Dear Art Graduate,
It will take a while.
One piece of wisdom I received from an illustrator mentor was that it would take about 5 years to establish a freelance art business after graduating from college. I thought, ambitiously, it would take me less time--maybe 2-3 years. Since I had graduate school under my belt and some experience with private art commissions, I thought I would start gaining clients. As long as I maintained my website, social media presence, and regular submissions to art annuals, I thought I was on the path to success. Rarely does life go according to plan.
It took me about 2 years to find a day job. By "day job", I mean an hourly position that pays the bills as I develop my freelance illustration career. At this point, my personal/freelance artwork does not provide a source of income. I wanted to beat the 5-year trajectory for establishing a freelance business. I went into a master's program believing it would be a fast pass to employment, but such is not the case. For me, building a freelance career boils down to employment experience. I dove straight into graduate school from undergrad and put my priority on academics, portfolio-building, and school-related activities. I ended up with a Master's degree, but my ability to find employment was far from mastery.
The struggle for employment is a reality for many, many recent graduates, but it can still feel like you're the only one failing at employment. I would like to show you some of my own statistics, which I hope won't be depressing for young job-seekers, but rather provide a realistic outlook:
Candice's 2015-2017 Somewhat Accurate Employment Statistics
Percentage of Application Rejections/No Response:
Percentage of Applications Resulting in Interviews/Art Tests:
Percentage of Applications Resulting in Employment:
Total Number of Job/Internship applications: 102
Application Positions Types:
Graphic Design/Illustration: 66
Food Service/Retail: 15
Concept Art/Production Art: 9
Art Director: 2
Looking at these statistics and knowing what I know now about job applications, I would give this advice to my younger, recently-graduated self:
Apply to local positions as much as possible
This is especially true for walk-in applications.You have a far greater chance getting a temporary position locally than on job board websites where your application could get lost among the thousands that apply.
Send more Thank-You Letters to Interviewers
Seriously, I got two commissions out of sending a thank-you letter with an envelope that had a little illustration on it. More importantly, interviewers are people too.
Apply to more portfolio-only applications
While it is important to submit a carefully crafted cover letter, look for applications that only require emailed portfolio submissions or a "One-Click" application. If you have a solid portfolio, you will find more success with those applications since the position will depend more on your ability than on your job experience, which you simply don't have if you are like me. Also, these applications are super fast. Once you have an account set up (and filled out), websites like Linkedin and Ziprecruiter often have one-click apply options. Of course, make sure to read all of the application guidelines to see if a cover letter or resume is required for a given job.
Think of a day job as your first step toward a freelance career.
There are plenty of artists who quit their day job and lead successful freelance careers. This is reasonable for those who have been working their day job for at least 3-5 years and have a decent following for their art outside of their day job. I would not advise this for recent graduates. I think any job experience is good job experience. For me, a handful of part-time jobs and being currently employed with a day-job is bringing me closer to my goal of a self-supporting art career. I'm learning valuable skills that can transfer to running my own business when the time comes.
What was your post-graduate employment experience like? How long did it take you to find a long-term position or are you still searching? Feel free to leave a comment below!