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Put yourself in the frame for a creative career

An Arts PhD can boost your chances of a job in education or the public sector, says Jessica Moore

Those studying for postgraduate arts qualifications should ask not what the job market can do for them, but what they can do for the job market.

According to Karin Jordan, MA programme leader at Plymouth College of Art, “there aren’t always navigable routes to jobs any more. It’s a massively changing landscape, and that brings challenges but also opportunities”. Jordan’s students are therefore encouraged to “forge new ways of earning a living. They learn to be entrepreneurial and enterprising, and to think about what their creative practice can deliver for contemporary society”.

They might, for example, become ‘locopreneurs’ – entrepreneurs who work in a sustainable, local way; or ‘digipreneurs’, looking at digital markets; or ‘socialpreneurs’, who solve a social problem. “There are new markets and developing modes of working,” explains Jordan.

Tapping into these is Claire Crompton, a second-year student on Plymouth’s MA in entrepreneurship for creative practice. Crompton launched the Wool Directory (wooldirectory.org.uk) in partnership with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World. “She realised that there was no one place that textile creators could go to find out who produces what fleece,” Jordan explains. "She also saw that people are looking to buy things in their local area, so she set up the Wool Directory for the South-west, and is now expanding into other regions.”

But while Crompton is proof that students can create their own employment opportunities, entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Jordan admits that it takes “business nous and chutzpah”. For those who prefer PAYE, she says, some vacancies are advertised, despite the cuts. In fact, there are more arts jobs now than there were this time last year, according to research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. “Their Annual Destination Data shows that employment outlooks for arts graduates got better over the last 12 months.

Unemployment went down, employment went up,” says Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Service Unit. However, the value of a postgraduate arts qualification is statistically negligible. Most postgraduates go into entry-level jobs, where competition is fierce and experience counts for more than letters after your name. “Generally, postgraduate arts qualifications don’t open new doors,” says Ball. “What they can do,” he adds, “is open them wider.”

This is borne out by a 2010 report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education, which interviewed 100 senior managers. While 70 per cent acknowledged that postgraduates bring new ideas and an ability to innovate, less than 50 per cent felt a postgraduate qualification guaranteed a high-calibre candidate with leadership potential.

However, a recent study by the Arts and Humanities Research Council shows that arts postgraduates are in high demand in education, the public sector, and the creative and financial industries. Among those with PhDs in these fields, only 1.5 per cent are unemployed; among Masters graduates, the figure is 2.5 per cent.

Chris Bilton is director of the centre for cultural policy studies at Warwick, which runs three MA programmes. “Our courses are geared towards people wanting a career in the arts and creative industries,” he explains. Students undertake industry projects. “We have a module where we set them up with an organisation, such as the BBC or the Association for Independent Music.

The students respond to a brief and give a presentation, so they gain professional experience and make contacts. Students prioritise that aspect of the course much more than they did in previous years,” Bilton notes. “If they write a good essay, they’ll get a good mark; if they impress a potential employer, it might lead to an internship or even a job – and that’s what they’re shooting for in the current climate.”

But if experience is what is needed to get ahead, is it worth investing in a “You traditionally acquired knowledge on an MA, but employers are looking for skills. Students are aware of that,” says Bilton. “We’re working closely with student careers services, getting them to do bespoke sessions for our postgraduates, and asking our students to think about careers earlier in the cycle. But in the arts there is a vast pool of very able, underemployed people. That makes it very difficult to get in. A Masters can open students up to the right language and contacts, [and teach] a set of strategies, knowledge and skills that can be applied to lots of situations. What they get on the course is a level of reflective insight, which would be hard to duplicate in the workplace”.

Overall, the value of a postgraduate arts qualification comes down to the individual. “If you’re not sure what you want to do in your career and think a Masters will help you stand out, I’m afraid that’s just not true,” says Ball. “Having said that, there is a lot that you can get from a postgraduate qualification, as long as you pitch it correctly to employers. They are usually more academically challenging that first degrees, and require more self-guided work, especially in terms of project management and time management – so you can show new skills.

“Another thing is that postgraduate programmes give you extra time at university, where you can access careers services,” Ball adds. “Canny postgraduates use that time to network ferociously.”

Postgraduates could also argue that they are more confident about and committed to their area of work. “An extra year or so in education to reflect on what you want to do with your life, especially at the start of your career, is an excellent use of time”, says Ball. When it comes to employment, particularly during a recession, Jordan admits there’s “no magic silver bullet”.

However, those with postgraduate qualifications in the arts can and do find work. “There is a huge blurring of boundaries between sectors and in business,” she adds. “That can bring exciting collaboration and new, interesting ideas”.