Overpriced Schools For Design, Visual Effects, Photography, Whatever

So let’s start off with the two basic points of this:

1) School is worth going to, but not necessarily the high priced ones. There is, usually, a lot to be gained from an education that can be difficult (although definitely not impossible as we’ll see) to pick up other ways. The truism “You get out, what you put in” applies to school as much or more than any other endeavor. However, ’school’ can have many meanings.

2) Starting off your career $50,000, $75,000, or more in debt is not a good way to kick things off. It’s difficult to say any education is worth that because there are so many good options for education that AREN’T that expensive.

It’s been an interesting phenomenon at Siggraph of late that the booths for the schools (Gnomon, Academy of Art, Brooks, etc) are bigger than the booths for most of the software companies or studios. This has always struck me as a little odd, until one of the folks I work with told me what the current tuition is at the school he graduated from. It’s pretty astronomical… which I guess explains the booth sizes.

This is not a rant against schools. It’s a rant against spending so much money on your education that you become hopelessly in debt once you get out. Which is a REALLY bad way to start off. And it’s even worse if you get half way through and decide it’s not what you really want to do. It is also a bit of a rant against schools who’s main admission criteria is that the student can get a loan. There are other options besides going to high priced schools and taking on a lot of debt. Don’t listen to the sales pitches the schools give you.

So what to do?

If your parents, rich uncle, or the socialite you provide pool boy services for is sporting you the money… then go for it. If someone else is paying for it, go to whatever school you get the best vibe from or think will really give you an edge (it is rare that a design school will really provide this, you get an edge by providing it yourself… more on this later). Like I said, school is worthwhile. It’s a great way to meet folks, get skills working with teams, get access to a wide range of equipment and disciplines, and find out where the good parties are. You also get access to instructors that are experienced and, sometimes, know what they’re doing and can give you some real world tips in addition to just helping you develop your skills. Staff at most schools varies in quality, but there are usually some instructors that stand out. Find those instructors and take every class they teach.

You do not NEED a school to get all this, but it does make it easier.

What other options are there?

1) You teach yourself, enroll in a less prestigious (and less expensive) school, enroll in an online training school like fxphd.com (really cool guys, great classes) or dvgarage.com (different, but also cool). Also put sites like lynda.com and even youtube.com to good use. youtube has a fair amount of good training material on it from various folks, but you do have to dig through a fair amount of crap. There are also many computer graphics (CG Society), photography (dpreview.com), and other sites out there where you can post your work and get critiques on it and/or help with problems. There are a LOT of good resources out there on the net. Use them.

2) Get an internship or entry level job doing what you want to do. Helps if you find someone to mentor you.

3) Network like crazy (this helps with #2). Join any association or group that is even remotely associated with what you want to do. Go to meetings. Go for drinks afterwards. Meet people.

4) Have enthusiasm for what you’re doing and work your ass off to master the tools you’ll need. Getting stoned and playing Wii Golf is not preparing you for a job in the game industry. Sorry. If you can’t motivate yourself enough to get off the couch, then you’re not pursuing the right career. You should be so into what you’re doing (3D modeling, animation, design, whatever) that people have to pry you away from Maya, Photoshop, your camera, or whatever tool you’re creating with. If this isn’t the case… there’s a problem.

PLEASE NOTE: 2, 3, and 4 are necessary for you to be successful regardless whether you teach yourself or pay $30,000/yr to go to an august university.

Particularly number 4. (with number 3 being almost as important)

Many successful students (and practioners) I run into have number 4 built-in. They love what they’re doing, they’re passionate about it, and because of that, they don’t mind the hard work and long hours that are sometimes necessary to be successful. These are the people schools put in their brochures as examples of what can be achieved at their school. These are also the people that need school the least. When they enter their first class, usually they’re already partially self-taught, have great enthusiasm for the subject matter, and are hard working. Yes, they need their skills polished up and refined… but internships, entry level jobs, and inexpensive public colleges can do that as well as or better than many higher priced private colleges.

Which brings us to getting internships and jobs. This is critical regardless of whether you’re in school or not. Experience matters and the only way to really get that is to go out and work. Completing a school project is worth about 1/10th of being part of a team that completes a real project. And a referral on your resume from the company you work for speaks volumes.

