Here’s a question I am often asked by folks looking to break into the entertainment arts:
Is a degree essential to an career in the entertainment arts field?
I think this answer can vary depending on the exact role one pursues. However, in the most general sense the safest answer I would give is:
Given that I effectively dropped out of college after just two years, it could be argued that a degree was not important in my case.
However I would be remiss to not point the timing: I broke into the gaming industry just as the arrival of CD-ROM helped usher the end of programmer-art and give rise to ‘real’ digital art. All of a sudden game companies couldn't hire digital artists fast enough as there were no entertainment design degrees and very few artists even versed in the relatively unsophisticated art software at the time.
It so happened I had strong art chops plus actual computer art skills thanks to experience I had accumulated during shot my time in college, working for the college. It so happened I didn’t need a degree to get my break because I entered the field when there was little competition and a very high demand for artists. In other words, I lucked out.
These days there is no shortage of private, state and trade schools offering robust 2-, 3- or 4-year degrees in every aspect of entertainment design, churning out who knows how many thousands of art graduates around the world each year clamoring for the same few entry-level positions.
If I was entering the field now, would a degree make a difference? You bet your ass it would! Ask any of my fellow grey-haired industry peers and they will probably tell you the same thing.
But really? Even with my raw talent, my youthful enthusiasm, and the mad skills I had in Pagemaker and Photoshop 2.0? Does a degree really matter that much??
In my own experience, I’ve never once been asked about a degree, and I have never known it to impact a job opportunity. As a hiring manager looking for candidates myself, I usually give very little attention to someone’s academic credentials. Furthermore, almost every job description I’ve ever read gives the qualification: “college-degree or equivalent industry experience”.
Now, what does ultimately matter is how competitive you are relative to the needs of the position. Do you have the proficiency to produce high quality work? Do you have all the required skills and know how to effectively use all the required tools? Do you have the experience to show you can work under deadlines, collaborate with others, manage your time, take direction, communicate clearly, and solve-problems?
While I assert that a degree in and of itself is not key to a successful arts career in the entertainment field, what is absolutely important is how a degree, or even the pursuit of that degree, makes you more competitive in your field.
Any good school is a protective cocoon that enables students to learn the tools and craft of their trade, often by industry experts with active networks capable of delivering star students right past company HR barriers into the hands of hiring managers. These institutions offer networks of supportive peers, access to the latest industry equipment, valuable job resources and industry contacts otherwise difficult to attain on one's own.
Of course not all educations provide all of this. With education becoming ever more expensive and student loan costs spiraling out of control, what makes any education worth the cost is what any student is able to take from it. Those who dedicate their time and effort to learning all they can, to being the best they can, are maximizing their competitive edge for those entry level jobs that that can mark the beginning of a career. Those that don't are simply incurring a massive amount of debt.
Taking the alternate path to teach oneself is possible but the burden of self-learning is all the harder. For those already with a foot in the door, one can certainly pursue the career that pays the student, as I did, but this comes with its own risk and trade-offs. My advice in this case would be to treat work as your education, each job a class measured by what it can teach you and how it can make you more competitive for your next job. Otherwise you can find your entire skill set and professional identity shaped by a single job whose goal it is to serve the interests of the company, not your future.
Fundamentally the success of any career is a product of supply and demand. When demand outweighs supply, like it did in my time, one doesn’t have to be as competitive. But when supply matches or outweighs demand, like I believe it has for some time now, then career success is directly impacted by how one is measured in comparison to all the other job seekers competing for the same positions.
Ultimately the goal of a degree is to help you start a career. It is the means to an end. But really the means is just the investment of time, energy and resources you are willing to make to become the best qualified for the opportunities you most desire.
That, and a good dose of luck and timing!