YOU Control the Quality of Your Education

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What is the most important factor of a successful education?

Sure, it is helpful to have a reputable school, good teachers, high quality equipment and facilities, a solid career services department, and frequent networking opportunities.

But all of these are still not the most important thing. You may be going to the best school in the land, with excellent reviews and ratings in all categories, but then emerge from it feeling like you hardly learned anything except for how to have fun and defer your student loan payments.

So what’s the secret?

It’s YOU! You control the quality of your education.

You only get as much out of your education as you put into it. This is especially true of a computer graphics career where your portfolio and experience are way more important than the school name on your diploma.

My education story

When I was nearing the end of high school and trying to figure out where I wanted to go, I was pretty sure I wanted to go to a liberal arts program where I could try different disciplines and continue my involvement in interests like music and writing. I also wanted to explore different forms of art. My initial primary interest was film, though that would evolve into a focus on animation and 3D.

But where was I going to go for my education? The big-name schools and private schools were all incredibly expensive. While I was very fortunate to have parents that could contribute some financial assistance, I knew I will still need to cover most of the cost with student loans. So ultimately I went to state universities: first, the University of Vermont. Then, after my freshman year, I transferred to the University of Maine. UMaine had programs better suited to my interests and was also much cheaper as an in-state school for a Maine lad like myself.

While skeptical that a big liberal arts university would give me the education I needed for an artsy career, I threw myself into my education and worked very hard on my projects. After graduating and having done well in my undergrad, I realized I wanted more 3D training, but also knew I’d have to pay for it entirely on my own.

Staying mindful of cost, I found the Center for Digital Imaging Arts outside Boston. It was a small school that I hadn’t heard of before, but the classes and facilities looked great, it would be over in one intense year, wasn’t too expensive, and had an emphasis on job placement. I threw myself into that as well, and it proved to be a very positive experience which resulted in my landing a job right out of school.

All this to say, if I hadn’t thrown myself into my education so much, things would certainly have turned out much differently. I’ve heard it said before that “the harder you work, the luckier you become,” and I strongly believe that.

So how can you improve your own chances for success? How can you get a fantastic and rich education regardless of how well-known or expensive the school is? I’ve put some serious thought into this based on my own experience and also what other CG artists have shared in my chats with them on the CG Chatter Podcast. If you pay attention to these key areas and make the decision to take the reins and charge into school with a hunger to learn and give it all you’ve got, you’ll be setting yourself up for the best and highest quality education possible, regardless of where you choose to go.

Be engaged in class

If a class goes poorly for you, or you feel like you didn’t get much out of it, you can only blame your teacher to an extent. Of course it’s good to have a teacher that knows their stuff and instills confidence in their students. Yes, it’s nice to have a teacher that goes out of his or her way to keep you engaged and spends a lot of one-on-one time with you. But that’s not always the case (just like with bosses and clients in real life), so you need to step up and find ways to get the most out of your class.

Ask questions if something doesn’t make sense or if you’re struggling with a particular topic. Regularly participate in discussions and critiques. Be friendly to your classmates and foster relationships with them. If your teacher specializes in a particular area or has experience working in a job that excites you, take the time to pick their brains about that and make the most of what they can offer. Of course if you feel you have a truly terrible teacher who is actively impeding your ability to learn or is not on your side, you should talk to them or to the program director. But remember that the only person you can truly control is you. You decide how to handle the cards you are dealt.

“Go above and beyond”

Yes, it’s a cliché – and I guarantee there will be more in this post 🙂 – but I think it’s a cliché for good reason. Don’t just do an assignment to the minimum level required. Push yourself. Go above and beyond. Find something about the project that excites you and really dig in, and make it as huge and epic as possible. I think digging in and truly committing to a project is the best way to learn the material and grow as an artist and learner.

I remember when I was in 6th grade and had an assignment to write a 2-3 -page story about the rise and fall of an empire. I got super excited about it and ended up typing a 53-page story with an accompanying map. I kept the story pages in a manila folder full of different fonts printed on different kinds of paper, because I would type chunks of it wherever I was – in my classroom, in the computer lab, at my dad’s house, at my mom’s house…keep in mind, this was before the dawn of Google Docs. I was so excited about it and invested in it that I couldn’t stop writing, regardless of where I was.

Did this mean that I got tons of extra credit and didn’t have to work hard on my other projects? Of course not. But the process taught me a lot about writing, about my own capabilities, and I think it furthered my creative development in a lot of ways. You’re only hindering yourself if you set the bar at the bare minimum.

