn it by yourself using books, tutorials and online lessons.

Each of these options has its pros and cons, and students often get very confused trying to decide between them.

Different people have different needs and resource. However, after discussing the pros and cons, I WILL conclude with a pretty definite answer.

What school definitely is NOT

Before we start discussing the pros and cons of going to school, these are a few things you seriously need to know.

  • Nobody cares about your diploma. In creative industries, only two things count: your portfolio, and your experience. That’s it. No one cares what kind of grades your have, or anything like that. It’s all about what you can DO.
  •  School will not teach you anything – at best, it will help you learn. Any student I ever had who was any good at all, was primarily an autodidact. Students tend to bitch about this, but the fact is that in this rapidly changing world, self-education is a more important skill to acquire than anything else you can hope to learn. School is therefore not about teaching you stuff – it’s about giving you a solid framework for teaching yourself. In any case, most of your learning is going to happen through actually doing stuff.
  •  School won’t make you a pro. You’ll learn a lot, but you won’t be a pro before spending a few years in the industry. Nothing can substitute actual hands-on experience in market conditions. You will walk out of school a complete amateur (albeit perhaps a much more mature and knowledgable amatuer), and that is the fact of the matter. Professionals are created in the industry, not in school.

At this point, I’ll bet it sounds like I’m going to recommend that you ditch the entire idea of going to school, doesn’t it? Well, don’t jump to conclusions just yet. I was just weeding out a few VERY common misconceptions students have about school. Now that we know what reality is, we can discuss the pros and cons.

Pros and cons

Option #1: a full 3-4 years course

 Pros:

  • You get to take it slow, immerse yourself in your profession.
  • You usually get the freedom to be more artsy and expressive.
  • They make you try things you wouldn’t have thought of – many students end up hooked on something they never even knew existed!
  • It’s a great experience to go through, socially and creatively. Having learned my craft within the industry, I definitely regret not having lived that life.
  • You get some healthy competition.

Perhaps the most important pro is this: you get to be part of a network of students and teachers. This is an amazingly underestimated advantage of school. People like working with people they know personally – that’s the way we’re wired! The more people in your industry you know personally, the more opportunities you’ll have. A good network of creative mates is going to get you a job 10 times faster than a great portfolio.You don’t have to like it, but that’s just the way it is.

Cons:

  •  It’s amazingly expensive: it’s 4 years of paying instead of 4 years of earning. Most students moan about their tuition, not realizing that by far the real cost of their studies is the not earning part.
  •  It’s 4 years spent without earning real professional experience. Remember: even after 4 years in school, you’re still an amateur!
  •  You’ll be made to do a lot of redundant stuff – stuff that’s there for many reasons other than teaching you to be really good at what you do.

Option #2: a relatively short 1 year course

Pros:

  • It’s cheaper by 3 years of paying instead of earning. That’s a LOT.
  •  You get to the industry faster. By the time your 4-years-program friend graduates, you’ll already be a pro with 3 years of experience. You’ll also be well connected, having personally worked with experienced industry veterans.
  •  Being short and concise, these programs are usually focused on what’s directly relevant to your success. In other words, you probably won’t find yourself sitting through boring and irrelevant lessons that are only there for political reasons.

 Cons:

  • A single year is really not enough for anything substantial, unless it’s very very focused. Usually you’ll find yourself rushed through stuff that should take months or years to learn properly. You can literally emerge at the end of your one-year program more confused and lost than when you’ve entered.
  • In my experience, these places are usually less selective than their 4-years counterparts. This means you may find yourself studying with a crowd of uninspiring people who aren’t going to amount to anything. I’ve seen many potentially amazing students become lazy and disheartened just because everybody around them was like that.

Option #3: the “learn it yourself” approach

Pros:

  •  You control it all: how much, when, at what pace. You don’t have to suffer through lessons that are too slow for you or too fast. Maximum flexibility!
  •  It’s by far the cheapest option. There are tons of free tutorials, and the ones that cost money are much cheaper than the cheapest physical course. Plus, you can work and earn money the whole time!
  •  No need to take any scary student loans, because you don’t have to pay large sums of money in advance.
  •  You’re not made to learn anything that bores the daylight out of you.
  •  You don’t have to deal with stupid tests and grades system. You work for excellence, not to appease some teacher’s opinion or a set of bureaucratic rules.

