Design Degree and No Job
It’s a phenomenon for our generation and something that almost no other group of designers has dealt with in the past. Getting a college education doesn’t ensure you a professional job. Too often I hear people who say, “I’m just going to school and will start looking for work as a designer after I graduate.” Unfortunately, that’s a first class ticket to part-time retail and an extremely stressful and expensive approach. My own experiences helped me understand this concept and it’s my hope that the following points of discussion will help you in planning your schooling and job search.
What A Degree Means in the Real World
For the web and graphic design industry, a college degree means very little to future employers. Granted, there are some benefits, but most hiring Creative Directors will agree that your skills, experience, and ability to think differently will trump the education requirement every time. One of the biggest weaknesses in the American workforce today is the inability of employees to think critically, perceive possible solutions, and teach themselves new things. A college degree in a design major should (in theory) give you those abilities, but there are many who can learn to do those things without the formal education. Your degree acts as a symbol of commitment to a cause, showing that you can put forth effort into a difficult task and commit to something for a fair amount of time. It’s important to understand, however, that your degree is not your unique selling point, rather a sign that that you are beginning the first stage of professional maturity in your work.
You Still Need A College Education
While it’s significance is less important to designers than other professions, you still need one as an entry level designer. The people that are currently writing hiring requirements and managing recruitment at businesses tend to fall into those categories of people who still feel the degree is a required document for employment. In many cases, this paper indicates a level of professional training, proving that you can indeed perform at a certain level. We have a different tool called a portfolio. Why still earn a degree, then? Consider the following, all of which are reasons I decided to stick out my college design education:
- Some positions, including management and teaching, require higher education across the board.
- You learn to work with people, manage your projects, and establish fundamental social skills, which are critical to working in a team-focused environment.
- College is a time specifically available for you to fail. Getting these rookie details out of the way during college will help you impress the boss when you start.
- Networking and establishing a reputation is easy amongst a limited group of like-minded individuals. It gets much harder to be known and seen as an authority in your profession when you enter the ranks of designers. One of the hardest parts of getting a job is getting past the competition and the right person in your group of contacts could be your only way into the job you are seeking.
- The degree shows you can commit, persevere, and accomplish goals. It shows that you are willing to stick with something even if it’s harder than you want it to be.
- College gives you the chance to teach yourself how to learn. Knowing things is great, but knowing how to learn new things is even greater.
- College is the place for developing your work, which is the only reliable way to convince a creative director that you are competent. In fact, most creative directors can tell if you are what they are looking for by looking at your work for only a few seconds. If your work is weak, uninspiring, or full of errors, you will struggle to even get interviews or phone discussions.
- The degree is a confidence booster and it will allow you to speak about yourself in a positive and truthful way during interviews, without needing to over-talk your ability.
The News You Don’t Want To Hear
Now that I’ve given you some insight into why you need a degree, I’m going to tell you something that you probably don’t want to hear:
You need to have a job while you go to school.
I worked through my entire collegiate experience and most of my high-school years. I cannot stress the immense benefits that come from holding a job while you do your work. There is something uniquely different about a person who can balance a part-time (or even full-time) job while taking classes at a college level, and that trait is called accountability. When you work during school, you learn to prioritize your time to get the most out of your efforts, you learn to force yourself to do things you may not want to do based on the hope of something better. It teaches you to sacrifice unnecessary things in your life for things of value. I’m not saying you need to give up the video games entirely (I still play some, actually), just keep it within reasonable amounts of time.
Consider this situation between two fictional students of design at a local university named Bill and Lisa. Bill is a good kid, enjoys working around in Photoshop, and does his design class projects at about a B grade level. He receives critique during class, but spends most of his time hanging out with friends, browsing websites, and entertaining himself. Lisa goes to the same class as Bill, but she is functioning at an A average level. She still is socially active, but works part-time in a t-shirt shop helping to set up artwork for printing, and even designing a little bit. In addition to getting critique at school, she is learning how real businesses use design, how to work on a team with non-creative professionals, and is constantly trying to impress her boss by creating more-interesting and effective work. Two years later, Bill and Lisa graduate and the student loans kick in and need repayment.
The result is night and day. Bill passes his classes and starts to look for work, but he is having a very hard time finding anyone who will interview him. His work is okay, but he knows it’s not his best and so do his potential employers. When he is contacted about a position, Bill is asked about his work history. The potential employer realizes Bill will need constant hand-holding and attention for months and decides to move on to other candidates. Then there’s Lisa, who now has 2 years of part-time experience under her belt, a better portfolio, and can work in a team without constantly needing direction. If you were an employer, who would you hire? Are you a Bill or a Lisa?
Gaining the Upper Hand
If you are taking college classes, now is the time to start building experience. Most cities near colleges have small print shops or similar businesses that need intern-level part-time workers and are willing to work around schedules enough for you to continue taking classes. Even if you are unable to find a design specific position, you can gain great benefit from other part-time positions, all of which are better than just wasting time. In any case, working while at school will give you valuable experience and skills that will aid you in searching for your first full-time position.
If you’ve graduated and can’t find work, the same rule applies. Only difference is, it’s going to be a while before you get to find that awesome full-time job because you need to start at the beginning of your career ladder. Look for internships and basic design positions that you can stay afloat with until you have enough work and experience to find something better. If no one will hire you for those, make up your own projects to give you enough good work to find someone who will and start networking with people who were able to find work right out of school.
In short, your degree isn’t going to ensure you a job someday. It shows that you have some valuable skills, but without real-world experience you won’t be able to stand out. Start now so that when you graduate, you have the upper-hand at finding work. How has your degree helped you so far? Was it worth going to school? Let me know what you think with a comment below.