10 tips for a creative career

 13 January 2013

Alison Baverstock has written books on being a writer and how to find a job in both publishing and heritage. Having worked in a variety of creative jobs, she shared 10 pieces of advice for any creative career.

Alison is the author of 'How to Get a Job in a Museum or Gallery' and co-author of 'How to Get a Job in Publishing'.
Alison is the author of 'How to Get a Job in a Museum or Gallery' and co-author of 'How to Get a Job in Publishing'.

When I was in my final year of university, I knew I wanted to work in a creative sector, but I wasn't entirely sure in what capacity. I was studying Medieval History and Fine Arts at St Andrews University, and when a former student came to talk about careers in art galleries and museums, I was smitten. For a long time, that was my goal.

I sought relevant work experience, including a memorable summer in the Scottish National Gallery which included escorting a party of French school children – in French – around the summer’s Degas exhibition. 

In the end, however, I decided my skills also fitted a marketing role in the publishing industry.

The division between my professional and personal interests has never been clear cut. I've maintained a profound interest in the heritage sector. I've worked with art publishers on gallery projects, and with museums on their publishing skills. I've also written about it all.

I’ve been employed and self-employed. I now have a teaching and research role at Kingston University, where I am Course Leader for the MA in Publishing – with good links to our famous faculty of Art and Design.

I've also just done an Outdoor Ceramics course at South Hill Park, and I'm still planning to one day do an art foundation course.

So right now, it’s interesting to be asked to look back and think about what advice I would offer to others planning a career in the creative sector. Here goes:

1. Understand that you have choice

My father doggedly stuck with the same career all his life. He thought it would be the same for me, and he was dismayed when I decided not to use my degree subjects in my career after all.

He assumed that having decided against a career in museums, I would be locked out forever.

"Today’s job market is much less segmented. You no longer have to choose a path when you leave university and stick to it."

Today’s job market is much less segmented. You no longer have to choose a path when you leave university and stick to it. 

Creative people tend to find it easy to get engaged. They are able to make connections where others don’t. Right now, an ability to think laterally and cross-refer across practice, interests and disciplines is a big advantage. 

I benefitted from this when, having co-written a book about careers in publishing, I was asked by my publishers to write another, this time about how to get a job in a museum or art gallery. It was felt that my objectivity and ability to think across disciplines would be helpful.

2. Keep learning

Passion, and developing this into particular specialisations, fuels your professional usefulness. It can also be contagious. It provides consolation when things do not go as planned, and it also makes you memorable. 

Nick Hornby's novel 'Fever Pitch' is semi-autobiographical and based on the author's love of Arsenal Football Club. In the book, he talks about the comfort of knowing that when friends hear news of the team, they think of him.

I often tell my children that a day will come when their ability to point out the ‘strong verticals’ on the 1930s buildings so loved by their mother will be useful.

3. Consider what kind of organisation will suit you

Large creative organisations tend to have formalised plans and training budgets. But they can mean you are siloed into a particular function. This can make it harder to gain a wider understanding of what is going on.

Small organisations, by contrast, may mean you are nerve-wrackingly close to the bottom line – and no job at all. However, they often enable you to get involved in all aspects of product/service delivery.

But without at least one stint of working for a large organisation on your CV, you risk being permanently seen as a ‘small organisation person’.

"There is a wealth of interesting creative careers out there – all of which are achievable."

This may not matter to you, but if you want to have a choice long-term, think about early career experience with a large organisation.

Having said that, the future is never predictable. All organisations are likely to change, merge, decline, or even cease to exist.

You should remain alert to the internal politics of any organisation you work for, but remember to keep a sense of perspective. This should include an awareness of how your particular function, organisation or sector is seen from outside.

4. Copywriting is important

Most things can be justified if they are effectively explained.

This includes any gaps on your CV, unlikely-looking subjects for your dissertation or degree courses, unpromising work experience, or a short term stay at an institution with 'national treasure' status.

Being a skilled wordsmith is a very useful art, and you should develop it best by being a regular reader.

5. Learn how to win an audience

Most creative events require enough people taking part to make them financially justifiable.

