Over the past year I have received many emails asking about MA Illustration at Falmouth University. I have decided to compile the common questions into an FAQ for people interested in the course to refer to. I am in no way affiliated with Falmouth University and the thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own, based on the time that I was a student on the course from 2018 – 2020. As I was part of the first ever cohort to graduate from the course, the content may have changed a little since when I was there. However, I hope that you find it useful.
What made you choose Falmouth’s MA Illustration course?
I wanted to reorientate my career towards illustration and design and needed more structure to make that happen. I thought that a part-time, online MA would be a good way to allow me to study and gain another qualification without disrupting my life, while working and having income. I physically wasn’t in a position to be on campus. I had a contractual commitment to my work, a Japanese partner who was unable to move to the UK and I had just enough time to study. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.
I chose Falmouth because it has an excellent reputation in the UK and abroad as a seminal arts university. It is a long-established creative hub in the UK and I believe that the name carries weight. Falmouth has also been working to offer sector-leading online courses. Their online platform, Canvas, seemed stable, reliable and user-friendly and I felt that they would offer good IT care. The communication from staff and the Admissions department was also excellent, which gave me confidence that I would be well taken care of for the duration of the course.
Is It worth It?
I want to do the course, but I’m not sure it will ‘pay off’ for me down the line.
An MA is a big commitment. It is a lot of money and the decision to take the course should be made with care. Take the time to think about it. Falmouth has rolling intakes throughout the year, so there is no need to rush the decision.
Only you can judge how much the course will benefit you. Perhaps the benefits will be more intangible, such as encouraging you to see the world in a different way, or giving you more confidence in your creative vision. Perhaps the benefits will be more tangible, such as helping you to increase your income from illustration, or giving you the tools to market your illustration as a business. Either way, if it is financially feasible and you think it would feed your practice, it could be worth considering the course seriously.
However, all you really need to be successful in illustration is to produce work well and consistently and you do not need an MA to do that.
I’d love to give the artist in me a chance, but I like my current work. Should I take the course?
The artist in you will always be there, no matter where your income is coming from. Just because you don’t do an MA doesn’t mean that you can’t make room to be artistic in you in your daily life.
On the other hand, if art is something you want to focus more time on, or something that you want to be ‘what you do’ in the future, then an MA in Illustration could be an interesting idea. There were all sorts of people on the Falmouth MA Illustration course, some of them with small or grown-up children, working full time or having been out of academia for many years. I think all of us were in a similar situation – pulled between different commitments and interests. Doing the MA meant we could commit to give our interest in illustration room to grow, with (for many of us) the aim that illustration would be a primary source of income following the MA.
There were also several successful artists and illustrators on the course who were looking to deepen their academic understanding of illustration. Meeting people who were already successful in the field was very beneficial for me.
Do you have any regrets about the course?
This is an academic MA, not a practical one – I am not sure that I understood the implications of that going into the course. As an academic MA, there was little focus on improving technical skills during the course. The course leaders assumed a previous grounding in art and common techniques, through study or personal practice. I think it was a great loss that we didn’t have practical lessons in print making, oil painting or the other specific, physical skills that you might hope for from an art school or a foundation course. However, there were more broad classes, such as life-drawing.
Have you had the chance to experiment with any new mediums, illustration styles or ways of working during the MA?
Yes, experimentation is actively encouraged throughout the MA and is even listed in the marking criteria for certain modules. We are encouraged to try different media and ways of working. We are encouraged to expand our practice and look for new ways to express ourselves.
However, it should be noted that the experimentation is generally self-led. We were not given specific classes in, for example, print-making or lino-cutting during my time on the course, but we are encouraged to try new materials ourselves.
The extent to which this is possible also may depend on the space and the facilities you have access to (and the financial resources). However, if you were living near Falmouth, as a Falmouth student, you would have access to all the equipment that the university offers, the same as an on-campus student.
How much of the course is theory and how much is practice?
I would say that the theory/practice balance overall was about 50/50. We would have more practical work during some modules than others and more reading or writing in other modules. In particular, the first module my cohort did focused extensively on the theory of semiotics. While I think that being able to talk meaningfully about illustration, using correct terms and technical language, is useful for conveying your ideas, the readings did seem excessive at times.
However, I think that the sound grounding in theory that the MA offers would perfectly position one for a career as an illustration lecturer, or further study, such as a PhD in Illustration. One nice aspect of the MA’s theoretical side was that I could have my readings in my bag, carry them around and dip in and out of them during the spare movements I had during my commute or lunch break. This helped to make the workload more manageable than if it had been a purely practical MA.
The inclusion of theory, research and essays means that people who enjoy that kind of study will be able to raise their marks through good research techniques or a great essay. The downside is that most illustrators tend to be more hands on and I think that many may struggle with or be put off by some of the more theoretical aspects of the course.
