Many people think that finding work with an arts degree is tough, but research suggests that perception is false.
The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project tracks the career paths of arts graduates nationally. According to SNAAP research director Steven J. Tepper, employment rates and the time it takes to find employment are actually similar for art grads and grads with other degrees.
“Many arts graduates also work in jobs that are relevant to their training,” Tepper says. “In fact, more arts graduates work in jobs relevant to their training in the arts than do students who majored in accounting.”
What arts grads are less likely to have is a full-time job. Artists in fields like design and digital media are more likely to have employers, though those fields also have many freelance workers. But in other artistic fields, project work is far more common.
According to SNAAP research, nearly 60 percent of arts graduates hold at least two jobs concurrently. They are also more likely to work in a variety of different roles such as teaching and community engagement in addition to creating art.
“In art schools, we train the purists and labor under a false belief that artistic success means complete independence from the world,” Tepper says. “And that’s not helping our graduates because it’s not the world most of them will live in.”
That doesn’t mean they’ll be less happy in that world. In fact, studies show that artists are generally very satisfied as workers compared to other occupations. “We also find that they’re really happy when they’re teaching and they’re really happy when they’re engaged in deploying their art to serve their community,” Tepper says. “Those are not signs that they’re less successful. Those are actually very rewarding ways of being an artist in the world.”
According to Tepper, arts graduates across all disciplines are more likely to build a successful career if they do several things:
• Expand occupational imagination. The more than 110,000 nonprofit arts organizations in the U.S. offer a variety of opportunities for arts graduates. So does taking an entrepreneurial approach – 16 to 20 percent of arts grads start their own businesses.
• Network relentlessly. According to Tepper, one study of musicians found that artists whose networks are bigger and more diverse get more gigs and make more money. “It can’t just be a big network of people who are just like you,” he says. “You want to get to know people in lots of different fields.”
• Connect with alumni. Reach out to at least 10 fellow alums and try to have 10- to 20-minute conversations with them about their careers. “That again gives you this automatic network to start your life with,” Tepper says. “Once someone has spent 20 minutes with you, they’ve made an investment.”
• Diversify your skills. Playing more than one instrument or working across more than one medium will diversify your network and may open up more opportunities.
• Join local organizations. Your local arts commission can help you learn about arts housing and available services in your city. You can also make valuable connections by joining the young emerging leader chapter of your local chamber of commerce or downtown leadership group.
• Carefully weigh internship opportunities. Alex Frenette, a postdoctoral scholar at Arizona State University, has extensively researched internships in the creative industry. Before taking an internship, he recommends doing your research to determine whether it will be a valuable experience. Ask the organization if their vision of what an intern is matches yours. Find out what types of tasks and projects you’ll be doing. Learn how many interns you’ll be working with and how many employees you’ll be working with. And be wary of unpaid internships.
“Some statistics strongly suggest that paid internships are much more likely to directly lead to employment than unpaid internships,” Frenette says. “If one must do an unpaid internship, the intern needs to figure out if this place truly trains people to become professionals in that field, or if they’re only using interns as cheap labor.”
• Collect demonstration projects. If you’re not currently employed in the arts, showcase your abilities through pilot projects that build a strong portfolio of work. “If you can’t find a job or you’re still looking, just do something cool,” Tepper says. “Find a few other people to do it with you, find a place to do it and find a way to get people involved. You cannot predict what happens when you’ve done something well in the world. It just leads to other things, even if you can’t predict it.”