Dear students: Who says you need a degree to learn?

yvonne kroese

Dear students,

I like to challenge conventions and ideas all the time.

And one of the topics that I can quickly get hot under the collar about is the topic of education. I think it’s a field that needs to be challenged, especially in this day and age where information runs freely and so abundantly. I’m not against the idea of learning. Far from it – I’m challenging the idea that learning needs to be in a formal environment, for a minimum of 2 to 3 years, learning about things that ultimately do not help you get to where you want to be.

You see, I get a lot of questions about pursuing a Masters degree, or even a diploma in a field that they love. And if you’re a student who knows what you want, and you have the means to go to a college or university, then by all means, go for it. But only IF you want to and feel very strongly about it and know what you want to get out of it. For the rest who don’t know what you want or can’t afford to go to college or university, then this article is for you. For those of you who don’t know whether to continue your education or not, then this is for you too.

I spent 5 years in a public university and graduated as a landscape architect back in 2004. I spent my life following a very predictable arc – primary school, high school, university, and then work. Only I didn’t work in the field that I graduated from. I felt that I didn’t belong, and after 6 months of intense internship where I gave it my best shot, I’ve deduced that I’m not suited to being a landscape architect. I hated the long hours, and the red tape that governed each project. I hated dealing with contractors and having my design torn to shreds due to shrinking budgets. And I hated AutoCAD with every fibre of my being. So much that I did my technical drawings manually (i.e. completely by hand) during my final semester when everyone else was doing theirs via computer.

So when I graduated, I turned to publishing immediately. What made me go to a publisher with nary a resume and no work history to prove my worth? Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I demonstrated what I could do instead. I wrote up an article and laid it out in Adobe Photoshop, to give an idea of the sort of articles I think should appear on the magazine. I got a callback for an interview and was hired on the spot as an editorial assistant. You wouldn’t believe the amount of push back I got from my peers and my parents about going for a job that I didn’t learn about in university! People said it would never work, and that no one would hire me – not without a Mass Communication or a journalism degree. I challenged it and proved them wrong. Heck I even went on to start a magazine for a publisher, and worked as an editor!

Was my 5 years spent in university a complete waste of time? I’d say it’s split down to 50-50. Back then we didn’t have choices. And the internet was still in its infancy. So we followed along a very linear path – one that our peers took. And the ones that our seniors followed before that. I wish that I could cut the time I spent in uni in half, but it wasn’t something that I could control. I wished that I had travelled more and explored student exchange options overseas. But that’s basically it. The upside which I could control: I’m grateful for learning a bit more about fine arts, design and the experience of working in a studio, and for the friends I made along the way. I made sure I was in control of what I wanted to learn – I enrolled in a degree that taught me the basics of design and art, even though deep down I knew that I might not work in the field I studied in. The reasons for doing so was a little complicated – I didn’t have access to a lot of courses in public university, and I didn’t go to a private college because of financial restraints (I didn’t want to get myself or my parents in debt). I made sure that the lessons I learnt, however, can be applied to virtually anything I was interested in life.

And that’s what I want people to know.

That you’re in control of what you do. That you can choose to learn at your own pace and to create your own outcome. That you don’t need a title to define yourself – you’re better off focusing on the things you want to learn, rather than what you will be at the end of a degree. That you’re no longer following a linear path – you have a wide open field at your disposal. And yes, that may be terrifying at times, but it’s also a very exciting time.

I set up this blog in 2008 precisely because I didn’t know much about illustration. I wanted to learn more from the artists I saw online. I saw their work, and I devoured their statements and went looking for patterns in their work so that I could try to get a glimpse of why they chose to create the way they do. It was always about ideas, and never about techniques for me. And so for 5 years (it’s approaching 6 now!) I learnt on my own. I saw thousands of illustrations, read thousands of bios, artists statements and concepts; talked to hundreds of artists and learnt what I could about the business. And I want to give back to people, and show others that it can be done.