Do you get much IT teaching, e.g. in graphics design or Adobe apps?
The course did have a couple of very specific classes on masking in Photoshop or creating brushes, but they assumed a basic knowledge of the programs we used. There was, however, no assumption that we would work digitally – many on the course worked almost exclusively in traditional media, so I do not think that a lack of digital skills will hamper you unduly. I personally do feel that everything is easier when you have good digital skills, but the students on the course had a range of ages and software literacy.
There are many ways to be an illustrator – If you feel more drawn to making physical work, then that is completely fine. Physical work is very highly regarded by the tutors and if your practice focuses mainly on printmaking, drawing with ink or painting, then go with that. To manage the MA and to submit work, I would honestly say that at the bare minimum that you really need is a digital camera and enough knowledge of Microsoft Word to write essays and compile portfolios. If you can scan your work, then all the better.
However, having good digital skills was a priority of mine. Besides being useful and expanding your practice, having good digital skills gives you an edge when it comes to putting your work together beautifully for submission, which can result in a more ‘professional’ appearance (and possibly higher marks). I took three extra Adobe ACA Courses online through Falmouth, in Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign while on the course. Being able to do the courses through Falmouth reduced the cost significantly. The courses helped me become much more confident in these programs and also gain industry standard qualifications which I can add to my CV, helping me get to get work in illustration and graphic design after the course is over. If you also have an interest in expanding your digital skills, I would recommend looking into them and Falmouth’s other IT training courses while studying the MA.
Is it very daunting to show your work and how often did you meet as groups to discuss the work?
We would generally discuss work via message board once a week or so (we would post our work with a brief description for crit) and face to face about once a month, but it varied throughout the course. It is a little daunting at the beginning, but once we all got to know each other and settled into a rhythm with the course, that anxiety wore off and I began to really look forward to the group sessions, as they offered me direction and guidance. It was also interesting to see how we got to know each other through our work and our own distinctive styles.
I am worried about having weekly work critique as I have never done an art degree.
I’m sure that even if you have misgivings, you will get into the swing of things with the course once it begins. I think we all have doubts about our abilities or creativity at the beginning, but the pace of the course is quick enough that there isn’t too much time for worry once it begins.
I found that the other students and the lecturers on the course were all lovely people – their crit was always said with kindness and the aim of expanding our practice.
Is there are large amount of essay/dissertation writing?
Yes, the essay writing is quite considerable. Again, it varies by module, but each module you will need to submit a Report or Essay which can vary in size from 2500 words to 8000 words.
I think the first module in particular (ILL10) is often a shock for people – you need to write a Manifesto, which is basically describing the type of illustrator you want to become and why, and some case studies of illustrators you like. There is a lot of reading for that module too, but after that one the balance does get better in terms of practical/academic work.
MAs are, however, primarily academic courses. I think that some people in our cohort were a bit surprised at the amount of academic reading and writing needed. I personally enjoyed it as it helped me think about illustration as a whole and I also like writing so I think the essays also helped to lift my marks, but everyone is different. The Portfolio will generally be weighted more heavily in the marking, too (60-80% of the overall mark), so in reality the drawing is generally more important than the writing. However, the writing can help to raise your marks if you take it seriously.
I’m dyslexic – does Falmouth offer any support?
I’m also dyslexic and dyspraxic – I forget things, am scatterbrained, read numbers and letters the wrong way round etc… but I had a diary, an online calendar and made sure to print and file everything as soon as I got it. I took time to read things, but would highlight and take notes to help around deadlines. I used apps like OneNote, Trello and Notion to remind myself what I needed to do and when and organize my notes. If even I can do it, I’m sure that anyone with similar learning difficulties would be alright.
Falmouth does offer various options for extensions, extra time and extenuating circumstances. You can speak to your student advisor about applying for an Independent Learning Plan (ILP). Having an ILP set up means that if you are feeling stressed or pressured, you can request extra time specifically when you need it. I think the system is very good and Falmouth was very understanding. There are also other subsidies, such as the Disabled Student’s Allowance, which Student Services and your student advisor can give you more information about.
What was the Portfiolio like that you submitted to Falmouth?
Using WayBack Machine, here is the portfolio that I submitted to Falmouth. At the time I really wasn’t sure if this was the kind of thing they were looking for. I made a separate, dedicated page on my website to host the portfolio and submitted that. In the application they will also ask for a link to your website, so the portfolio page could be completely stand-alone from the other content on your site. https://web.archive.org/web/20180826223820/https://ottiliastephens.com/
Should I include my life studies, which show technical ability but are not very in keeping with my illustration work?
It could be a good idea, but make sure that the overall look of the portfolio is fairly consistent. I think that, from Falmouth’s perspective, your creativity and individuality as an illustrator may be more important than raw technical skill. More generally, as always, make sure that the work you have in your portfolio really represents you and that it is your best work.
