Upon reflection, was my degree really worth it?

February 21st, 2013

Having graduated with a degree in Interactive Media from Nottingham Trent University in 2012, I had always intended to write about whether I had considered my experience over the last 3 years really worth it. I decided however, to defer such a post as I felt that I needed to give it time, rather than publish a reactionary post without having time to consider my feelings with hindsight.

Along with being in full time employment for over a year now, I also was in part-time and freelance employment throughout my degree; and I feel this puts me in a relatively unique position of being able to compare and contrast my experiences of both sectors simultaneously.

Education

I have been in further education for 5 years, having left school I had formal art training at Lincoln College of Art & Design, followed by 3 years at Nottingham Trent University.

Within a degree there is a lot of independence, to some this can feel like you’re paying for nothing – and at the time it certainly felt that way. For example, throughout the final year, at its peak I had 11 contact hours a week, at its lowest I had 2. The reality is this teaches you to be independent, you have no-body but yourself to rely upon and you have to learn this fact quickly if you are to progress. Those that turned up to every lecture were not those that did the best, it was about the hours you put in outside of those contact hours. Furthermore, tutors were often available for further advice and support, but you had to request it.

I was fortunate that the syllabus for our course had just been changed, had I been there a year earlier, I would have been learning a lot of Flash. Instead, I was able to focus quite quickly on HTML5, CSS3 and Responsive design techniques. While I recognise that these are just techniques and tools and are also quick to become outdated, it did mean that at the time I was able to take these skills and apply them in industry – gaining internships followed by part time and freelance employment throughout my second and final years of University. It also meant we were often ill-equipped for the task; we were on old computers that ran windows XP and had to use IE8, while being asked to demonstrate use of CSS3 and responsive design techniques.

For me, this summarises both the benefits and the flaws of the University structure. It ultimately gives you the training wheels of industry, and despite the idea of going to University to be independent, there is a ‘safety net’ behind the scenes. There are colleagues, tutors and a large amount of resources that ensures you are in a positive space with others that have a common goal or interest, with a support network to make sure that you progress. Real life seldom offers this.

If you go it alone and self teach, you will need to be even more self-motivated, as you do not have your colleagues and tutors to help you along the way. On the other hand, asking Dr. Google will not cost you £9000+, and with a community as active as ours, you can easily seek advice through the likes of Twitter, StackOverflow, Dribbble and Forrst, to name a few along with referring to books, magazines and blogs. This means that you can in fact keep up with the ‘bleeding edge’ of the industry at a far faster pace than Education ever can.

Industry

So in comparison, having spent over a year out of university and in full time employment, what have I learned? How does industry differ from University?

One word. Speed.

Where I was given 3 months to create a simple site and over 6 months to create a responsive wordpress website, I simply would not be given a fraction of this in industry. In fact, if I was freelancing, I would look to deliver what I was given 3 months to do at university in a matter of days.

One big (and I believe deliberate) benefit of the huge project times at university is that it allowed for self exploration.

For example, in my final year I wanted to research Responsive design, in particular, the fundamentals of how the affordances of small and touch screens had an impact on how we approach design.

I was able to research, understand and create design patterns for responsive design based on my findings, and document it all in a 5000 word article. While I am fortunate enough to be in a job that actively encourages and advocates personal development and research, it is highly unlikely that I would find the time to be able to research in the level of depth that I did at university.

Variety and the ability to adapt also factors in. As a Designer, I have many strings to my bow and I can be working on many sites in many circumstances. In education, you never had the experience of working on a website built appallingly by someone else two-years prior, having to maintain something deprecated long before you even started developing, client liaison, huge time/budgetary constraints and not having a clue what you are doing but having to figure it out pretty damn quick.. you get the idea. In education it was very clear constraints and requirement that made the work easy to mark, when the simple fact of the matter is the web is much messier than that.

Community. Having been to several conferences, active on twitter, and run a monthly creative meetup event. I believe community factors heavily in how our industry operates. Almost uniquely, we openly advocate the sharing of lessons, advice and techniques in order to further better the web for everyone. This is something that educate could tap into in order to keep courses more up to date and allow for the gap between education and industry to be much smaller for students.

So whats the answer? Was it worth it

Ultimately, i’m afraid, there isnt a straight forward answer.

Different people learn in different ways. University creates a fantastic eco-system where there is chance to learn the fundamentals that industry require, while still having the time for self exploration and the chance to take your time and understand the fundamental principals of what you are doing. It gives you a chance to learn broader skills that can take you away from your originally intended career path and make you a generally well-rounded chap. It also gives you a chance to play a lot of Team Fortress 2, drink and socialise a hell of a lot – but that is not by any means a bad thing.

But, there are issues with the standard of courses and whether the graduates they are producing are what the industry is looking for. Universities simply are not built to accommodate a young and fast paced industry like ours. Despite claimed links with industry, there is often a huge disconnect between the two sectors and it is up to students themselves to forge these links. I believe this is where the biggest issue lies.

To me, university courses must either have a placement year, or we must take the industry to them by showing how open we are and actively encourage getting students into the workplace as interns. This is something I am trying to do by running a monthly web/creative event in Nottingham, I also believe giving lectures or seminars and taking on interns would quickly and significantly improve the present situation.

I believe a great example of the ways university courses need to adapt was displayed by the teachings of Tiago Pedras, who talked at New Adventures 2013 about the course he runs at ESAD in Lisbon – watch his talk on BeSquare.

If you choose not to take the educational route, a lot of self determination is required, but there are some fantastic resources out there that ultimately can teach you as well – if not better – than any degree can. But it is equally as important that you integrate yourself with the wider community, through twitter, attending meetings, conferences and events. We grow and prosper through the collective sharing of our knowledge.

I believe internships are the future for the web industry. In partnership with a degree, they will allow students to actively work within industry, being trained how to be a good practitioner, while giving them the time to explore the wider concepts and principals of our medium.

Having already been to art college, I had already learnt a lot in terms of formal training, design principals, being able to give and receive criticism. I took life drawing lessons twice a week and practiced in a wide range of mediums – I went to university to specialise in designing for digital things. In hindsight i’ve realised my understanding of what university would offer me was wrong, it didnt give me quite the lessons on how to code and design for screens I had anticipated. But it did allow me to carry on learning, researching and exploring in the ways I had at art college.

I believe this frames what I think universities stand for – thinking. Allow industry to teach you the practical side of things, speed and technique, while universities allow you to learn more about broader principals, theories and ideologies.

Not directly related, but Stuart Lee wrote an article in the Guardian about this, the idea that people now go to university to get a job, and not to think.

“All our universities are turning into book-balancing business schools or results-driven scientific research centres, treating students as client-customers who deserve to see an investment return in the form of increased living standards and higher salaries..”

His article is not just about universities but tv and society as a whole, but I think you can see the relevance, you can read his article: “Never mind endangered animals – it’s the thinkers that we need to save”.

In Conclusion

When I graduated I felt slightly bitter, I felt that it was all one big anti-climax. I didnt feel that I received value for the weight of a debt on my back for most of my life , and that I had ultimately received an over priced piece of paper which didnt even qualify to get me a junior design role.

In hindsight I have realised that my degree constituted much more than a piece of paper declaring my worth, it encompassed the wider experiences of those 3 years of my life, and for that I am pretty grateful. Was it the best place to learn how to become a designer? No. Was it the best place to learn how to develop websites? Certainly not. Was it a good environment to learn, grow and think? Definitely. Was it a great place to grow up (if at all) and be a stepping stone into the real world? Absolutely.