Image: Attributes of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, 1769, by Anna Vallayer-Coster
Is academia a space for creative folks? That was the question behind an informal survey I included in my first column. I was interested in hearing what brought creative people to academia, and what graduate school had, and hadn’t, done for them. I am grateful to the artists and academics who took the time to answer. I received almost 100 responses, and some good stories that I hope to share in future columns.
As I read through the responses, my first reaction was a hint of sadness. So many people confessed that they came to academia looking for the kind of job security that they couldn’t envision in a creative job. Some even said they had gone down the route of a full-time artistic career but had found that to be a problem, financially. So much for that old adage, “do what you love.”
But why choose academia?
“Those who can, teach?” Several respondents said they came to academia because they wanted to teach. They either enjoyed teaching outside of higher education or wanted to pursue the credentials to be able to teach at the college level. For them, graduate school was a means to an end: a job with a steady paycheck, flexible hours, and benefits.
To a lesser extent, they saw academia as a place where they could fold their creative work into their professional development. They believed grad school would give them the time to pursue their intellectual and artistic curiosities while also earning an income. (Keep in mind: These responses do not reflect the actual experiences of the respondents, only what they had in mind when they decided to go to graduate school.)
Nurture the soul. Some respondents said they chose to go to graduate school because academia seemed to be a nurturing environment. They found mentors who would help them develop a language to talk about their creative work or a framework to approach problems. For other respondents, graduate school brought them into contact with a diverse mix of people. Regardless of the soaring cost of graduate education, these responses show that returning to higher education seemed like a worthwhile endeavor because it would provide artists with cultural capital.
Fed Up. Not surprisingly, many respondents mentioned they had been in nonacademic careers before they decided on returning to graduate school. Whether they were self-employed or employed in careers where they used their artistic sensibilities, or whether they were in other kinds of jobs, several mentioned they were tired of their current work situation and wanted to make a career change. Money was the key issue for the self-employed artists.
Those who decided to switch careers seemed more interested in the intellectual fulfillment aspect of graduate school. They were having conversations of a higher level in academe than they were having in the outside world. That does not mean that academia is the only space to have such conversations (for those of us on the outside, I would hope not!) but it seemed to many respondents that higher education was a space where those conversations could happen more easily.
Observations. I was caught off guard by how many creative people willingly went to grad school. They weighed the options, they ran the numbers, and decided to sign up. That’s impressive to note, considering the conversations taking place about doctoral education and the job market for Ph.D.’s.
Many of the respondents said they had gone straight into graduate school after earning a B.A. There were a handful who had worked outside of higher education for a long time and come back to academia with a plan in mind. They were actually the most satisfied with choosing to go to graduate school. They saw it as a place for professional development that came with a built-in network of alumni contacts.
The responses remind me that certain personalities are suited for academia. The same artistic types who were self-directed and wanted to work on their own seemed prone to applying to graduate school. However, once there, those who were actually studying to become artists found no system in place to teach them about marketing, applying for grants, approaching a gallery. Reading their responses made me think that many fine-arts graduate programs could do a better job of preparing students to compete in a freelance market.
As I read through the responses, I wondered: Is there a mismatch between the expectations of graduate students and the realities of graduate school education? I must also underscore that I am speaking from a U.S. context, where artists more and more often are receiving less and less funding from federal and state budgets. Is academia the last safe space for creatives?