Creative ways to get ahead: Masters in arts and design

Masters in arts and innovation vary wildly, but the best have a hard commercial edge, says Peter Brown

When he fell off his bike Ani Surabhi was wearing a helmet, but still got concussion. He began to wonder how the design could be improved. Then he got to work. The result is the Kranium, a helmet with a honeycomb cardboard structure, inspired, he says, by the corrugated cartilage that protects a woodpecker's skull as it pecks.

When he fell off his bike Ani Surabhi was wea\ring a helmet, but still got concussion. He began to wonder how the design could be improved. Then he got to work. The result is the Kranium, a helmet with a honeycomb cardboard structure, inspired, he says, by the corrugated cartilage that protects a woodpecker's skull as it pecks.

Surabhi had the advantage of being a Masters student in innovation design engineering at the Royal College of Art. But to get his idea to the point of manufacture, he had first to pass a grilling from Nadia Danhash, director of RCA Innovation, which incubates the best of the students' ideas and prepares them for market.

"We talked to Ani about the next steps, the commercialisation and exploitation of the idea," she says. "Was there really a market for a new helmet? Was it technically and commercially feasible? We worked through that and connected him with an angel investor. He formed a company which has licensed the helmet and they were launched in the UK in December."

The range of Masters courses in the creative industries is huge and often confusing, but one mark of a good one is the quality of practical business advice that it offers. That can range from industry contacts and placements to help with starting your own business. The Central School of Speech and Drama offers a one-year MA in creative producing. "The heart of the course is its entrepreneurial approach," says Jessica Bowles, who runs it. "The wonderful thing about theatre-making is we've been doing lean start-ups for centuries. Theatre-makers are people who can embrace change, take risks and make new stories."

Central's students have often already worked in the industry and are looking for a period of reflection. About a third are international. As early as their second week into the course, they compile a business plan. They draw up budgets, pitch ideas to industry bosses and can tap Central's wide network of theatrical contacts for work placements – a big draw.

At Warwick University, Chris Bilton is director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, which runs three Masters courses aimed at people interested in a career in the creative media. He makes sure there's a business edge to all three.

"Some people say content is king – we say context is king," says Bilton. "It's about understanding delivery systems and platforms, value chains, marketing – the whole industrial context in which the industry takes place.

"There are a lot of group presentations and project work – for example, we had people working on the future of 3D TV at the BBC. We teach people what it's like to be out of their comfort zone, or to lead a project when other people don't want to be led."

Most Warwick graduates tend to go into entry-level jobs, but some become entrepreneurs. "One former student set up a jewellery company. Another, Ed Chappel, got some seed funding in 2009 to set up the annual Musical Comedy Awards, which are still running," Bilton says.

International business schools, meanwhile, are turning their attention to the arts. Rouen Business School in France has set up a new MSc in arts management, taught in English and starting in October. "I launched this programme because the cultural industries and institutions – museums, galleries – are changing fast," says Joelle Lagier, the course director. "There are also the banks and insurance companies. Axa France are developing a department for art purchase. We can teach people how to manage these collections." Rouen also has a partnership with the Renmin University of China, and Lagier points east to China as an exploding market in the arts field. "There's galleries opening every three days over there," she says.

Case study: 'Much of this is about who you know'

Sarah Wilson took the MA in creative producing at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

"When you're looking to go into producing and you're not from London, it's very difficult to see a doorway. I found this course online. It offered a formal degree and placements and I thought maybe I could network my way in. So much of this industry is really who you know. I used to hate that idea but I've realised that names and personal recommendations really do count for a lot.

It cost me £14,500 as an overseas student – I'm from the Isle of Man – but the Manx Government paid it all. The course covered entrepreneurship, finance, budgeting and how to market yourself. On my placement I was offered a part-time position at Camden People's Theatre and I'm still doing that now. They've become an advocate for my work.

I'm doing a range of things. I work at Blind Summit Theatre, who were responsible for the puppets at the Olympics, and I'm the producer for a company called Rhum and Clay. I'm also working with a performance artist called Rachel Mars.

All these jobs feed into each other in terms of what I'm learning. In the future I'll be looking for a really good venue job, but this will be another independent year for me."

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