Here’s another example: 8 years ago, I learnt about HTML and CSS. And PHP. I remembered that I was so frustrated for three months because I couldn’t grasp the idea behind a content management system (CMS) – this was before the heyday of WordPress – and I wanted to have a blog designed the way I liked it but I couldn’t afford a web developer. And I couldn’t tolerate the ugly designs of shopping carts back then so I had to customize my own. I wrote to developers instead, asking about the big picture and why I can’t seem to wrap my head around the core function of a CMS. I asked people in forums newbie questions, and continued my relentless pursuit of information. And then one night in an eureka moment it all came together for me – I could piece together the information because I now understood what it all meant. I happily went to work on the website and learnt bit by bit everyday.

And it was the best feeling in the world – the thought that I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my heart into it.

And so can you.


You may also find this useful: Our Good to Know series that asks artists about whether or not an art education makes a difference.
Illustration: Yvonne Kroese

[box icon=”heart”] Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. To read the entire series, click here. [/box]

19 Replies to “Dear students: Who says you need a degree to learn?”

  1. I’m so glad you posted this! I’m a self taught illustrator, I had to quit my job 3 years ago and started to learn how to draw via videos on the web. At times I do feel at a disadvantage not having a degree or formal education, I agree it’s very difficult when you come up against something you can’t work out or a shortfall in your knowledge. Having said that I’m starting to realise how far I’ve come in 3 years, how much I’ve learned and I appreciate the fact that every skill I learn is tailored to what I need to – and I don’t have a huge debt hanging over me!

    It’s hard work but it certainly is achievable, there are so many avenues to new skills nowadays – as you say, you can do anything you set your mind to!

  2. Yan says:

    selamat hari guru!

    i know its late. but this post just made me think, you are my guru, in changing my perspective. i hate engineering (which i am a graduated engineering student) and so i took off from the engineering track, and focus on music + art, which i enjoy more than dealing with machine and solving complicated math problem.

    i’ve been hustling to explain to my parents and friends that keep telling me that i have wasted my engineering study, and time and my life, by not getting employ in an engineering company. i told them that academics is not the one shaping my future. but they wont understand.

    and your post about academics and life has always helped me to shape my own universe! thank you!

    you’re my teacher. indirectly. 😀

    1. Charlene Joye says:

      Learning is never a waste. I am sure you learned more than engineering while in college; ie: how to communicate, and most important, how to think for yourself. Follow your heart, you may not make as much money as you would have as an engineer; but your life will be richer!

      1. Yan says:

        thanks charlene. and yeah. im still using my math understanding in making music. Just like the wise Bjork said; music is like algebra. 😀

  3. Boo Dillon says:

    I may not be the right person to comment on your brilliant post, in that I’m just finishing a degree in Illustration (literally one a half weeks away from finishing!), but it really is inspiring advice for anyone at any stage. I’m very, very nervous about what’s next and also all that I feel I didn’t give myself time to learn enough whilst doing the degree. It’s great to be reminded that all it takes is some drive, tenacity and just the sheer will to do it – that and the love of illustration of course! I do love your blog, thanks for the constant stream of inspiration.

  4. Rina Jost says:

    Thank you for your encouraging words 🙂

  5. Sara says:

    This is my story word for word (except I studied to be an architect) After working some years at different architect firms I realized that what I love is to draw. So now I work with illustration and setting up book. But Is has been a long way to admit it to myself and to say out loud to friends and family.
    Thanks for sharing your story – its give me confidences to continuing to do what I love. And not to see my “wrong” education as totally wasted.

    1. amy says:

      Hi Sara! High five for doing what you love – hang in there!

  6. Am says:

    Unfortunately not all employers think like you do. Many people are forced to get relevant qualifications for the field of work they want to get into, solely because prospective bosses will not even give them a glance without them. This is especially true in Asian countries, like Singapore where I live. (Yes, hello neighbour. ;)) Some form of paper qualification is the first prerequisite to even being considered for the job, which is why many people *have* to go down the formal education path even though they may already have the practical know-how and skill in the field they want to get into. Mindsets in general need to change – where people are hired based on what they can do, rather than what they possess. Unfortunately I think we are still a long way from that. At least here in Asia.

    1. amy says:

      Hi Am!
      For certain careers there’s no other way – doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, etc. But for the rest like writers, artists, businesspeople – their trajectory doesn’t necessarily need to be linear. Perhaps where I am it’s a little more flexible, but it also depends on the employer and their culture. If they’re open to a bit of creativity then people need to make the most of it. So you’re right about how mindsets need to change to focus on people and what they can do instead of what paper qualifications that they possess. But until that happens, we need to find it within ourselves to try and change the perception of others and do what we can. That’s my two cents!

