I have been wanting to talk about how to go about choosing a school to develop your skills for a while now. Then, this week, a news story broke out about a woman who attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale to be a game designer. After spending $70,000 and acquiring a degree, she was unable to secure work in the field and is now working as a stripper. I couldn’t think of a better segue.
Now, before I break things down, I need set some things straight. First, I am a full time Instructor at the Art Institute of Vancouver (rated the 6th best school for Game Design by the Princeton Review), so I am a part of the machine. I have been to a technical for-profit school twice ( Vancouver Film School, once for 3D Graphics 1996, once for Film 2002), but never to a university. I know what it takes to break into the games industry having done it myself and backed up by the hundreds of students I have seen graduate and make it (or not). The advice I am giving here is meant for almost any industry, not just games, but since it is my field, most of the examples will be skewed towards it. Now onto choosing a school.
Do You Need School?
I can’t believe I have to start with this, but you would be amazed at how many students have not asked this question. Do you actually need to go to school for what you want to be? For some things, like being a doctor or an engineer, the answer is yes, you absolutely have to. They have laws and governing bodies that require this to protect us all. Most other things, however, it is not quite as clear.
As a personal belief, I can never say that gaining an education is a bad thing. How much it ends up costing you, well, that is completely different. Before any potential student signs up to any school, they must have a clear idea of what it is they want to be. You cannot be successful if you don’t know what it is your are trying to accomplish. If you aren’t sure, I suggest taking some part time courses in a variety of areas until something excites you.
Once you have know what it is you want to be, then you should be looking at what the industry pays its employees. This seems to never occur to students. If you want to be a Game Designer, you can go to Game Career Guide and see the recent survey, where the average salary for a junior designer is around $46K. You should also realize that this is for console development, not casual/mobile which pay significantly less. So if it costs you $35K to go to school and you are able to make it in, then it is a relatively good deal. Now, if you want to be, say a Photographer, and the school costs $35K, they average about $20,000 a year and many are self employed. Now it will take you about two years to earn back what you paid.
Lesson here: Do a cost / benefit analysis to see if going to school is worth the money you will be spending.
Tech School or University
As I said, I have never gone to university, but I do fully understand what they are all about. That is why I chose not to go. So what is the difference.
The main thing that you need to know is that these are two very different ways of thinking about education. A university is an academic institution, which really means that it is about the theoretical, or thinking about the subject matter. A technical institution is a school that focuses on the practical, or the doing of the subject matter. Both types are useful in their own ways, but it really comes down to who you are as a learner.
When I decided I wanted to learn film-making, I researched all my options. I looked at the different universities, colleges and tech schools that were offering courses. As a learner, I know that I am someone who loves to study. I enjoy researching and delving into the theory. Therefore, it wasn’t necessary for me to take classes that would require this type of study. On the other hand, I couldn’t learn all the equipment or the different production roles on my own. So I went to school for exactly that. At the end of the day, I got what I wanted out of school, even though I decided I did not want to continue on that career path.
Ideally, it would be nice to have a a bit of both. Too often graduates come out from universities with no practical skills and are essentially unemployable (We have all heard the jokes about the barista with a BA in English Lit). At the same time, many of the people for tech schools have the skillset, but don’t really understand what it is they are actually doing. This means they can break in, but often can’t make the long haul. Which ever one you choose, make sure you develop the other on your own time.
Lesson here: Know how and what you want to learn for these schools.
Location, Location, Location
Ok, so you know what you want to be and you know what type of education you want. The next step is to look at these schools in comparison to the related industry. Again, many students go to school without thinking who is going to be teaching them. Many instructors, especially at technical school, are from the local industry. If the industry in the area is small or non-existent, then you can expect the level of quality you will get. This is where our “stripper” made her first mistake. She chose to go to school for game design in Fort Lauderdale. How many game companies are there? EA Tiberon would be the biggest and they are 3 hours away. Unlikely they have many teachers there.
If you are looking to get into the games industry, you can go to a few places, LA, San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal or Austin. That is where the major hubs are and where likely you will find instructors from a variety of companies. If you want to go into Marine Biology, go to a school on either coast. If you want to be a classical painter, don’t bother coming to Vancouver, as we don’t have the facilities for it (to our shame).
Lesson here: You need to go where the expertise is.
If you know what it is what you want to do, and you know what it is you want to learn, and you know where the experts are, then you are ready to chart your course. If you are saying to yourself, that it is too expensive to move to said city for a program, spend a moment to think about how expensive it would be to not go. Our stripper friend learned the hard way.
One final thing: As a teacher, I am there to give knowledge but I can’t make anyone accept it. You can get almost all information you need for free on the internet these days. School is a place where you can get guidance, build a network, and achieve your dreams. Just don’t expect it to be handed to you. You will only get what you put in.