The two years look very full. How manageable has the workload been?
I think the short answer is that the two years are very full, though hopefully they may have reduced the work load a little from when I was doing it. I think it would be a good idea to look at the hours you have available to you and make a calculation based on that to see if you practically have enough time to do the work.
For example, Process and Practice was the first module that I did. Each module has to make up 300h of study time. Based on the Module Descriptor for Process and Practice, that includes:
Practical classes and Workshops: 42h
Self study: 218h
A module normally runs for 12 weeks. So, this means (in theory) you would need to do 3.5h study a day, including lectures and self-study (12 x 7 = 84 days; 300h/84 days = 3.5h per day). However, I am sure that no-one actually does this. The work load varies. It can be bundled on the weekends and you can work in the way which suits you to economize your energy and get the maximum impact for the time you put in. I would recommend setting aside minimum about 5 hours of focused time a week to get the work done.
I think the key is to work efficiently and to know what you are meant to be doing. Make sure you know exactly what is required and check frequently to make sure you haven’t misunderstood or gone off on a tangent which may waste time (unless you are required to experiment as part of the marking criteria). Make sure you file everything, know where things are, keep on top of the weekly work and that you know the marking criteria well.
My cohort was the ‘guinea pig’ cohort as we were the first to do the course. As such, the amount of work expected may have been reduced a little compared to what we had to do. Although it varied module to module and week to week, at some points it did feel very extreme.
I think part of the issue with the workload is that we have to submit a portfolio and an essay/report for every module. That means that you have two sizeable pieces of work to submit, made in very different ways, with the same (or nearly same) deadline. I’m confident writing essays so I was very lucky, but some people in our cohort definitely struggled a lot with the more academic side of the MA. Our cohort did have several people drop out, which I think that was due to the workload, so hopefully they’ve remedied that situation now.
How did you manage the MA while working full time?
When I was doing the MA, I was working weekdays 9:00-17:00 with a 3h commute per day, so I needed to be economical with my time and energy. I would do the work required to be submitted each week, but in a couple of focused hours spent in a cafe after work (for reading/writing/note taking), or at home on the weekend (for actual illustration). I would generally conserve my energy for a rush around the last month of the module, but made sure to be very organized and keep all my readings/artwork in order.
I certainly wasn’t doing 218h of self-study (see above), but I made sure I did just enough to keep afloat and stayed organized. I think uncertainty can waste a huge amount of time, so as long as you know the marking criteria well and stick to an idea once you’ve decided on it, I think it’s possible to manage the MA and a busy work life at the same time.
How much time did you spend each week studying for the MA?
So, the workload varied on the MA depending what was happening at the time. Each module except the last one would have week to week work for the first half or so, then we would be turned loose to work on our final submissions. These would be a Portfolio of work from throughout the module, plus an Essay or Report.
In theory, we are meant to do 300h of study per module, with a hefty chunk of that supposed to be self-study. On paper, it would generally work out as about 2.5h -3.5h of study required per night. However, I don’t think that most people did that.
For me, my week looked like this: Mon – Fri: Out of the house for work 7:30am – 18:30pm. Weekends: generally off.
So, I had quite a long and tiring working day, but I didn’t have children or other commitments like that. I found the workload manageable for the most part, but would end up doing most of the work on the weekends. If I had a deadline looming I would also do work every day after my regular work.
For example, my week would look something like this:
Normal week: Attend a webinar (1-2h), do reading in a cafe after work (2h, maybe twice), do my catchup work on the weekend (4h each on sat/sun).
Deadline week: No webinars, write essay in a cafe (1-3h per night on week nights), do all portfolio work on the weekend (8h+ per day).
However, I did take my work very seriously and was overall very happy with my marks.
Is there a small break between modules, or does one module roll into another?
Yes, there is a short break of several weeks between each module, but for me, it often didn’t really feel like a total break. We would be sent reading lists for the next module and starting it would be in the back of my mind. However, it was also nice to have periods with no work expected from us.
Online Vs. On campus
Is it possible to learn new physical illustration skills on a course that is taught exclusively online?
I think physical skills can be taught online, but also that students’ ability to innovate and experiment is affected by the equipment, space and resources that they have access to. The physical act of making should still be incredibly important, but lack of professional equipment as well as being unable to easily ask technicians for help would severely limit the possible outputs for most online students compared to those who have access to campus facilities.
Overall, the MA is a little light on expanding practical skills. We’re very encouraged to explore and educate ourselves and Falmouth also offers many industry software training courses at a discount. However, the MA doesn’t really involve software training or practical skills development innately. It’s more about thinking about who you are as a maker and about the place of illustration in the world as an industry. However, I’ve found it very worthwhile overall and did experiment with some new materials and ways of working using my own interests and initiative. Seeing the work produced by other members of the cohort was also inspiring for me and helped me to push the boundaries of my practice a little more.
