I was listening to a cliffcentral podcast recently and my favourite sports guy, Ben Karpinski and Siya Sangweni had what I would call a ‘polite disagreement’ about the need for formal education for media professionals and creatives such as film-makers. Ben talked about how for most media jobs ‘trial and error’ is how you truly learn. He also made a really good point about how easy it is for most people to operate something like a camera with how technological society is these days. Ben’s argument is that film and other media are all about story-telling and if you can tell stories and you understand them, you have the basis of what it takes to be a film-maker or a podcaster or anything in media. Sia countered with the importance of knowing the fundamentals of whatever media you want to go into. He also made a fairly good point in that “I’m good at telling stories” won’t get you hired at Amblin – Steven Speilberg’s production company. He even went as far as calling that a “sob story”. A great point, I think, because Steven Speilberg himself was rejected by his dream film school three times because of his poor high school marks.
This got me thinking. I’m a creative professional with a BA degree from a fairly well-acclaimed University…it was a lot of work, it took a lot of effort, and it cost a fortune! Not to mention that all the mocking it comes along with. We’ve all heard the one about the difference between a pizza and a BA degree, people. Stop it. The unemployment rate is at 27% and I highly doubt that it is only BA graduates sitting at home jobless. Anyway, was it all worth it? Of course, I learned a lot during my time in varsity – that’s when my mind was opened further than I ever thought possible. Everything I had believed in, I questioned in varsity. I learned the importance of being critical at all times. I learned that I couldn’t just go around spouting off my opinion because ‘it’s my opinion and I have the right to have one’. I learned how to argue. Not how to squabble or shout random points at people, but to string together my thought process in order to create a convincing, or at least, a justifiable line of reasoning. And all of that is fundamental to who I am today and that is obviously very important to me.
But is it important to a potential employer?
I definitely use all these fundamentals, and the skills I learned, in my everyday life and in my work. But would I be able to do my job if I hadn’t gone to varsity? Probably. There are now just so many ways to learn and teach yourself creative skills that I believe if anyone really wanted to, they could do it if they have access to the technology. You could google free courses and be enrolled by the end of this sentence. You could design your first logo in 30 minutes with a YouTube tutorial. You can do anything you want, create a blog and post about it! What’s questionable is if anyone will hire you.
I have found that most employers don’t really care about what it is you learned in school in order to get whatever qualification you have, they just care that you have it. Then they care about the skills you have – whether you can actually do the job. So whether or not you get a valuable education in school doesn’t actually matter except in the skills you acquire, but the point is that you could acquire these skills through other means. I personally find myself learning on the job on a daily basis and I think I always will be – that’s part of the excitement of being a creative – but it also means that some of the skills I gained by going through formal education I just don’t use in my job.
I personally think that the need for a formal qualification completely depends on you, what your goals are and what matters the most to you. If you want to work for a big corporate, earn a good salary and have insurance then you should probably have the piece of paper that assures them that you deserve all of that because you know what you’re doing. You may not even actually have to know what you’re doing either! That’s how useful that piece of paper is!
But if you want to do meaningful work that moves and inspires you or if you just don’t care about formal employment, then why should you care about formal qualifications?
I’m not saying that either path is more valuable than the other. And if you work really hard you can probably find a way to make either one work for you. There are many corporate professionals without degrees and there are many independent creatives with degrees. What I’ve actually found is that if you’re able to sell yourself well enough, you can survive and even thrive in any environment.
Interesting notes: Steven Speilberg (and his 3 Oscars) eventually went back to film school and he graduated with his BA degree in 2002. If you’re one of the many students who just matriculated or you’re on your way towards that and are looking for some guidance, here are some people that can help.