Dream destinations

  • Dreamcatcher (detail) by Oliver Mariléne (MPhil Printmaking, 2009)

Our annual survey gives us the chance to find out what incoming students want to do in their future professional lives. Fuel editor Hannah Black reflects on the results of our 2011 survey  – the year group that just graduated this summer

“I would find some sort of miracle creative collaborative design job which allows me to continue research within my specific field as well as inspiring individuals to design for change,” said one incoming RCA student in 2011. They added, “I would also get to travel lots and get paid for it!”

This isn’t unrealistic. Many RCA graduates all over the world are working collaboratively, inspiring others, and getting paid to travel. Working lives like this aren’t actually so miraculous, but a matter of developing the right skills, putting yourself in the right place, and having a bit of good luck. FuelRCA’s purpose is to help you with all of those things, although we can’t generate the good luck for you! If you don’t know yet exactly what you want to do after you graduate, Fuel’s project is to encourage you to look in detail at your skills, strengths and interests to see where you could fit into the working world, or what kind of role you could create for yourself.

Our annual survey gives us a snapshot of what incoming RCA students are thinking and dreaming of in terms of future careers. The students who told us in 2011 that their dreams were to “be part of the design team for a company I admire”, “work for a creative and revolutionary project” or to continue their practice “and get a job as an art lecturer to support myself”, and so on, were all just starting out at the RCA, and embarking on a journey towards these goals. For some of them, these goals are now closer to being realised; others may have reframed or rethought what they wanted, with a better understanding of what suits their skills and personality. This process can be both rewarding and difficult, but Fuel’s task is to assist you along the way.

Our events, helpline, website and mentoring schemes are designed to help you find out what you want from your working life. To take the first example above: how exactly would you like to work collaboratively – within a formal co-operative business structure, or informally in a shared studio, or in a partnership? Where would you like to travel, and how can you make contacts within your industry there?

Survey responses from fine art students tended to be focused on developing their individual practices. A small but significant proportion of graduates do, as one student wrote, “work exclusively as a professional artist”. Answers like this reveal that, for artists, employment or even freelance work can be more of a means to an end, helping them to sustain their practice. 

However, bearing in mind that the average annual income that UK-based artists make from their practice is only £9000, the reality is that many artists continue throughout their career to supplement their practice with employment or other types of work, ranging from teaching in art schools to freelance video editing to unrelated jobs in other industries entirely. This means that, besides essential skills like presenting your work and making professional contacts, artists have to learn how to manage a portfolio career, and basic job-hunting skills like writing an attractive CV, plus any skills necessary to supplementary jobs like teaching.

Answers like “starting my own architectural/design practice” or “I would like to open my own business” were common. Starting out on your own is demanding, but many RCA graduates have risen to the task and made a success of new businesses, developing and marketing their own designs or products. Again, this doesn’t happen by magic, but through building contacts, presenting your work well, and being careful with financial planning and working practices. FuelRCA workshops on intellectual property, with professional lawyers, have proved invaluable for designers launching new products, and our sessions on tax are a great first step in either self-employment or setting up a company. Events on organisation, pricing, copyright law and so on are designed to enable you to apply these skills to your goals and ambitions. And if you are keen to start your own business but feel like you’re not sure you have the energy to plunge into learning about, say, negotiation, then at least you can get a sense during your time at the RCA about what you would ideally like to delegate to others.

Another student’s dream situation was simpler to express: “Fully funded PhD please!” Both artists and humanities students at the RCA go on to PhDs either here or elsewhere. Again, succeeding in this area can require some skills that might not directly arise from your studies, especially as the academic job market is increasingly competitive. ‘Soft skills’ such as confidence, presentation and working with others apply across disciplinary boundaries and are useful to many students and alumni. In a job market crowded with talented academic researchers, skills like these could help you distinguish yourself from other candidates.

Many different kinds of dream destinations were revealed by our survey, reflecting the diversity of the students at the RCA. Wherever you are going, it’s our job to help you as you work out how to get there.