Photo realism

Q. I've taken a gap year after completing a foundation degree in art, specialising in photography. I have a place at an arts university, but I worry about the financial implications and whether a degree is needed for photography.

A. Photography is competitive and employment often hard to find: freelancing is a way of life in the career. No, a degree isn't always necessary. Although most people going into the business are now graduates, a certificate or diploma course could give you the basic skills. Whatever your educational background, getting a foot on the ladder is difficult. The Association of Photographers ( warns that even graduates may have to work as assistants for two or three years.

What a university course can give you, they say, is the chance to experiment with different forms of photography, using all the kit at your disposal. It's never too early to start to establish yourself; you can enter competitions and exhibit work while studying. Try to sell images to picture agencies, and get contacts and insider knowledge through networking or work experience. Student membership of the AOP can help you here. It's all about establishing a personal style and making yourself visible.

Your portfolio is pivotal; it can reflect your particular interest in documentary photography, but make sure you also show broad creative and technical skills. Concentrate on a niche area by all means, but not at the expense of everything else.

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Q. I am a Thai student coming to the UK to study for a Masters. I can't decide between an MSc in management information systems, or one solely in information systems. I prefer the emphasis on management but the other is in London, which might make job-hunting easier.

A. The jump from first degree to Masters is huge, so you need to feel comfortable with this. You prefer one course. Is there anything in the other that would be difficult or irrelevant – for example, is it too technical? Trying to gauge this is important as it is likely to affect how you work and your final marks. And find out what scope each course gives for pursuing your interests – what dissertations or projects are on offer?

These are well-regarded universities, with a good record of students getting jobs, but that doesn't mean everyone leaving will automatically be offered work of their choice. No course can guarantee work and it is up to individuals to market themselves as keenly as possible in this competitive sector. Most employment opportunities are listed on company websites and in directories of graduate jobs.

Employers also offer vacancies to specific universities by contacting academic departments or careers services. Boost your prospects by attending fairs and presentations involving major employers – are events planned on both campuses? They're an excellent opportunity to find out about an organisation. Being in London might give you easier access to some activities and open days.

It remains very difficult for overseas students to be considered for UK vacancies. There are schemes to help the best find suitable work (see Demand does exceed supply and many are disappointed. Remember that multinational companies also seek to recruit graduates and postgraduates to work in their own countries.

Careers adviser: Gillian Sharp, careers consultant,

Send your queries to Caroline Haydon at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or email to chaydon