Cons

  •  You don’t get the networking advantage – always a huge problem for autodidacts.
  •  You’ll miss that single source of guidance schools supplies. If you get confused about what you’re doing (which you will), you’re very much on your own. Asking around doesn’t help either – it will typically give you 77 different answers that’ll only confuse you more.
  •  School provides a framework of demands and deadlines that really helps move things along. When you’re on your own, it can often be difficult to motivate yourself, or to know when it’s time to put a lid on on something and move on.

Conclusion

So… should you learn your craft in college, or is it better to just learn it by yourself?

My advice is to combine both and get all the advantages, eliminating most disadvantages. Here’s how.

Stage 1: start by yourself

Start with 6-12 months of learning by yourself. Take online courses or short evening classes, and don’t quit your day job (if you have one). See if you enjoy it at all, and if you have the passion for it. Don’t pay a lot of money – you can find a lot of free online resources for beginners.This will not only give you a head start, but will also teach you that all-important skill of self-education.

Don’t worry if you get a bit confused in the process. Take what you can from the experience, and proceed to stage 2.

Stage 2: take a short-term school program

Having experimented a bit, you should already have a better understanding of the craft. You also have a better idea of what parts of it you enjoy the most. It’s time to go ahead and take a short term course – anything between 6 and 18 months.

Make sure the school is selective and doesn’t accept anyone willing to pay tuition. You want to learn with talented, passionate people who will push you forward – not with a bunch of duds. By the way – you’ll have no problem getting accepted yourself, because you’ve been learning it by yourself for several months anyway!

You should also make sure teachers are active members of their creative industry, in other words – that they make their main living CREATING rather than TEACHING. This is crucial if you want the advantage of industry contacts (and you definitely do).

Also, because you started as a self-educated artist, you’ll probably have a nice head-start. You’ll be noticeably more capable, your questions will be more intelligent, and other students will come to you for help (which you will gladly give). Teachers and other students will see you as better than average. These first impressions can carry a lot of weight for years into your professional future.

Stage 3: take time to build yourself up

Stage 3 is the most important stage, and possibly the most important advice in the entire article.

Many students just assume the next step after school is to get a job and start making money, now that they’ve learned the craft.

What happens for most of them is that reality hits hard. The industry remains largely indifferent to their achievements, and they often start doing a lot of what I call “garbage projects” – low pay, fast-paced and unsatisfying stuff. For reasons I won’t go into here, this is a dangerous route: it often creates a vicious cycle that can keep success away from even the most talented and hardworking of artists.

Instead, I suggest adopting the following frame of mind: having learned your craft for 18-24 months, see yourself as a student for at least another 2 years. During this time, your mission is NOT to make money but to build yourself as a professional. That means your primary focus must be in getting significant working experience, creating more contacts, and practicing like crazy. Participate in contests, apply to jobs even if you know for certain you’re not going to get them, and show off your exercises anywhere you can – so that people in the industry notice your ambition and willingness to work hard. Believe me, such artists are few and far between, and industry people DO notice that.

Above all, make sure everything you do builds you up, not wears you down. Don’t be thinking too hard about making money at this point. Prefer short-term internships in quality projects to long term, full time work on “garbage projects.” Remember that your 4-years counterparts are going to spend the same 2 years also not making money, however you have 3 huge advantages:

  1. They’re paying tuition, you don’t. In fact, you’re actually making some money – even if not quite enough to entirely cover your monthly expenses. For two years only, I’d say that’s fine.
  2. You’re already in the marketplace, getting a head start, building relationships and starting to gain professional experience. In two years time, you’ll already be a professional (a beginner, but a professional beginner nonetheless).
  3. You get to practice what you personally feel you need to practice, not what some teacher at school decides you need to practice just because it’s written in his curriculum.

Again, throughout stage 3 (and later as well) remember that you’re still a student. Don’t refrain from spending money on your education when needed. For example, you could take private lessons from industry experts – maybe just a couple of lessons to solve a particular issue. Or you can take advanced of online courses to boost your abilities and create a framework for yourself.

To conclude the conclusion…

the best way to learn any creative craft, in my opinion, is to take 3-5 years for it and divide them to 3 studying periods:

Stage 1: 6-12 months of experimenting and practicing by yourself, with free or very cheap online tutorials and/or books.

