“It was really, really violent,” says Florence, describing her transition from being a full time Royal College student to working as a freelance illustrator. “You see I went straight through from my BA. I hadn’t not been a student since I was well… four years old.” Florence graduated from the Visual Communications MA in 2012, and considers her first year as a graduate to have been the most stressful of her life, “by far,” she emphasises.
This, it seems, is not uncommon. To emerge blinking from the Royal Albert Hall clutching a degree certificate represents both a wonderful achievement and an often uncertain new beginning. Quickly the cosy protection of the academy fizzles away and the mass emails abruptly cease, and for the RCA graduate, this (as this writer is currently experiencing first-hand) can be at times both dizzyingly exciting and utterly terrifying. After two packed years of lectures, classes, workshops, deadlines and openings, ex-students progress from the busiest June of their lives into considerably quieter Julys.
Filling that diary up is the task over the next couple of years, and how graduates do that varies hugely. “I was scared when I graduated, of course,” explains Florence. “I had no money, and a career development loan to pay back, and I was just worried about, you know, living.” For many RCA alumni, the years following graduation will prove to be something of a balancing act – combining freelance work with other commitments. Florence’s plan was simple. “Basically I decided to say yes to as many illustration jobs as I could, no matter how weird, no matter how little money was on offer. I’ve tried to avoid doing things for free, but I have ended up doing a few things for no money.” The key for her seems to be making sure she makes the most of these first post-college years. “I don’t have days off,” she claims. “Not because I made some big decision, but more out of panic. That sounds a little extreme, but I can’t bear to take a day off. I find it too scary. I hate the idea of looking back and thinking ‘all those bloody days off, what was I doing?’”
This is what students are told, time and again: that if you want to be successful in doing what you want to do, you have to just stay motivated and keep on doing it. Whether it’s illustration, painting, design or writing, the more you make, the more likely you are to find work. “You have to remind yourself,” says Florence, “that what you are doing is justified, that you can do it.” Working out what your work might actually be worth to employers is a different matter however. “If I had one piece of advice it would be that you cannot be shy about payment,” she continues. “I delayed talking about getting paid for my first big commission for a magazine after I left college, and when they told me they weren’t going to pay me it was already too late, I’d done most of the work, and it was hard work, work I know I wouldn’t have been able to do without my time at the RCA. It felt like getting drop-kicked in the stomach.”
This is the difference between doing work for college, and doing work for the real world. This transition can be difficult to navigate. Florence explains, “Some of the best work I have had all year came from unexpected places. I won an illustration commission from a charity, and the job included all sorts of weird stuff, like organising an arts pub-crawl through Camberwell. I didn’t think I’d be doing that. But then the work was great and so was the wage. A small charity paid me really well, and a swanky fashion magazine paid me nothing. I wouldn’t have predicted that.”
If, like Florence, your first years after graduating are also your first unaffiliated with any academic institution, then leaving college can prove to be especially daunting. Students who have already experienced the world of work, or who have had external commitments throughout their time at the Royal College, may look differently upon their new freedom.
“I’d been running a studio and project space as well as working in a gallery for quite a few years before I applied to the Royal College,” says Naomi, who also graduated last year from Critical Writing in Art & Design. “It wasn’t my intention to get the job I have as quickly as I did after I finished, but I needed the money, and an offer came along that I felt I’d be nuts to turn down.” Naomi started a job in press liaison for a gallery a month after she graduated from the School of Humanities. “It was strange, because work-wise I was in a similar role to the one I had been in before college, managing a gallery as well as running a studio, both of them taking up enough time and energy alone.”
For Naomi, developing the work and research she started at the Royal College has been paramount since she finished. “I guess I’ve been gradually re-appropriating writing and other projects from my time at college for life afterwards. By that I mean adapting certain things for certain publications or events, or initiating collaborations with other artists and writers. That has always been the reason behind running the studio anyway, so my college work after graduation slotted in fairly easily with all that.”
Jonathan, also a Critical Writing graduate, had a similar experience. “When I began at the RCA it had been four years since I graduated from my BA at art school,” he explains. “I was determined to sustain working relationships I had built up before I began my MA so that when I graduated I could just continue.” As a result, he found the move from part-time student to full-time professional pretty smooth. “I continued the paid jobs I had been doing while still at college, and I became a lecturer at a university. Not much changed for me really, suddenly those days when I had been in college were freed up to work in.” He pauses, then adds, “Actually I had not thought of that: the RCA shaped my working routine today.”
Surely then, this is one of the key purposes of the RCA: to mould students into self-motivated individuals well suited to careers in the arts; to prepare them for life once the support structures of college have faded away. For Jonathan, like Florence, self-motivation is the key. “A few years ago,” he recalls, “a friend of mine, a photographer, wrote to John Berger to ask if he would write the introduction to a photobook he had just finished. He received no reply. Then one day over a distant static line Berger called. He could not write the introduction, but, so my friend told me, at the end of the conversation he repeated several times, ‘Just keep working’.”
“So that is the mantra,” says Jonathan. “Just keep working. Find a job that is bearable and just keep working. Keep a routine. Buy a comfy chair. Buy books. Read widely. Take an interest in everything. Quit Facebook. Accept that you will feel compromised at times – these things, they take time to assimilate – but it’s worth it.”