Unmade beds, pickled sharks and reassembled sheds may have made household names of the likes of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Simon Starling, but the art world doesn't begin and end with the controversial canon of contemporary art that has grabbed headlines over the last decade. There are as many different ways to make a living as a working artist as there are artists.

And it's not just about putting paintbrush to canvas and selling portraits. A wide range of industries are hungry for talented artists, from gaming companies to product designers, from publishing to the public sector, from the set of King Kong to the launch of the latest iPod.

If you're interested in studying art, you've got a few hurdles to jump yet. Art programmes differ hugely, taking in everything from traditional painting, printing and drawing to contemporary courses with titles such as "Critical fine art practice". This latter course, for example, takes art debate, philosophy and cultural theory, and invites students to create "art" in whatever form they choose in reaction, which could include writing, digital media or any other media, whether traditional or modern.

"There's so much freedom," says Jake Mackay, who studied live art at Anglia Ruskin University.

"When I was choosing my course, I looked at a lot of different programmes at different universities and art colleges, and they all have a different focus.

"Some have a lot of lectures and reading, some really want you to experiment with media, and some are fairly traditional. It's about knowing what you want and finding somewhere that matches it."

Courses also have their own "house style", say Mackay. "Make sure you go to open days and look at the students' work," he adds. "There's usually a specific feeling or approach across the course, which may have grown from the personality and location of the art school, or may be students responding to each other and growing together."

Case studies

Natalie Bone, 18, is working through an art and design foundation course at the Cambridge School of Visual & Performing Arts

"I needed at least one A-level, C-grade or above, to get on to the course. In the first term we did one week where we tried different areas of art and design, and then we chose three areas to do for the rest of that term. You can choose areas from fine arts, photography, textiles... whatever you're interested in. At the end of the term you choose your specialisation, which you do until June - I've chosen fine art and textiles. So far I've enjoyed the rotation the most: it gives you the chance to try out different things like fashion and textiles, which aren't things I've done before. I've found new ways of expressing myself.

I find the installation aspect quite difficult. At A-level I was only really doing 2D. I will either go on to study history of art or fine art at undergraduate level. As a career I would like to go into gallery work or art journalism."

Grant Greenaway, 23, is in the second year of fine arts degree at Oxford Brookes University

"Art has always been a huge part of my life. Even in my job in men's retail, before I started this degree, I did window displays!

Now, I'm doing a modular degree - which means we're being assessed as we go along, but in the third year we'll have our degree show. The academic side of things has been helpful, because we study things like philosophy, politics and feminist art, which all feeds into our practical modules.

I want to go on and do an MA in digital art, as it's something I've been concentrating on recently and I'm beginning to feel comfortable with it. I need to apply within the next academic year, and I'm considering Goldsmiths as an option. I'd like to go on and continue to practise fine art as a career, but how viable that will be financially I'm not sure. It might be that I do some part-time teaching, initially."