It is a strange claim to make, but is it right? Is doing a degree in photography worthwhile, or are you better off getting into the industry instead?
I was accepted into a university here in the U.K to study writing and journalism. I was already a photographer, albeit mostly amateur, making some pocket money here and there, so when introductory lectures for other courses were offered, I attended several. The photography degree offered was not remotely interesting to me, and as I leafed through the syllabus, I became progressively more sure that it would be a waste of my time. Instead, I became enamored with philosophy after a taster lecture, and in my second year, I dropped everything else to concentrate on a philosophy degree with no minors to accompany it. During that decision period, however, I went to several receptions to discuss options, one with some photography undergraduates.
My classmate introduced me to a girl sipping on a bottom-shelf red provided for the bare-bones soirée, and in the interest of setting us off on the right path, he informed her that I too was a photographer. We exchanged pleasantries before she asked a question about the photography degree I couldn't know the answer to and I had to correct her: "I'm a photographer, but I'm not doing a degree in photography." She asked why, and I remained polite, doing my best to emphasize my interest in other courses rather than disparage the course she was enrolled in. There was no escaping. She asked whether I was going to pursue photography as a career, and I honestly didn't know whether I ever would, so I said as much. "You'll never get anywhere without a photography degree," she opined with little wiggle room for interpretation. I disagreed, pointing out that would be like telling an Olympic-level sprinter that he can't compete without a degree in Sports Science — a loose retort, but she had me rattled.
My friend and I left that evening, and the jerk held back by social graces was loose. My poor classmate — who had no interest in photography — received the 20-minute sermon I wanted to give the young lady, who was likely just defensive over her course choice. Not unreasonable given the fees, but it irked me. It has been something I've thought about on and off for the years since that conversation, and this week, it reemerged after a conversation with Alex Cooke about the value of a photography degree.
Is a Degree in Photography Worth It?
Well, I have to answer the foundational question first: Is a degree worth it? In my opinion, yes it is. Higher education teaches in a different way to high school insofar as it's less rote style learning and more of an exploration of a subject and the teaching of how to think about problems. What gripped me about philosophy was not the theories of Socrates or Descartes, but how it educated students on how to approach any problem, to turn an obstacle on all sides and work through it, no matter the subject. There are a whole host of other skills that come with higher education I would say are important and useful, albeit not so essential to be irreplaceable. You can obviously do just fine without further education, as is proven time and time again, but I think a degree or equivalent is worthwhile if nothing else has to be undertaken right away — that is, bringing in a wage, responsibilities prohibiting more education, or an opportunity that cannot wait, etc.
I would also argue that most degrees are worthwhile in one way or another. But is a degree in photography one of those? Well, it depends on what your objective is. I'd say the young lady's statement that no one (she could have meant just me, but we'd only just met) can get anywhere in the industry without a photography degree behind them is demonstrably false, so much so, I feel like it's taking on a straw man to pick it apart. What I would say of a degree in photography — unfortunately in lieu of necessity — is it's a luxury. It isn't valueless, and I'd never suggest it was; you will inevitably learn a lot of theory and history, as well as practical instruction. However, if you want a career as a photographer, I doubt it has almost any impact on your odds of success at all.
I have seen certain in-house studios at brands put in their job specs a photography degree would be preferred, but that requirement is easily bypassed by ticking the other boxes of character, a successful interview, and a strong portfolio. What's more, as I go through the most successful photographers I know, far more don't have photography degrees than do. That's not to say that doing the degree would put you at any disadvantage — far from it — it just doesn't appear to increase your chances of "making it," and so, it remains firmly rooted as a luxury.
What Do You Think?
This article is, of course, one man's opinion. I've been in the industry for a decade or so, and as I said, the question always stayed in and around the back of my mind. I'd make a mental note whenever a successful photographer had a photography degree in their credentials, and it wasn't often. Another can of worms I'm not opening quite yet is related degrees, like Fine Art. I have far less experience with their content or their alumni, so I won't speak to the value of it until I've done a little research, but on the face of it, I'd recommend some alternative visual degree like Design, or even Art History over a course in photography.
In fact, for writing this article, I did some research on photography degrees to double-check content and see if I'm wrong about anything. One common question that was answered by the university or website was "what else can I do with a photography degree?" The answers were slim pickings, with graphic design, digital marketing, and some vague role in TV or video being the most featured. In the first two cases, doing a degree in graphic design or digital marketing — there are courses dedicated to those disciplines — seems preferable. I have friends in both industries, and no one I had asked had heard of someone coming into that area with a photography degree. The third may be more likely, but I doubt a degree in photography would be the most sought after.
Have you done a photography degree? Has it paid dividends? Am I completely mistaken? Share your comments in the section below.