Linda Ball is project leader of Creative Graduates Creative Futures the largest research study to date about the career paths of art and design graduates. She talks to Jane Watt about the research, her own experience of a portfolio career and the importance of having creativity at the core of professional practice.
You’ve recently published the quantitative findings of a major research project Creative Graduates Creative Futures. How did the idea for this research take shape and why did you feel it was important to undertake such a large project at this particular point in time?
In 2007 CHEAD (Council for Higher Education in Art and Design) expressed an interest in a survey to update the pioneering Destinations and Reflections study of creative graduates and their career paths (Blackwell and Harvey, 1999) which involved fourteen institutions and 1800 of their graduates in 1998 to 1999.
Higher Education (HE) has experienced considerable growth in creative courses, with an increase of 58% in full-time first degrees in the past eight years, close to three times the growth experienced in all university subjects over the same period. Given this growth, it was important to see whether the creative industries, which were in their infancy at the turn of the twenty-first century, were able to absorb the growing numbers of creative graduates, and where graduates were adding value in other work sectors.
The main aims of the study were to provide evidence of the value of a creative education for different spheres of employment; and gain a fuller understanding of graduates’ early careers so that both courses and those providing support post-graduation could improve preparation for work and support after graduation. At the same time there is a need to provide prospective students, graduates, academic staff and others with real information about career paths and opportunities.
Creative Graduates Creative Futures represents a tremendous spirit of collaboration amongst staff in the twenty-six universities and colleges taking part. Everyone is committed, because the findings will tell us so much more about ‘real’ careers – not just about those who achieve success in their discipline as designers and artists, but where graduates are adding value in all walks of life.
What have you found most inspirational about the research and evidence? And what has surprised you the most?
For me, one of the most inspirational aspects of the study was the willingness of 3,500 graduates to contribute their career stories to the study, and to tell us about their higher education experiences, which were largely positive. As for their careers, we expected to find portfolio working to be common and higher than average levels of self-employment. This proved to be the case, and the extent of the tenacity and resourcefulness in finding work and was truly inspirational.
Looking back on their educational experiences some four to six years on, graduates were largely satisfied with the level of skills developed on their courses, in particular creativity and innovation, visual skills and skills in presenting work and ideas – all of which are core to creative courses, and these were considered to be very important in their careers.
Yet, our graduates lacked confidence, would have liked a closer connection with the professional world and improved networking skills. Graduates felt there should be improved advice, guidance and insight into the pressures and challenges they would face, with more focus on self-employment and having the level of professional skills required. So, this is something that HEIs should be taking note of….
An intended outcome of this research is to promote findings about graduates’ experiences amongst current students – and staff – and prospective students to raise awareness of career models, where graduates are contributing and the value of a creative education.
With regard to career patterns, there were some surprising, and positive findings. Firstly, the high proportion in creative work. We expected that given the growth in student numbers, these would not be matched by opportunities in the creative sector. However, we found that three out of four graduates had worked in the creative industries since graduating and a similar proportion were doing so at the time of the survey. Only a minority of graduates were working in non-creative occupations with only 18% in their main job in work they considered was not creative.
Secondly, the degree to which graduates were satisfied and fulfilled in their careers: three quarters of working graduates (77%) were able to be creative and were satisfied with their work situation. Four out of five (79%) felt that their work related significantly to art, craft, design and media. And career patterns were well established, with four out of five graduates saying they were in or close to their chosen career, and expected to remain in creative work for the future – with many envisaging continuing with self-employed work and portfolio careers.
So the majority of graduates are where they want to be and doing what they want to be doing and this is perhaps the most encouraging finding.
Creative graduates appear to be well-equipped to cope with unstable employment conditions that are typical of the contract economy in the creative sector – and in times of recession. And this will be no surprise to many of a-n’s readers who have kept focussed on their practice in spite of setbacks and lack of opportunities, and made it happen over the years. The models for working life presented in this study represent a new way of maintaining life-work balance, highly relevant to a rapidly changing society. These career models may be new to a wider audience, but creative practitioners have been working this way and living these values for many years.
What are your hopes for the findings now that this stage of the project has been published?
Findings need to be kept in the frame and debated. We are currently disseminating through HE, CHEAD and other HE bodies, sector skills councils, government departments, creative industries, agencies and professional bodies. We hope that in spite of financial constraints in HE, that imaginative academic leaders will use the results of the study to inform course design and put in place improved support for new generations of students, as creative courses continue to attract applicants.
The project continues with a qualitative stage of in-depth interviews and an e-survey in which we have asked graduates to tell us in more detail about their transition to work, their early career progression, how their careers have changed over the past year, their CPD needs and how they are faring in the recession. Findings will be published in June this year.
From your own experience of having a portfolio career as an adviser and academic, how can practitioners balance staying focused with the wish, and necessity, to diversify practice, work and income streams?
Treat portfolio working as the norm, and not necessarily the route to a permanent job. Nurture your contacts, draw on your past knowledge and experience, keep focussed on what you want to do and keep learning, but don’t forget you have to pay your bills and allow yourself a holiday from time to time.
You wrote ‘The artist’s development toolkit’ for a-n some time ago. Seven years on it is still relevant and one of our most well used and recommended resources. Why is it important for artists, at all stages of their career to take stock?
I think it’s about valuing yourself and your achievements on a regular basis and keeping motivated. It’s important to take a step back from time to time and look at yourself, the opportunities you have taken up and your practice or portfolio of projects, so you can keep focussed on your direction – or re-position yourself…or do something completely different. If you are employed, it is likely you will have regular appraisals. As an independent artist or worker, you will have to do it yourself.
What are your top survival tips for art graduates?
I have one overarching tip: creative practice is at the heart of learning and it is also at the heart of creative careers.
In a creative education, creative practice provides the context for personal and professional development, and in our study, graduates continued to adopt this model, centring their learning and development needs around their creative practice as they move into their working lives.
Our graduates experienced high levels of engagement with creative work in their early careers. It follows, therefore, that it is essential for students and graduates to put their creative practice at the centre of any discussion that reviews their progression and needs, whilst on their courses and post-graduation, so they can articulate their strengths confidently and position themselves in relation to future goals – whether these are personal, career or practice specific.
The full report Creative Graduates Creative Futures is now available priced £15 for a PDF copy and £30 for a bound copy. The Executive Summary is available to download free of charge. See www.creativegraduates.com for details.
The artist’s development toolkit by Linda Ball
University of the Arts London
Council for Higher Education in Art & Design
Creative Graduates Creative Futures website for more about the project and downloads of the Executive Summary, Research Report and appendices.
First published: a-n.co.uk February 2010
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