Labor day has come and gone. The time has come. We’re all going back to school. I’ll tell you right now, I love this season. Everything about it-the changes in the weather, the sweaters, the transition from cold to hot coffee. I attribute much of this pleasure to actually loving school and anticipating its start. But enough about me, how about you? I’ve received several emails from fledgling illustrators seeking advice on a perennial hot topic: should they go back to grad school for commercial illustration? Ah, this is a great question, one I faced myself. Here is my very short answer: it depends. How well do you know yourself? And how much money have you got? Here is a long response I recently wrote to a young lady who is just coming out of her undergrad experience with a B.A. in illustration. Perhaps it will help you in some way...
“That's wonderful to hear that you're considering going back to school. This question is different for everyone. It depends on one major thing: how well do you know yourself?
Here’s a bit about my personal experience, since you’ve asked: I went to undergrad and got an English degree, worked for five years, traveled for one, and then went back for the Masters. I really, really recommend taking the time to work outside of school before starting graduate school. I cannot stress how much it helps you understand if you truly want to pursue illustration and how you want to do it. Heck, I came out of undergrad certain I would get a PhD in Cinema Studies and archival work. So you see the problem: how well do you know yourself? Working gives you the opportunity to test your theory. It will also help you understand where illustration fits in your life. Do you even know how you work? What environment do you work best in? Do you want to be a full time freelancer? Do you want to have a studio space with friends? Do you want to work for a company? Teach? Working, regardless in what field, may help you answer some of these questions. You don’t even have to work for that long-a year, maybe two. Just don’t get all stuck and comfortable on that consistent income.
I went to grad school to take time to develop my voice and style. My work was undeveloped and unfocused before grad school, and I used that time to experiment and fail a lot. I also had gaping holes in terms of my knowledge about the illustration industry despite trying to teach myself for several years. I just felt like I was going in circles and never quite getting it. I’d encourage you to return to school if this is an experience you’re sharing. Since you’ve already gotten your BFA in illustration I’m willing to bet you know most, if not all of what I know about the industry and your skills are already well honed. If you imagine grad school will inject you with talent or be an opportunity to perfect yourself I’d say that is not good motivation. We obviously all want to get better at what we do. Honestly, that can come very quickly with commercial and personal work. Just plain old hard work and motivation.
More food for thought: because of grad school I cannot afford to be a full-time freelancer just yet. I would like to be, but I’ll be needing to work for a while to make sure I have the security to do that. Or when I get my first book deal (hah!). Luckily, I love my job and they’re very understanding of the outside work I do. I don’t know what your money situation is, but student loans are a very serious thing. So sadly real.
Grad school is great! But be certain you want to do it. It's really a time and place to experiment and play, develop new ideas and take the time to fail. That was important to me. It's not necessarily a place you go to and then come out a shiny new amazing illustrator. I'm still learning many things.
Oh and for god’s sake don’t go back to school because of “the economy” or whatever. It will always be an uphill battle to break into the illustration game, but worth the challenge. I encourage you to just get in there!”