Report summary: Creative Career Stories

Creative Career Stories was the second report of the Creative Graduates Creative Futures longitudinal study of the early careers of more than 3,500 creative graduates, undertaken between 2008 and 2010. It drew on findings of qualitative research, providing further insights into creative careers some five to seven years after graduation. It explored through narratives the connections graduates made between their courses and careers, in their own words.

Key findings

Creativity is the focus for creative graduates’ careers

  • Graduates often make a lifestyle choice when they choose a creative education and a creative outlook is already a way of life. After graduation, goals and aspirations remain focused on creative practice.
  • Graduates’ early career stories demonstrate a willingness to acquire new skills on the job and a determination to make creative considerations central to their career decision-making.

Creative graduates stay connected with peers and contacts

  • Creative graduates stay connected with their peers. This is important for creating opportunities, for critique, for combating the isolation of solo working, and for finding work; and continues into their careers.
  • Collaboration crucially provides opportunities to discuss work and seek feedback to progress with creative practice. Graduates value working with others and joining together to share costs or show work collectively.
  • Word of mouth and active networking are crucial for job seeking, as opposed to responding to job advertisements.

A range of factors facilitate the development of creative careers

  • Work placements and industry experience are important pre-requisites for careers and significant for gaining experience and building work contacts.
  • Graduates employ a combination of strategies, personal attributes and support to develop their careers. Key career facilitators are a strong work ethic, resourcefulness and good industry contacts to inspire, support and collaborate with.
  • Graduates often attribute their success in finding work to luck, but perhaps they are not taking credit for their own resourcefulness and openness to opportunities.
  • Graduates often return home after graduation. Family and friends are a strong source of support and their largely hidden contribution to the growth of the cultural and creative sector deserves wider recognition.

Graduates are adept at finding work in the recession

  • In their early careers, graduates make frequent job changes and undertake unpaid work to gain experience, skills and insight into different sectors, and this can cause considerable hardship.
  • The economic downturn has had an impact on incomes and on growing creative ventures, with graduates experiencing pay cuts, redundancy and increased competition. They are, however, adaptable and inventive in exploring new markets and clients.
  • The main barriers to career progression are financial, lack of contacts and relevant experience, coupled with competition and uncertainty in the creative sector. Whilst creative graduates respond flexibly to changing employment opportunities, they recognise that freelancing and self-employment are important sources of work, but they are hindered early on by lack of business experience, professional knowledge and client-facing skills.

Portfolio working and self-employment are dominant chosen work models

  • Five to seven years after graduation, creative graduates continue to engage mainly in work related to their discipline.
  • In employment, in both creative and non-creative occupations, graduates broaden their experience and take on responsibilities in management and senior roles, not always matched by higher pay.
  • Freelance and short contract work is very common immediately after graduation, and often the only work available. Portfolio careers and self-employment continue to dominate and although they develop in their creative disciplines, graduates experience some stagnation in career progression.
  • At this career stage, teaching is seen as a balancing career and a new career aspiration, as graduates derive satisfaction from combining it with creative practice and broadening their income base.
  • Creative graduates are prepared to sacrifice financial reward for the personal satisfaction they derive from creativity. Working to high standards, making new work, rising to new challenges, learning new skills, recognition by peers and client satisfaction are important, as well as facilitating creativity in others.
  • Creative graduates are realistic and recognise that their pattern of work may vary with changing circumstances and trends in the workplace. Sole traders may form working arrangements with others to collaborate on projects and work in partnership with other practitioners.
  • Work satisfaction comes from staying creative, working with others, transforming lives, teaching, learning something new and progressing their careers. Success equates with achievement and creative fulfilment above financial reward. For the future, sustaining a living through creative practice is a commonly held goal. For many, setting up their own enterprises to fulfil ambitions and undertake postgraduate study to progress in their practice are important aspirations.
  • Graduates’ concerns for the future are about the necessities of juggling career aspirations with gaining experience leading to career progression. The need for a stable income becomes more important as graduates anticipate the demands of family life.

Creative graduates value their education

  • Creative practice provides graduates with an ideology that they take with them into their working lives. They see creative education as a means of developing their potential and value ‘learning by doing’ through project-based enquiry. The majority of graduates continue their personal creative practice either at work or in their own time.
  • Graduates value the experience of peer learning, giving and taking criticism and take this approach into their working lives. They gain confidence through the process of critique and presentation on their courses and this process has been helpful for presenting and defending their work in commercial settings.
  • Graduates are able to demonstrate the transfer of creative processes and thinking into other settings through teaching, the transformation of others and in practising creativity in different settings, including non-creative occupations and non-creative sectors.
  • Respondents were asked what advice they would give to current students and to graduates about to enter their careers. In the main, they suggest a proactive approach and instilling a strong work ethic from the start – persistence, patience, resilience, fearlessness, good self-organisation and self-motivation are required – all with an eye to the future.

Graduates continue to invest in their own development

  • Graduates demonstrate a continuing commitment to advancing their careers and enjoying a variety of experiences in the workplace. They are keen to enhance their current practice and explore new areas of application for their disciplines, as well as overcome perceived weaknesses or skills gaps.
  • Professional development needs have been met by accessing training to help with current roles, gain promotion, develop their businesses and keep up with digital technologies. Those working in non-creative roles are also keen to enhance their professional standing by undertaking management development and training.

Enhancing creative careers

What are the challenges for higher education?

  • HE needs to build students’ confidence for creative careers and help them to recognise the connection between creative learning and personal fulfilment and the importance of peers in providing the foundation for professional networking and future collaboration.
  • Graduates would benefit from improved preparation for the transition into work, with further opportunities for and greater visibility of work placements, business and enterprise skills, and a good grounding in technical skills and discipline specific knowledge.
  • As graduates are likely to work freelance or on short contracts in their early careers, students need to be prepared for this with the right advice, experience and opportunities to make useful contacts on their courses, together with a realistic picture of how to go about finding work.
  • New models for employer engagement, in the form of collaborations and partnerships between HE and the creative sector will improve access to placements and work-related learning.
  • Fostering a research culture on courses will encourage innovation and prepare the next generation of teacher-practitioners.
  • Funded internships and graduate apprenticeships will provide much needed impetus to kick-start careers and help micro-enterprises to grow.

What are the challenges for the creative sector?

  • Low pay is a feature of the sector, and unpaid work is becoming a pre-requisite for career entry in a more competitive market. Micro-enterprises are happy to build capacity by taking on free labour and, whilst this provides excellent experience and learning on the job, widespread practice is unfair and even unethical. As a consequence, graduates often experience considerable hardship and exploitation in their early careers.
  • The sector needs to recognise that freelancers are innovative, flexible workers – just what the sector needs – and they continue to research their practice and build capacity through pursuing speculative and personal projects that feed into their paid work activities. They systematically go on learning and invest in their professional development.
  • Although graduates are well placed to take on responsibility in employment, this is often without higher salaries. As freelance jobbing individuals they have little opportunity to develop leadership and managerial skills, and this may have a serious impact on the health of the creative sector, on business growth, on promotion prospects and career progression.

Graduates aim to build sustainable careers, achieve improved pay levels and access funding for continuing professional development. If these aspirations are not addressed as graduates’ careers progress and they take on family commitments, how can the creative sector retain these workers and continue building capacity?