Yes, if you want to. If you are financially stable enough to do it, and you would like the space and direction to consider your practice, an MA in illustration can be really interesting, and help to expand what you do. Studying the field of illustration itself also helps you to identify your position in the industry and how it relates to others.
However, like any long term (and expensive) commitment, there are things to consider. I get into those, and some background, below.
The Expanded Version
Over the weekend of 6 September 2019 I handed in my final pieces for the first year of my Illustration MA. With Year One of two now under my belt, I feel I finally have enough perspective and experience to comment honestly on online learning, distance learning, part time learning, and Illustration as an MA subject. While my experiences of the course relate directly to Falmouth University, I think the experience of part-time online learning could be relevant for anyone considering this style of MA, especially for Illustration.
Why did you decide to learn like this?
I had wanted to do an MA in Illustration for about 2 years, but I was reluctant to move countries again, and wanted one I could do from Japan. However, I wanted to study in English, and would also get a fee discount if I were a native student, making a UK-based course the obvious choice. Distance learning, part time, meant I could continue to work full time and earn a stable income while studying on the evenings and weekends. This wold help me work towards a future I would be more happy with, while maintaining stability of income, and with no need to move house. In short, this style of learning fitted me very well.
Do I need an MA in Illustration to be an illustrator?
No! Ultimately, I do believe anyone can become an illustrator without a degree or an MA in the subject if they are motivated, business minded and work very hard. However there are, I believe, certain benefits to formal study, if that is the path you are completely committed to follow in the future.
How can an MA in Illustration help me?
The course has given me focus to improve and expand my practice. I also have to work efficiently at my full time job in order to keep up with the demands of the part-time course. As I’m getting a new qualification too, I can maintain motivation because I know I’m moving forward. I’m actively re-directing my path in life, not just settling into my routine as a working person in a job that doesn’t completely fit me.
Having the outside impetus of the course has been helpful for me to see where I need to be going and what I need to achieve to get there. It’s also helped me look at other illustrators and see how they got to where they are.
Being able to have access to staff members and their expertise has been helpful in getting me to see the gaps in my practice and the things that could be done better. The accountability of having to hand things in at certain times also helps me keep focused and produce work efficiently.
Not having direct access to printing equipment and on-site university facilities is an obvious drawback of distance learning. However, there are other tangible benefits. For example, I have access through my institution login to a huge amount of online journals and books. Falmouth also includes a combined search with Exeter, which means students have access to more resources. There’s also all the other online journal collections like Shibboleth and JSTOR. I also get student discounts again thanks to my student card, some of which (such as the Creative Cloud subscription) save me significant amounts of money.
An online MA is also exactly the same as an on-campus MA (though you should make absolutely sure of this before you apply). The qualification you gain is the same and the facilities you have access to are the same, if you can get to the campus to use them. By studying online, you are able to work in a completely flexible way, when and how it suits you, while gaining a completely valid, official MA qualification.
Studying the subject which I want to specialize in gives my interest in it legitimacy. Rather than saying “I like drawing. I’m hoping to become an illustrator one day,” I can say “I’m studying Illustration. I’m working to become a successful illustrator.”
While my work has to be up to standard too, having taken the time to actively study something can be extremely legitimizing, rather than attempting to build on an interest in your own time. This was one of the main reasons I decided to do an MA in Illustration. When reading about artists or illustrators I admired, I also noticed that almost invariably they had taken an art degree, or studied art or a related subject at some point in their careers.
I feel this perhaps more strongly because the course is with Falmouth University. The university was founded in 1902 and has a very strong, long-running reputation as an excellent arts university in the UK. While it’s been redefining itself in the last few decades, I still feel that the name “Falmouth” carries weight. It’s also quite common for people who have studied artistic degrees to have graduated from Falmouth, and I often see the name in bios and About sections on the social media of artists I admire, so it feels like you’re part of a very interesting and inspirational community.
Difficulties & Drawbacks
The cost is the main barrier to doing an MA in illustration, and the main reason that I would like to stress that you should only do it if you feel that it is right for you, and will pay off down the line. It is perfectly possible to become a very successful illustrator on your own, and you could use that money to set up a really fantastic studio, or other ways that feed your practice as it currently stands.
However, if you’re still interested, the cost of a two year part time MA at Falmouth University as of 2019 is ￡10, 600. However, you can reduce this considerably by paying in full upfront with the Early Bird system. There are also various loans and grants available.
As an online course, progress is very dependent on self-study; perhaps even more so than a traditional degree. Because it is all online, it can be tempting to skip lectures and gradually drop off in terms of engagement until the final exams. However, students who show up, work hard and engage do better than others, as with any course.
Because the course is all online, finding that sense of community which naturally develops in a campus setting can be tough. However, the weekly work encourages discussion through commenting via an online learning environment, and lectures, seminars and group sessions conducted through video chat. This helps students to foster a sense of community and allow us to get to know each other better. There are also all the other social media tools, like WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.
In my case, the students have been very proactive in finding each other online, making messaging groups and sharing their work with each other. In this case I think very much that “what you give is what you get.”
Because it is online, this type of interaction also helps us practice kind and effective communication, which, in turn, is good practice for the online communication required when setting up a freelance career in illustration.
At Falmouth there are also occasional face to face meetups organised approximately twice a year, which can be really fun and a great opportunity to really “meet” the people on the course.
People may decide to take an online, part time MA for a variety of diverse reasons. They might have a full time job, or small children. They may have a chronic illness, or be caring for a relative. Perhaps they’ve realised they need to change track? Or maybe they want to explore the topic in an academic setting. For any number of reasons, people doing an MA may not be working in the field they are studying.
This creates an issue upon graduation – what now? Try to definitively move into freelance illustration, or stick to the career you already have? For many people, I think a middle path might be most attractive – use all the skills they’ve built up to work part time while also building and refining their illustration portfolio, and reaching out to possible clients.
Studying at MA level means that a variety of professional opportunities open up. Further study, such as gaining a PGCHE is one. Some acquaintances have also moved into teaching assistant roles at art schools and universities, with a view to gaining the experience required to become lecturers themselves.
Being able to include an MA in illustration on your CV means that you will probably appear more legitimate in the creative sphere in a broader sense – article writing on arts topics, design, publishing and other creative fields also become more accessible. However, what you do and become known for is directly dictated by what you spend time on, and what you put out into the world. Purely doing the MA isn’t enough – you need to be pushing for your voice to be heard and using your time on an MA to build the best portfolio you can.
Ultimately, there is no one path – using all the skills at one’s disposal to get where we want to be is completely fine, and “success” looks like different things for different people.
For me, studying an MA in illustration part time and online has so far been an overwhelmingly positive and worthwhile experience. I would recommend it, with the caveat that you should make sure you have the time, passion and financial stability to be able to get the most out of the course.