You Don’t Need a Master’s Degree to Understand Photography

One of the common refrains I hear from my interns is that their college was a waste, and that real-world experiences far better prepare them for the world of freelance photography. I can see their point, and understand that, to a degree, it may be true. But that degree is still worth a great deal.

Graduating from college is critical. So many people I know say that getting your degree is the ultimate test in being able to demonstrate you can finish something you started. I agree with that sentiment.

But do students — or teachers, for that matter — need more than a bachelor’s degree?

Recently, there was a discussion on a photo association listserv about the qualifications for a teaching position:

Faculty members must have teaching experience at the college level and are required to maintain active participation in their field of photography.

Active participation? I can’t say I know a lot of professors who would fit that bill. A few, but not a lot.

The perfect candidate for this job is someone who has an MFA in photography, plus commercial and teaching experience.

Here’s where I, along with others on the listserv, had a problem. This school requires a master’s degree? Surely this applies in fields like English, the sciences, and so forth, but the arts? Maybe for art history — but for the field of photography, I just don’t see it.

Ready for the Real World?

In the schools of today, the inbreeding, tenure debates, and self-congratulation that go along with being an academic are part of the problem for photographers who enter the real world with a diploma, $100k or so in student loans, and no way to pay that debt off. Few schools are preparing their students with the tools they need to succeed in business, especially given the fact that freelancers are the new staff photographers.

I have a few colleagues — professors at places like RIT and Brooks — who have said that my book, Best Business Practices for Photographers, is on their required reading list. I am not saying my book is the end-all, be-all answer — but it’s at least an indicator that the professor understands that his or her students will soon be out of school and looking for work.

[tags]photography education, photography advice[/tags]

5 Responses to “You Don’t Need a Master’s Degree to Understand Photography”

  1. I am very disappointed with most photography programs. My biggest gripe is they teach the students how to take photos, but almost nothing about business.
    I am aware of a good number of schools that no degree is required to teach. Some of these are professional schools and some are technical colleges. The general rule is you must have the degree level for which you are teaching. So if you have bachelor’s you can teach at this level. If you have master’s you can teach master level courses and so on. Many of the accrediting groups prefer Phd for teaching in college level. A school will have a hard time to get accreditation if all the professors only had bachelor’s degrees. It is easier on administrators to hire terminal degree professors to meet requirements.
    Western Kentucky years ago had Jack Corn as a photojournalist in residence. He didn’t have the degrees they preferred. However, the ones running the department did have degrees that the academic world preferred.
    I find those that leave the profession to teach tend to have their knowledge base stop with whenever they left the profession. I find those with the best programs are aware of the difficulty remaining current with the profession and will bring in guest speakers regularly to compliment their curriculum.
    I also am aware that many photographers are not very good at explaining why they do what they do. Many really can only point to this is what some famous photographer does and therefore that is why they do it.
    Frankly, I only know of just a few people in the profession who are not only experts in the field, but can articulate why they do what they do in such a good way they are able to help others. John has done an excellent job with organizing his thoughts in his book. I find Dave Black’s presentations educational and entertaining.
    With all this said, I do think most photographers would be much better teachers if they would get their master’s or Phd in education rather than photography and then apply for professor positions. What we need in college programs is not great photographers or those who have been great business success. We need educators who know how to teach these concepts to beginners. We need people who can be like a transformer on a power line. They need to take the high voltage and convert it into a smaller power so it can be absorbed by the student.

  2. I have taught 100's of students after they come out of engineering schools. I have had the same problem in all reality. The can do a couple of fundamentals and nothing else, if even that at times. Colleges are over rated 99% of the time for anything technical: its a fact of life. It's a shame we don't have a system that can correlate real world experience to the college degree, because a PhD does not ensure capability.

    Oh, you don't need a degree to show you can commit to something. Just look at the military people.

  3. What a co-incident, I just been thinking about this in the last few days. I personally have recently faced the decision of either joining a Polytechnic Institute (don't knwo what this translates to in the american system, they offer mainly applied degrees)or a university to pursue photographic education. I have talked to a couple of Photography students who did the 4 year bachelors in fine arts (photography) at uni and the tutors at the polytechnic who teach a 2 year degree. They all tell the same story: the 4 year degree has A LOT of conceptual theory in it. It covers photography very thoroughly from A to Z in probably most theoretical aspects. However there is no practical component to it, no one teaches the students how to run a studio, use photoshop, create lighting, use colour theory, direct models, market yourself and the whole shebang. The 2 year polytech degree on the other hand is very practical, with next to none theory besides what is required to get the job done and knowledge of the business context and fully focusses on 9-5 interaction with practising professionals (most of whom probably don't have a flash degree), photoshop, a fully equipped studio and so on. There have been students who would do the 2 year degree after they got the bachelors just to learn how to actually create a photo. It seems as if many uni graduates end up teaching, with almost none real life experience and the polytech graduates more or less freelance or join a studio.
    To me this really kind of demonstrates a problem of many university degrees. It seems as many are pretty divorced from reality and serve little practical purpose other than passing the knowledge on to others. Wasn't it warren buffet who said that business school unnecessarily complicates things? How many MBA's actually end up full utilising what they learned? don't most of them end up in an office, tossing up decisions in a team and bullshitting their way up the corporate ladder? How about psychotherapists? Do the years and years of education teach them how to listen to people? does it teach them empathy and being able to put oneself into anothers shoes? does it teach how to give good advice?
    If you have a look on and search for "creativity", theres a speach by a guy who seems to agree with me on this. Worth a look 🙂

  4. Thank you for posting this and the comments. I am applying for a professional photography certificate at Boston University's Center for Digital Imaging Arts INSTEAD of doing a BFA or MFA in photography. I just graduated with a BA, and those four years were a waste. I could have learned all that in 2 yrs or less, and it neither prepared me for real work nor helped me discover my true interests.

    Comparing M.F.A. programs in photography to certificate programs showed just how much colleges need to redesign their format from traditional education style to practical education style. Why all the theory? I did nothing but study communication theories for my BA in Communications, but I never once had to do something as practical as create my own blog to learn social media...

    The only good an MFA would do is for me is to teach, not to work as a photographer...and that truly disappoints me. My question is, are the professors at colleges hearing this? There's a difference between being an academic and being an intellectual. Academics stick with a program that doesn't work, it's all talk...Intellectuals think of how things can work and be better...I greatly respected my communication professor until I got out in the world and realized she could have done a million more things to prepare us instead of quizzing us on the Elaboration Likelihood Model.

  5. well they do say "those who can't teach...."

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