Stage 2: a short-term school program (6-18 months) that’ll gives you a solid framework, professional guidance, healthy competition and future industry contacts.

Stage 3: a couple of years for gradual transition between student-status and pro-status, in which your primary goal is not to make a living but to build up your professional contacts and skills.

Whatever you choose, I wish you good luck in your creative studies and career! I hope to be able to give you as much support as I can through my tips on CreativityWise.

More about what we do and how it can benefit you in the next video

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Comments

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6 Comments on “Creative Profession: Academic Studies vs. Self-Learning ?

  1. Quite interesting reading Doron, I agree with most of it, being myself an autodidact I definitely find the pros and cons of that option to be quite a stamp of what happens to me. However, fortunately due globalization and the power of the internet I have been able to find some turnarounds specifically on the networking/knowing other people, joining communities, forums and such allow you to actually connect, you can even start doing some small stuff for your portfolio and ask for feedback and guidance, I landed a small project doing that actually.
    Of course, it’s not a golden rule, and meeting with someone in real life has been always THE way to know people, as far as I know. But with the increase of self-teaching and tutorials and courses online we are seeing a huge increase on this kind of communities.
    Here in my hometown, we have a great public university, I attended for a year or so, just to see that I have to study almost everything by myself or to form a study group in order to learn something worthy, since most of the faculty work on their projects/companies and since they have the name and portfolio got the job. So they’re (most of them) trained to be teachers/mentors, so we got the syllabus and sat for an hour listening how they read the textbook… and rinse and repeat until the exam comes. Later on I found out that what I love to do, is not even a subject here. So I was “forced” to jump to the learn-all-by-yourself track.

    Anyhow, as some other comments above say, that path is not for every kind of profession. And for many you’ll definitely need some “formal” stuff in there. Still, if you manage to study something by yourself in the meantime you’ll get a huge advantage!

    Thank you for such a likeable reading. :)

    • Doron Meir says:

      My story is quite similar actually – I was forced to learn animation and art by myself because I studied something completely different first (math and computer science). Also because 20 years ago in my home country, there was almost no one to learn from. Can’t say I regret how things turned out though…

      Nice website you got there, by the way :) I like the “what we do” section. Very inviting.

      • Indeed globalization and “the future” catches faster on individuals like us, and unfortunately not in many institutions that should thrive for that.

        Thanks! I’m still working on that, to add some extra explanation. I’ll let you know when we update it. And if I can help you with anything, just let me know. 😀

  2. scservicesuk says:

    Thank you so much for this piece. It has made me sit back and really focus on going forward in my design for life, rather than trying to muddle through on a difficult subject and being rubbish at it.

    I now have a foolproof agenda. Perfect!

  3. Interesting thoughts, Doron. What’s the most interesting is that the path that you recommend is kind of what I did when I was looking for a way into the animation industry, though it wasn’t necessarily a conscious plan at the time.

    When I first started learning about CG animation, I spent a lot of time practicing, and took a video production class at a community college that gave me access to animation software that I couldn’t afford on my own. I then hooked up with some friends to form a small (and short-lived) video production company, where most of my work was spent doing CG animation for commercials. I also had a part-time job at a cable company, where I did other graphics work.

    That all spanned just a couple years, after which I decided to take the 2-year computer animation course at the Art Institute of Seattle (though it took me nearly three because of the job I had to work while in school). At the time, that course didn’t focus much on character animation, so I ended up doing more self-study and practice on that side of things. After graduation, I spent a year working the day job while trying to find my way into the animation industry, finally landing my first full-time job at Big Idea Productions.

    Altogether, the path that I took spanned roughly 5-6 years, and the mix of self-study and structured education really worked well for me. Were I to repeat it today, it could probably be done in the shorter time span that you mentioned thanks to newer and better animation programs.

    • Doron Meir says:

      Cool. I never studied anywhere – as luck would have it, I was kinda swept into the industry. I do feel I’ve missed out on a potentially great experience of learning animation with actual teachers and in the company of young enthusiastic artists, instead of in a small studio with a team of spent and grudging old Russians. Then again, I think I have that kind of personality – when things go smoothly I get bored, but when the odds are against me, boy do I give a good fight. So it’s just might be that the grudging Russians was exactly what I needed to succeed. Whatever works, right? 😀

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