Understanding the early careers of performance graduates

This article originally appeared on Luminate in November 2020. In it Robin Mellors-Bourne and I discuss what graduate transitions look like for dance and drama graduates.

Entering the labour market for the first time can be difficult for everyone. But one of the things that makes it easier for most graduates is that they will join an organisation that will have done a lot of the thinking for them. Employers will have decided when you have to come in and go home, the work that you have to do and, if you have a good employer, they will even have given some thought as to how your career will develop within that organisation. But, very little of this career scaffolding exists for performing arts graduates. They are likely to have to build a career out of a mixture of self-employment and precarious work.

It helps to have more strings to your bow

In our new report It helps to have more strings to your bow we trace the experience of graduates of the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama. These graduates have trained in the disciplines of dance (including ballet), drama and circus arts, or arts production, with most (93%) going on to work (either paid or unpaid) in the discipline that they trained in but only a third (33%) reporting that this is their ‘main occupation’. The findings actually challenge the idea that graduates will go on to have a ‘main occupation’ at all.

Less than half of the performance graduates in our study had a single main role, with most drawing together a range of different roles, gigs and bits of self-employed work to make their living. As one of the graduates told us ‘it helps to have more strings to your bow’. The overall picture is of complex entrepreneurial careers which see students make use of a wide range of skills and combine different opportunities in order to continue to practise in their artform.

As they get older, the number of graduates in performance occupations declines while the proportion in unrelated work or related teaching grows. This decline happens sooner and is most marked for dance graduates and is much less pronounced for production graduates who work in technical/production occupations.

Are they successful?

Higher education policy has increasingly been trying to judge graduates and the degrees that they study on the basis of earnings. Performing arts graduates are often poorly paid, with the generally low salaries in the field being exacerbated by the precarity of their working arrangements. A quarter report that they are working less than four days a week, which inevitably lowers their overall earning power.

However, if we look beyond salaries there is reason to consider many of these graduates to be highly successful. Most continue to be strongly engaged with their degree discipline, are happy with their work-life balance and believe that they are able to make a contribution to their artform and their community. Many make use of the skills that they developed in their degree to practise their artform through performance, choreography, directing and other activities at the highest level.

Ultimately this raises an important question about the way in which we think about graduate success. Traditional measures that focus on salary and occupational stability miss much of what is important to performing arts graduates.

To address this, we defined seven domains or concepts of graduate success (skills utilisation, artistic engagement, making a difference, earnings through the arts, general earnings and work-life balance, health and wellbeing, and career development) and asked graduates to rate their satisfaction within each. Taken together these provide us with multi-faceted insights into the career success of these graduates and suggest that policymakers might want to think carefully before they make disparaging comments about the value of a degree in the arts.

Final thoughts

Any attempt to understand graduate career success must inevitably struggle with definitional questions. In this research we adopted a broad definition of graduate success which combines both objective and subjective measures.

The picture that has emerged of creative and performing arts graduates’ careers moves us away from the binary question of whether the graduates are successful or not and creates a rich picture of their careers. Such graduates are employable, entrepreneurial, engaged in the arts, physically healthy and optimistic about their career, but are sometimes struggling with multiple responsibilities and often underpaid.

We believe that this picture is far more useful in supporting career decision-making and career building than some of the reductive measures of graduate success that are currently available.

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