If you can identify a likely audience, communicate effectively with them and motivate attendance, you will be a powerful asset to any organisation you get involved with.

To promote these skills, it’s a good idea to expand your life experience. Go to events that are outside your usual range. Aim to understand how other people spend their time.

Observe the details: what the audience wears, how they talk to each other, and how they got there. In particular, try to spot what's not currently working well – where are there not enough chairs? Where could service delivery be improved?

Think like a consumer, and you are in a better position to emerge with exportable knowledge.

6. Stay curious

Talk to people and find out how their processes work. Some of my most interesting interviewees have been found by accident, often through conversations on public transport.

For example, a recent conversation I had with the parent of one of my son’s friends, a GP involved in care for the terminally ill, enabled us to spot significant overlaps between her practice and the writing of effective media information.

"Keep volunteering. Cross-organisational work experience offers real value."

Both of us need to make those reading see the most important messages first. We need to avoid complicated sentences, and make sure there is someone knowledgeable available to talk at all times.

Finding such strong overlap between our ideas, we then talked further about how to build relationships within our sectors.

Along similar lines, keep volunteering. A cross-organisational work experience can offer real value in helping you see how things look from a different department. Internships do not have to be solely in the role you envisage for your long-term career.

Understanding the perspective from a different side of the organisation/sector may enable you to stand out at interview.

7. An interview is a two-way process

When you go to an interview, it's as much an opportunity for you to find out about them as it is for them to find out about you.

Even though you admire the brand, or like visiting the institution, that doesn't necessarily mean you would enjoy working there. Being the only person trying to change an organisation can be very lonely.

So, when you go along for an interview, have your antennae bristling to pick up all the information you can. Trust your judgement – looking back now, it’s surprising to me how often my initial impression turned out to be right.

Keep asking yourself whether you like the atmosphere and feel as though you would fit in. We can all afford one short-term work project which didn't work out, but a series of brief stays on a CV can start to look suspicious.

8. Find people who will encourage you

If you can, find a mentor. Find someone who will help you plan, be pleased for you when things go well, and offer pragmatic realism when they don’t.

Recruiting such an individual may not be the one-way process you initially envisage. At Kingston, we've had great success in linking established industry professionals with MA Publishing students to supervise their dissertations.

Apart from gaining a research assistant in a relevant professional field, we've found that the mentors identify with their younger selves, and enjoy nurturing the people they used to be.

Being asked to mentor is an acknowledgement that you know something. When you're involved in day-to-day difficult decision-making, it can reconnect you with the simple pleasure you achieved when you secured your first role.

"When people told me no one else would be interested in a subject that excited me, it made me all the more determined."

But having stated the value of the mentor, looking back, many of the people who have most motivated me really didn't mean to.

Perhaps it’s perversity on my part, but when people told me no one else would be interested in a subject that excited me, or that an area of research I was busy exploring was of no real significance, it often made me all the more determined to find out more.

Finally be sure to encourage yourself. A simple nod to yourself that something has gone well, or better than expected, will help build your confidence.

This isn't arrogance – you should take satisfaction from a job well done.

9. Encourage other people

What goes around, comes around. Let the people you work with know when they have helped you. 

In my experience, the most valuable feedback is specific and detail-orientated. Simply waving your arms around and saying ‘you’ve all done very well’ is much less valuable. 

10. Write it all down

Having embarked on my life in publishing, I discovered a big irony. There was actually relatively little formalised thinking available to read about how the industry worked.

Theorising about how your particular creative sector operates may be the start of a volume that would be hugely useful to others.

I wrote 'Is There a Book in You?' in an attempt to explore why some people get published and others don’t. Having studied the publishing industry for a long time I embarked on a study of self-publishing, and this was published as 'The Naked Author'

Analysing the sector you are part of, while it is going on, is energising. Seeing your thoughts published is also a source of huge satisfaction.

There is a wealth of interesting creative careers out there – all of which are achievable with the right planning.

Embrace the information that's available to you, think about what gives you satisfaction, and then go for it! I wish you luck.


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