Should I Major in Art in College?

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High school students ask me if they should go to art school… with hope in their voices. Their parents ask me if I think art is a practical choice for a college major… with skepticism. And as a kid who dreamed of being a photographer – and a parent who knows that making it in the art business is tough… I’ll try to answer the question honestly.

This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot. I’m a professional photographer, and it’s a tough business. It’s incredibly competitive – and just having talent in art isn’t enough. I started out as an art student – studying photography and painting and drawing… and all the other requirements for a degree in the liberal arts. A student who graduated with a degree in art usually gets a basic education in math, science, and language as well. I don’t know of any schools that don’t require a well-rounded collection of classes. But in the end, I’m glad I decided to change my major.

I eventually earned a degree in information technology. I know – that seems like an odd choice for someone who was already building a photography business. But, it was definitely the right thing for me, rather than going through art school. See, the thing is, you don’t need a college education in order to learn to make great photographs – and there are so many ways to learn. Spending time working as a photography assistant, going on a workshop or two, shadowing a pro, and doing lots of research online… all of these are great ways to learn. But building a business? That’s an entirely different thing. If you want to be successful – to make money from your art, you need a different kind of knowledge.

The problem I’ve seen with students who finish college with a degree in art or photography, is that they feel lost once they are done with school. A business degree would help them start and run a business. A marketing degree would help them market their work. A degree in information technology (like mine) would let them build their own website, handle e-commerce, and understand the software they use for post-processing. A degree in language arts would help them write great articles so they can get published in magazines or write books. See where I’m going with this? Most art students know how to make art… but being a professional photographer is about SO much more than that.

And of course – there’s always the fact that photography is an extremely difficult world to break into. The odds of being able to make a living from it are small – so having a degree in something more “practical” is a great idea. But please don’t be discouraged! If you are determined and willing to work very hard, you can make it as a photographer. I know that’s true, because I did it myself. But remember – part of “making it” is being practical about the choices you make along the way.  The ones who succeed are the ones who understand that being a professional artist takes a lot more than just artistic talent.

If you do decide to major in art, make sure the school you’ll be attending has a well-rounded program. In addition to the classes you need for your major, look for classes that teach important skills like marketing, business, writing, computers, and so on. You might also want to consider a double major, or minor in art while concentrating your studies in another field. While you are in school, look for internships and find photographers who will let you shadow them while they work. Make connections with other photographers who know more than you do. Ask a million questions… and take note of how others are running their businesses, how they make money, how they market their work, and how they become successful. Watch for and learn from their mistakes, too… it’s always better to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make your own. 😉

For those of you who dream about being professional artists… you can do it if you are willing to work for it. 😉 Good luck!

And for all of you – what advice can you offer to someone who wants to be a professional artist?


About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • Pamela Reynoso

    I think there is another way to look at this topic and I would submit that the logic goes both ways, one can learn photography outside of college, but the same holds true for business. I think the larger question might be ‘Why do you want to pursue art?” If it’s for pragmatic reasons such as income generation your journey might be different than for another for whom it is their deepest passion, and the reasoning behind which route to take will vary. I think of my husband as an example. I believe in his thesis for his dual master’s program in Art and Art History where he wrote that though he felt drawn to a potential career in law (he tested excellently on the LSAT and law is his father’s profession) he chose to continue in art rather than law because, ultimately, he could imagine his life without law, but he could not imagine his life without art. His pursuit of art began simply with a 4 year art degree with no firm plans past creating art. Then he got his Master’s and became a professor of art. He is now getting his PhD in Art History and Aesthetics. He writes well and prolifically even though he’s never been an English major, and he speaks publicly on art though he’s never been a Communications major. He learned web design and maintenance because he needed to for his own purposes. My point in all that is that you can learn what you need to learn in many ways. We discussed this blog post this morning and one thing he stated was that photography is a part of art as a whole and art is really a long-standing conversation. He contends an education in art, specifically, can really be beneficial in being conversant in that long-standing conversation. He also shared some stats about how poorly those with business degrees actually do in the areas of problem solving and (I believe) written communication across the board which are most desired by employers. These are the same skill sets required of an entrepreneur/business owner. 🙂

  • Great and important article Varina

    To address Kevin Moore. All disciplines in schools only prepare you for that “Job” whether is is photography, IT, pharmasist or engineer. The difference is, most likely in those other fields you can get a job working for someone. As it stands currently in photography, you will most likely be self employed. You MUST know how to run a business to be successful in photography as a business. If you try to run it as an artist or a hobby, you simply will fail

  • Great post and great advice Varina! I totally agree. I do think in addition to your thoughts on getting a degree in something that helps you in Photography, a degree doesn’t matter as much as experience. I think the biggest thing you can get from college is critical thinking skills and a paper that has the University seal on it.

    Go out, find a job, do an internship, whatever you can to gain more experience in and around the field you want to develop your career in.

  • This is a tough question for me because of my past.

    Yes, I went to school for art and focused on photography. I have applied my degree and learnings. Had a blast in college with great life experiences.

    However, every month I pay on my student loan.

    When I went to school there very little free or affordable education out there. The internet wasn’t what it is now.

    Generally I think college, today, is a giant rip off and waste of money.

    If you want to learn photography there are so many online resources available for free or cheap.

    Creative Live is providing in depth education for free and dirt cheap. I watched three days of product photography instruction streaming at no cost.

    The truth is very few colleges prepare students for the real world. As a photographer or artist the real world is running a business. Not being an artist or photographer.

  • Melli

    This is an awesome blog post! I think the advice is really great!

  • Kevin Moore

    It sounds like photo and art schools are not doing a good job adjusting to the new market. All of the skills you mention are essential but it seems that most schools are doing a poor job teaching anything but the art portion. As a parent of a child that is considering photo school, I find this concerning. It doesn’t matter how good of a photographer you are if you can’t write blogs, market your business and know how much money you need to generate to support yourself.

  • Uau!, so interesting your words and very important things to consider when you want become a photographer.

    Thank you for sharing your experient .