Did you wish you had been on campus?
Personally, I don’t wish I had been on campus. Since this MA is online and part-time, you could move whenever you like. As an online Falmouth student, you would still have access to everything that on-campus students do, if you were close enough to use the facilities. In that sense, you could move to Falmouth whenever you wanted to and still do the online MA for flexibility.
While the MA is very flexible and suited me very well, I did sometimes find my lack of access to facilities rather limiting. I would have loved to experiment with printing equipment, or textile creation, or maybe even making three-dimensional pieces in a dedicated studio space. While I could in theory do any of that at my apartment in Yokohama, I’m unlikely to pay a lot of money for equipment that may not suit my work style.
If you’re on campus as an on-campus student, or close to campus as an online student, you would have access to all the university facilities very easily and could experiment more freely. This might expand your practice in ways you wouldn’t expect.
If you are on campus, you also have easier access to staff. Being an online student, it can be hard to email staff members you haven’t had any interaction with just because you know of them and would like to ask them about their work. On campus, I think those spontaneous connections are easier to make.
I personally have made a very close-knit group of friends from the course, but that is because we were all very active in messaging and following each other. I also set up webinars just to get to know other people in my cohort, which helped a lot. In terms of contact with staff, things can take a little longer over email and I honestly don’t think my connections with staff are as deep as they could have been if I were on campus. That said, I could get help whenever I needed it and we did have online tutorials very regularly. I guess that ‘what you give is what you get’ in terms of networking and connections – being off campus does not have to be a limiting experience.
How was your social life on the course?
In general, quite good. I messaged with the cohort constantly and felt like I really got to know everyone in the group. We all followed each other on social media and if the COVID-19 pandemic had not happened, we would also have had several field trips together. I did not feel isolated at all and I think the regular webinars and group seminars helped to get to know people’s faces, voices and work.
I honestly think that the connections I’ve made during the course rival many of those that I made during my on-campus BA degree.
Even after the course, we are all keeping an eye on one another via social media and are interested to see how our practices are expanding and evolving. As with many things, once again, I think that ‘what you give is what you get’. Be socail, friendly and reach out to people and you should be able to leave the course with a group of likeminded friends in your pocket.
How has the course been viewed by prospective employers so far?
In September 2020, just after finishing the course, I was hired for a new job as one of 4 out of a pool of over 70 applicants. I think that having an MA on my CV certainly helped me get the job. More specifically, having an Illustration MA has helped me be given illustration and design work at my new job, too – the role I was hired for was not illustration-related, but I am often given design and illustration work from my own and other departments. This is a big change compared to prior to the MA and I am deeply happy that even in my non-illustration-related job, the tasks I am given often involve design and illustration.
I think that taking Adobe ACA courses to gain qualifications in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign also helped my employer understand that I had tangible skills in illustration and design software. The ACA courses were not part of the MA, but can be taken at a discount online through Falmouth, which I highly recommend. Having them on your CV helps to add another level of ‘credibility’ to your CV and they also show that you have industry standard skills to boot.
One of the benefits of an MA is being introduced to lots of helpful people and given contacts. Were you given any useful contacts during the course of the MA?
I would say that this was rather less than I had hoped. We did do classes with interesting illustrators in the first year and would receive their contact details. However, you have to be proactive to contact them and enquire about their practice. I would say that the real joy of the MA was to meet other like-minded souls amongst the students. We built a strong community and still contact each other often. Knowing other people in the creative sphere is helpful as it pushes me to continue my own practice.
Has the course helped you to get into the illustration world?
Yes, I think it has, though this is mainly due to me seeing myself as an ‘illustrator’ and promoting myself more effectively – confidence that I may not have gained without the course. One good thing about the MA is that it does have business-focused modules, where we are encouraged to think of concrete business plans for our illustration and develop items which would be marketable. This forced us to think practically about how to market ourselves and was a helpful experience.
In 2020 I began receiving regular, paid commissions, at the rate of about 1 – 2 a month from acquaintances, family and businesses. This has been very exciting – although not yet enough to live on, it helps to supplement my income and gives me experience in handling real commissions.
Doing the MA raises the interest from a hobby to something you are hoping to make into your career (or at least, focus considerable energy on). I have found that a knock-on affect of this is that the people around me also see me as ‘an illustrator’. This may sound silly, but it’s a big change compared to before starting the course in 2018. This has helped me get commissions through word of mouth. I find that my work is generally re-orienting itself much more in a creative direction. So yes, the course has helped me get into the illustration world, but you also need to be making the work and putting it out there to get noticed as a freelancer.