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Vol. 3 No. 3
Strategic National Arts Alumni Project
DataBrief provides arts educators and arts policy makers
with highlights of SNAAP data and insights
into the value of arts-school education.
Contact us for more information.

Focus on: Expanding the Thinking on Career Options in the Arts

This issue of the SNAAP DataBrief was written by Colin Blakely, Art Department Chair, Eastern Michigan University, and presented at the College Art Association meeting in February 2015.

Over the past half decade, the arts have been under fire in higher education. In the current climate of emphasis on STEM-based education and employment rates upon graduation as a critical metric in determining the effectiveness of university programs, I am used to feeling like my educational values are at odds with the conventional wisdom. This perhaps reached a low point when our nation’s president took a jab at the art history major by using it as an example of what he sees as the antithesis of an employable major.

Some of this is our own fault. While SNAAP and other researchers have done an excellent job promoting the value of an education in the arts to external constituents, we have done much less to encourage the same dialogue within our own departments. Internally, while we may keep long lists on hand to give to prospective students that outline potential careers in the arts, in practice many of us still see traditional arts careers as the only options for our majors, and our programs are aligned accordingly. In reality, the opportunities for our students go much further.
The good news is, we’re already doing many things right. I am not advocating that we stop training our students to be artists -- many will follow their passion for the arts throughout their careers, and those that don’t will still have gained an invaluable set of skills. In this respect, we’ve done incredible work in helping our students along.
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We have demonstrated time and again that we can teach our students to be creative. However, we seem to have fallen short in one critical area: teaching our students to be creative in looking at the options that are available to them upon graduation. As administrators, here are just a few examples of small shifts in our attitude, our curricula, and the opportunities we provide to students at the department level that can have an enormous impact on students’ ability to be successful after they graduate:

1. Think in terms of soft skills in addition to hard skills. Much like a liberal arts education, art school nurtures broadly applicable skills such as critical thinking, communication, and the capacity for lifelong learning. However, as educators we often take for granted the important skills our graduates possess: not just the ability to effectively handle paint or mold from clay, but the more transferable skills. Examples include a prowess with visual communication, creative problem solving, critical thinking, dealing effectively with ambiguity, problem solving through experimentation, inventing new ways to work within existing systems. Take every opportunity to help students see what they have learned as art majors, and encourage your faculty to do the same.
2. Organize an event for new majors. Host a reception for incoming freshman and new majors. Use this as an opportunity to deliver a presentation to students at the beginning of their college career on making the most of their college experience. Help tune them in to what they can do to distinguish themselves from their peers, not just in, but outside of class as well.
3. Promote internships. Internships are incredible confidence boosters, and give students real world experience. Equally important, they allow students to make connections that often lead to jobs after graduation. Make sure there are procedures in place that allow students to receive college credit for appropriate internship experiences. When you hear of opportunities, send them out to students via email. Monitor your internship programs to make sure your students have the best possible experience. I have found that students have very rewarding experiences and employers rave about how well the students performed; many come back to me personally asking if I can help them find another student from our programs.
4. Get to know the career counseling staff. Talk to them about careers for your students both in and out of the arts, and help them think broadly about career opportunities. More importantly, show an interest in the work they are doing and they are almost certain to return the favor.
5. Broaden the focus of your capstone class. Very few capstone classes spend time opening up students to the full range of options that may be available to them upon graduation. Set time aside for a few days in the semester to talk about how to apply for jobs, and help students become explicitly familiar with their skillsets. Discuss specific job listings both in and outside of the arts, and brainstorm with students how they might put together a strong set of application materials for each of these jobs.
6. Bring back alumni and celebrate their stories. Bring back successful alumni – both artists as well as the graduate who started a successful moving company or became a manager at the Apple store just a few years after graduation. The younger alumni tend to have stories that the students can relate to directly, and they love to come back and share their knowledge.
7. Know the statistics. Familiarize yourself with SNAAP data - both the national findings as well as the results for your own institution. (If you don’t have your own institutional SNAAP data, registration opens soon for the 2015 survey.) Read the Wall Street Journal article discussing career statistics for art majors. Recite the data not just to external constituents, but to faculty and students in your department as well!
We’ve done incredible work in helping our students along but seem to have fallen short in one critical area: teaching them to imagine the possibilities for themselves. When someone asks me what they can do with an art major, my response is simple: anything you want. This answer is of course both inspiring and infuriating. But then, as I’ve already mentioned, artists are pretty good at dealing with ambiguity.
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Registration for SNAAP 2015 is Now Open

As Colin Blakely notes, it is important to know about your institution’s arts alumni career paths. Registration for SNAAP 2015 is open at

View our Invitation to Participate. Registration will be open until July 15, 2015, but we encourage institutions to begin planning now.

For more information, contact Sally Gaskill or Rebecca Houghton at or 812-856-5824.

Photo credits (top to bottom): Lamar University, University of Utah, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Iowa State University

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