Schools are usually pretty good about assisting you with this. Decent career assistance is one of the things that separates the higher priced schools from the lower ones. This can be a big deal and definitely helps. There is a good deal to be said for this. However, if you are self-motivated you can build up the contacts yourself and get the jobs yourself which is a better way of doing it. How? Networking.

Networking can mean a lot of things, mostly it just means getting out, meeting people, and staying in touch with them. Every profession, and often every sub-sub-category of that profession, will have professional associations, informal meeting groups, internet forums, etc. For gaming, there’s IGDA, for visual effects, Siggraph, for photography, PPA, etc., etc. They usually have monthly meetings, yearly conventions, periodic seminars or events, and other ways of allowing members to get out and meet each other. These events are fun, informative, and usually devolve pretty quickly from conference rooms to bars. Sitting around a bar, drinking beer, talking about your passion (photography, 3D graphics, AI algorithms, whatever) is the best way there is to get a job (and possibly really screwing it up if there’s too many shots of tequila involved :-) .

A large part of getting a job is fitting into the company culture. Yes, skills matter, but your personality matters just as much. If you’ve been hanging out with the same folks periodically they’ll get a feel for your skills (i.e. do you know what you’re talking about or do you just constantly make shit up), a feel for if you’ll fit into their company, and specifically if you’ll fit into a role they recently had open up. Also, most industries are incredible small. Everyone circulates around between a few big companies and a cluster of smaller ones, so everyone knows everyone else. This is important for two reasons. 1) it means that even if the people you’ve met at these events can’t help you get a job directly, they may know of job openings and even pass your resume along. Having someone hand the hiring director your resume along with a small compliment is the BEST way to get plopped on the top of the resume pile. 2) Everyone knowing everyone else, means exactly that. If you burn bridges, it can seriously impact your career. Especially if you do it early in your career. Even if you’re in a situation you think is horrible, just find a way to exit gracefully. If the person you’re working for is a complete fucking nutcase, it’s likely that’s well known too. The fact you had enough sense to get the hell out will probably work for you.


If you’re self-motivated there are ways to get into your industry of choice without school. Not everyone is totally self-motivated and in many cases some folks want to try out a variety of different things before finally deciding on a career direction. This is a fine and valid point, and something that going to school truly allows you to do. Again, there’s ways to do this without going to school, but schools provide a great structure and environment to do this kind of experimentation. It also allows you to collaborate with students in other disciplines which can be very cool and enlightening.

One of the things I really got out of going to a 4 year university was all the classes they forced me to take and that made me a much more well rounded person. This gave me a much better understanding of the world than I ever would have got on my own. There is a lot to be said for this. Who knew that paleontology and mythology would be useful later? (it should also be pointed out that you won’t get this type of worldview from accelerated schools like Full Sail, Art Institute, or Expressions, but they will expose you to other types of creative disciplines)

This brings us back into the discussion about debt. If you have to go into a large amount of debt to get an education you really should question if the school you’re looking at will give you an advantage over lower cost options that wouldn’t put you in debt. Debt can be crushing. If you’ve never had $40,000 of debt it’s difficult to imagine it. And most students don’t do the math correctly. They 1) over-estimate what they’ll be making when they get out of school and 2) under-estimate the costs of normal living. You might say, well, if I make $40,000 a year when I get out, it shouldn’t take that long to pay off a $40,000 debt. Wrong. If you’re making $40,000/year you’re probably making $32,000/year after taxes and just scraping by after rent, car payments, food, insurance, buying a new computer every other year, and the occasional nights out. You’re not going to make a dent in that debt. In fact, most likely you’ll start adding credit card debt on top of it. For someone just starting out, it can quickly become stifling.

Which is not to say you can’t overcome it. But it will be FAR harder than you ever imagined. And the school you choose will give you few, if any, advantages.

I’ve met many designers, artists, photographers, and other creatives over the years. Some from fancy schools, some from state schools, some self-taught and the only common threads among the successful ones were a bit of talent, a joy in what they do, a willingness to work hard (because they enjoy it), and a knack for self promotion. Rarely has anyone made a comment about their schooling that has left an impression on me. When people talk about what inspired them, it is more often a specific teacher, an artist that was a mentor to them, or even a specific piece of art that connected with them powerfully.

Schools can provide a wonderful environment to learn, explore, improve your skills and grow as a person. But they can also leave you with so much debt that you find it difficult to continue that growth. It’s important to realize there are other options available to you and make the most of them.

cheers, Jim

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