I loved studying Art History at Nottingham. I enjoyed the majority of my modules, had a fairly well-rounded work/life balance, a bunch of hobbies, and rarely found myself feeling bored or sad. With the help of great supervisors and lecturers at Nottingham, I went on to do my master’s at Oxford, where I carried on reading and writing about the things I love, and generally having a swell time.
“But if I take the books out I’ll have to carry them all the way home…”
I’m sure you’re thinking “Well, bully for you…”, but the point is this: although I had a wonderful time studying at Nottingham and during my subsequent postgrad I, like many art history graduates, found myself out of the university gates and student-cardless long before I was ready to face the world. The problem was that by loving everything I had become a generalist, and was stuck without one passion to pursue in particular. I became stuck in a loop of ‘analysis paralysis’, whereby I spent the months following my summer graduation making ever more complex and convoluted lists of my interests, hoping that the key to my future would suddenly leap off the page, providing me with a target for which to shoot.
This is an actual list that I made right after I graduated. Still think art detective sounds amazing.
By the time that autumn rolled around, I had started the first in a string of temporary administrative roles that I continued on and off until the following September. These temp jobs enabled me to pay my rent whilst I carried on conducting some spare time art historical research, writing my blog and, of course, trying to figure out a life plan. But I’ll be honest; this was a pretty tough time. Having felt as though I’d had a purpose and a plan from one month to the next for all of my life so far, it was difficult to adjust to becoming, as I saw it, someone without demonstrable direction. Alas, I had struggled so badly to choose between the many things I enjoyed, that I ended up doing a year of admin work – one of the only things that I dislike viscerally.
But hindsight, as we know, is a fine thing. I know now that the unrest of that year was what compelled me to undertake research outside of my university career, and to set up a website to document and publicise my work. Although both had begun chiefly as exercises in maintaining my sanity, it was my website and (extremely) amateur photography skills that eventually landed me a month-long role advising and assisting on the art historical elements of a global non-profit arts initiative for a 3D-printing company in London. The job was unpaid (which of course stung), but the experience that I gained qualified me for my current role at the University of Lincoln.
Tiny 3D printed nudes
I am now a research assistant working on a heritage project called Our Lincolnshire, which is all about public attitudes to heritage in the surrounding county. My job so far has been to put together a web app that enables its users to curate a collection of heritage objects and artworks from around Lincolnshire, using a group of 100 objects that I have spent the past few months driving around researching and photographing. I have been given a level of responsibility (and thus a wealth of experience) that I hadn’t expected to earn until much later in my career and, what’s more, it has been my generalist attitude that has enabled me to take on the variety of tasks that this role has required. In addition to writing about and taking photos of the objects, I have spoken to heaps of people about local arts and heritage, designed posters, conducted film shoots, coordinated the project website and promo video, managed our social media presence and arranged (and featured in) a radio interview about the web app. Indeed, it’s been a blast so far, but as in all things, a significant part of landing this job has been luck. That isn’t to say, though, that there aren’t ways of increasing your chances and, whilst I don’t consider myself particularly authorised to dish out advice (it did take me over a year to get here, after all), if I was going to pass some on to current undergrads/recent alumni, it would be this:
I think that it’s fair to say that art history is often considered the antithesis of a vocational degree. And yes, whilst as recent graduates or students nearing the end of our degrees we may experience pangs of envy towards our peers who are just a few years away from becoming doctors and lawyers, it is important never to undervalue your art history degree. Not only will you have a significant amount of knowledge in your chosen field, you will also find that the ever-underestimated ‘soft’ skills and peripheral passions that you hone throughout your time at university are, in fact, insanely valuable to employers once you get out. Of course, the point of education is not simply to gain employment and (in my opinion) an art history degree is absolutely worth it whether or not it leads to a job afterwards. But if like me you dream of being paid to do the things you love, but haven’t quite managed to put your finger on what those things are by the time you leave uni, then nurturing your generalist self and keeping up your hobbies until you figure it out isn’t a bad way to go. Chances are that at least one of your many aptitudes will appeal to somebody, who will give you the time and experience that you need to plan your next steps.
For me, it looks like those steps are going to include embarking on a PhD at some point in the near future. I wasn’t sure that this was the path for me before my current role at the Uni of Lincoln, but having been immersed in research for the first time since graduating in 2014, I’ve realised how much I missed it. Of course, my PhD will require that I bite the bullet and specialise, so if anyone can figure out a way to squish my key interests of the Renaissance, gender studies and Disney movies into a streamlined over-arching theme, give me a call. To tell the truth though, a small part of me still holds out hope that if Jane loves her numerous trades deeply enough, eventually she’ll find a way to at least pursue (if not master) them all.
Anna Cruse, Classical Civilization and HIstory of Art, 2010-2013