  7. Ella Goodwin says:

    Great post Amy, I did actually do my BA, MA (and PG Cert as I wanted to be able to teach). My BA and MA were both in Animation though and apart from web site interactivity I do very little now as I am so much more engrossed in illustration. However I enjoyed every second of my MA, it enabled me to mould my own career pathway and gave me the confidence to realise I could make it whatever I wanted it to be. I learned not only about my own process but about organising myself to deadlines, how important it can be to push yourself out of your comfort zone, it made me show other people my work (which always terrified me!) and find it really is possible to make a living out of doing what you love. It was actually a few years after my MA that I finally took the leap though from digital art technician to tutor and freelancer as I still think being in the real world making your own way is always going to have the biggest learning curve and make you who you are.

  8. Kenn Munk says:

    Nice read, I am part of a project called A secret club and we work with teaching outside of the system, the path you chose, you could only choose because you’re a creative person, weren’t it for your resourceful, creative thinking, you wouldn’t have questioned convention, so THAT is what we need to teach kids. (in addition to all the box-ticking subjects they study.)

    1. amy says:

      I love the idea Kenn! And yes, we need to teach kids about questioning things (not in a paranoid way, but to engage in healthy conversations about their future!)

  9. Elise says:

    This post was really a timely read for me, since I am considering going back to school for a degree in Graphic Art (or some art-related field). I went to school 2 years ago after graduating high school to be a Medicall Biller and Coder. That was a field I wasn’t very interested in, and the school was terrible and expensive. Now I’m paying back student loans 🙁

    I think the difficulty that arises when you don’t get a degree is that it is hard to start something up with out capital or resources. For instance, if I’m enrolled in school I can get huge discounts on software, like the Adobe suite, that I otherwise would be unable to afford. Also, luckily since I moved out from my parents house, I am super poor and would probably get into the local community college for free.

    There’s a lot to weigh – I really like to be self-taught and in control of my time, but I also need to make more money soon.

    1. amy says:

      Hi Elise,

      I understand it’s a catch-22, and indeed you need to make more money before you can do any of the above. But I love this article by Paul Graham on being relentlessly resourceful: Obstacles are external factors, and most of it can be solved through internal means – and that means shifting your perception. For example, there are free softwares out there available if you can’t buy Adobe right now; like Gimp And you can enroll in classes on Skillshare that you enroll for the price of a meal or two to get you started.

      Good luck!

  10. Francine says:

    Looks like you wrote this article especially for me since I have just quit my job to pursue a career in illustration.
    I have a degree in Psychology but realized last year that drawing could actually (and mostly needed to!) be my full time job.
    Unluckily, where I live (Italy) education (and/or who you know) matter more than the actual desire, talent and need of doing something creative. That’s why I am going in search of better luck (read search as “begging someone to hire me”) somewhere else, where I hope somebody will take a chance on me.
    If you have some advice to enlighten my path with, I would be eternally grateful.

    1. amy says:

      Hi Francine,

      Do look up the comment I wrote to Asuaraz, and perhaps that will help! I don’t agree with being desperate to be hired – clients will be able to detect this a mile away! In your case, I recommend taking on a part time job (read this:‎ ) and then build your portfolio. You can go international, and not just the Italian market! Out there your work speaks louder than the qualifications that you have, especially when it comes to art/design.

      I hope this helps!

  11. Lisa Chow says:

    Hi Amy! I think it’s really telling that this article is ringing true with so many readers.

    I am also one who pursued an education in a field I wasn’t passionate about, worked in the industry 5 years (is 5 the lucky number? =P) and then quit to pursue art and illustration. It’s been about 3 years and it’s still really, really hard but also extremely fulfilling. I find that there are many people who admire the self-made-man…or woman…spirit. If your work is great, it speaks for itself.

    Bravo to all you fellow dream pursuers! We need to rally together so more and more opportunities open for us self starters. =)

    1. amy says:

      Thanks for the comment Lisa! Perhaps we should start a club, LOL! 😉

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