How To: Prepare for life after art school

Self-learned tips for surviving the real world after an arts-based education.

I graduated from a Fine Art course at University almost 10 months ago. A lot has happened in that time and more than I was probably prepared for.

Here’s some stuff I think I’ve learnt as a result. If you’re graduating soon, maybe it will help you, although I don’t think much can prepare you for the real world other than just living it. So don’t be scared to fail, epically, and more than once; it all works out in the end.

1. The Internet is your most powerful tool

We all know how amazing the internet is and all the things it has made possible, but more than letting the world know what a great chef you are or embarrassing your friend after she passed out in the world’s most unflattering position, the internet gives you power in the professional world. Learn to use it for work; social-networking is vital for flagging up your existence to industry top-dogs. You’re probably pretty clued up when it comes to technology, and especially compared to older (and yes, more experienced) professionals. Whilst they’ve had to work hard to adapt to such fast paced advances, for you the dial-up internet tone is a hysterical and fond childhood memory; you grew up with the net and it’s a huge advantage.

2. Blowing your own trumpet is mandatory

If you’re a shy and retiring type this isn’t going to be easy, so start telling yourself now; no one is going to help you unless you believe in yourself. It’s tough learning that unlike university, people don’t have to care about you in the real world. Most people are too engulfed in their own lives to notice someone else’s problems, particularly if that someone is a stuttering, eye-contact-averting fidgeter. Be confident and prove your worth.

3. Working for free is necessary, but handle with care.

This is an unfortunate truth. The creative industry is a bustling hub of awesomeness and as a result it’s pretty competitive. Ambition is invaluable, but punching above your weight is dangerous. Of course it’s frustrating – you’ve spent three years studying, you’re full of ideas and energy and you just want to put everything you think you know to work; what more could that dinosaur employer possibly want from you?



As you are hopefully coming to realise, life after university is like nothing you have experienced yet, and as a result, you’re a pretty big gamble in the eyes of an employer. Accept working for free as a way of gaining experience and exposure, but stay firm. As long as you’re gaining something from the situation it’s a worthwhile (if aggravating) task. If you’re being taken for a ride, say no thanks.

4. You will never be above improvement

In other words, you are never complete and you can always grow. If you studied art you probably already know this. Your lecturer will have highlighted the importance of the process in relation to the final piece, and you will know that the final piece is never really final because it always holds the potential to evolve. In context of the real world this means learning to make the most of criticism. There are and always will be people more talented than you, not to mention people who have already had your genius light-bulb-above-head moment. The trick is to recognise your flaws; anchor them, flesh them out and use them to improve.

5. You don’t have it all figured out

This can be a tough one to swallow, but seriously, even if you think you know what you want to do, where you want to live, who you want to be (and the rest of life’s important questions) you actually don’t. You probably don’t even know who your real friends are yet (even though again, you will think that you do). Life provides so many lessons to learn; how could three years of ‘independent’ living teach you everything you need to know? Be prepared to move around, don’t be afraid to test out your career path and accept that you don’t have it all figured out yet.

I think there’s a huge temptation to hit panic mode when you realise that you’re pretty much living life without a clue. Chill out – you’ve got plenty of time.

6. Waiting for opportunities is career-suicide

I never expected to sit around all day waiting for the perfect opportunity and I never wanted things to fall into my lap. I have always been proactive and I like to keep busy. Finding opportunities, even for someone as driven as me, is a relentless, challenging and sometimes exhausting process. Sitting around waiting for things to happen is not an option and neither is giving 100%. If you want things to work in your favour you have to force opportunities in your direction and it takes all of your effort, and I’m talking more-than-you-thought-was-physically-possible kind of effort. Maintaining a healthy mental state alone takes 95% of your energy. A difficult realisation is that, in today’s climate studying hard and possessing a load of great skills actually guarantees you absolutely nothing. There is no option but to actively chase what you want. Make your own opportunities if you have to, because you will not receive one single thing for sitting around wallowing in your hardship.

7. Work to play

Just because you’re no longer a student doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good nightlife. The drinks are more expensive and puking after too much alcohol is probably less acceptable now that you’re a mature young adult, but everyone needs a boogie. The trick, again learnt from experience, is to avoid drowning your sorrows. It is a recipe for total catastrophic disaster. Work hard and let your hair down when you deserve it, not when you need to escape.

8. You can’t always trust your opinion

You are your own worst enemy and your own best friend; no one knows you as well as you know yourself. Because of this, you cannot function without a partner in crime. In order to create, you need honest criticism from an outside source. Unlike at university, such resources aren’t as easily accessible in the real world. The best advice I can give is to choose someone who understands what you are trying to achieve, and what you will do to get there. Regardless of whether they are a friend or not, if they don’t understand your needs as an artist they won’t be able to help you. Any stab is painful, but a blow to the front is easier to deal with.

9. Practice makes perfect

When you’re at the early stage of your career and you’re trying to forge a path for yourself, practice is everything. Remember your degree (or more accurately remember your final year); the days you spent working in the studio, weekends in the library with your head buried in a book. Remember the hours you put in trying to master the art of note-taking-as-fast-as-you’re-thoughts-are-flowing.

I don’t care what anyone says of students, it’s not an easy ride and you will have put in a lot of hard work to graduate. You didn’t get there overnight; it took three years of work, practice and routine. The same strategy applies to life after university and, as always, it’s naturally a lot harder.

Practice will improve your skills and this applies to everything. Practice networking and work on making a good introduction, practice tackling the dreaded money question and practice your work routine. You can’t stop practicing nor can you expect to get it right every time.

10. Forget about Art

Finally, the most valuable lesson I have learned so far:

The best thing you can do to be a good artist is to forget about art. Erase it from your memory and let it go.

The problem with art is that it is clogged and stodgy and clouded with crap. ‘Art’ is a word that is tagged onto pretty much anything, be it a masterpiece or a tiny statue of dog faeces that pretends to be a masterpiece. There’s pressure that finds itself a comfortable home on the shoulders of young art graduates, telling them to crack the art world; telling them it has to be achieved straight away; telling them they are not artists if no one sees their work in a gallery.

Dismiss it. Don’t get hung up on whether you’re making good art; forget art all together. You need clarity and direction, and that’s not going to come whilst you’re busy trying to negotiate political ass-kissing strategies.

Focus on creating and do it to the best of your ability and only ever do it because it’s what you love. The most difficult and valuable lesson real world living has taught me is that without honesty you’re work isn’t really anything.

Creating is more valuable than art because art is a thing that has been ruined by hierarchy, whilst creations are sincere.


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