Career Services

Do you remember Lead UX Recruiter Maureen Lawson from Episode 11? She was my career services rep while I was in the 3D program after college, and the one who referred me to my current employer many years ago, which resulted in me landing a job the week after graduating. Maureen (“Moe”) is awesome and truly cared about the success of the students she worked with. However, if I hadn’t set up regular meetings with her and shown her my latest work and capabilities, she wouldn’t have known enough about me, or about the other computer graphics chops I’d developed from my undergrad education, to recommend me to my employer.

It is SO important to regularly visit and take advantage of your school’s career services department. Not only are they a great resource for career information and coaching, but they are also responsible for connecting students to employers, and telling employers about the talented students at their schools. They can help get you into great internships (which I highly recommend!!). They truly want to see you succeed. It feels good to them to be able to help out a student, makes the school look good because of having a “success story” if you land a job after graduating, and also makes you a great resource for the school as someone who can offer advice and encouragement to future students.

But, again – if you don’t actively connect with them and make sure they know who you are, there’s only so much they can do for you.

PS – If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend listening to my interview with Moe, which several listeners have told me they found very helpful and informative in thinking about their own career plans. She is a world-class recruiter and offers tons of great career advice in areas such as networking, job hunting, portfolio building, and more. Check it out here!

Facilities, Equipment, and Software

If you’re going to a school for computer graphics and it’s a campus-based school (as opposed to online), at the very least they will have the basic hardware and software you need to do the kinds of things they’re training you to create. That means they’ll have computers that are capable of running the software, and oftentimes will include programs like Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, ZBrush, Nuke, and others that can be very expensive to acquire on your own. Adobe Creative Cloud is a program suite that is a little more affordable, but is still nice to not have to pay for while in school.

So take advantage! It’s tragic to see a school’s state-of-the-art computer lab sitting unused outside of regular classes. For one of my early 3D projects at UMaine, I stayed overnight in a computer lab to finish up renders. I think I had at least eight different computers rendering simultaneously. There wasn’t a render farm system set up, so I was manually setting certain frame ranges to render on each machine and doing tons of file transfers, but it still got the job done way faster than if I’d tried to do it on my lowly laptop. Nowadays I would have to pay to rent that kind of computing power.

Then there’s CG Artist Evan E. Richards whom I interviewed in Episode 8. He also went through the UMaine New Media program. In the interview he talked about how he was one of the few people in his class to take advantage of all of the awesome filmmaking equipment that was hardly being used, and he was amazed there weren’t more people doing the same.

Also, as mentioned in my post “How To Save Money as a CG Artist”, you can often nab education discounts if purchasing certain software while a student, or even get free learning editions.

Special Events

Most schools have a ton of events going on that students are often not aware of. These could include special speakers coming to talk, job fairs, networking events that give students a chance to meet up with alumni and employers, and so much more. Bookmark your school’s calendars, get on any school forums or online groups where events might be posted, and subscribe to email lists. These are all incredible opportunities for students that are often made possible due to the school’s large budgets that they have to spend on hiring incredible speakers, as well as the connections the school has built up with alumni and outside artists over the years.

While I’m focusing this blog post on education, keep in mind that there are still plenty of free (or very cheap) events that you can track down after graduation. Take for example this page that was recommended by Senior Software Engineer Jono Forbes from Episode 19, which shows game industry-related events going on in the Boston area. There are also often events at schools that are open to the public as a way to get the community involved. It’s on YOU to find them and take advantage!

Awards & Contests

Most schools have various awards and contests you can take part in, and I think these are great in several ways. For one, they’re obviously an excellent addition to any resume, as they demonstrate that others have recognized you for your abilities and character traits. You could be recognized for technical prowess, hard work, being helpful to others, being involved, or a combination of multiple attributes. In a way these can serve as references/recommendations, which are commonly requested by a company during the hiring process.

Contests can also serve as great motivation for you to do well at something. For example you could enter into a school’s film or animation festival, or a design contest, not just as a way to get your work out there, but as a way to push yourself and keep a high standard for the quality of your work. It makes you accountable to a broader group of people and can give you a healthy dose of pressure to finish up a project and do it well.

Now, awards are not always something that you would actively pursue, and rather can simply come as the result of being engaged and active in your school, going “above and beyond”, and even just being kind and helpful to others. I’ve been fortunate to have received a few awards between high school and the start of my career, and except for a film festival award they were all awards that I was not seeking nor even knew existed. I’ve also seen the same thing happen to many others. So simply by working hard and keeping engaged in school, you could unknowingly be setting yourself up for different forms of recognition, whether physical awards or otherwise, that can help with your career and also give you a boost of encouragement and reinforcement to keep working hard and giving everything your best effort.

Learning Never Stops

This ties into the idea of going “above and beyond,” though I think it should be standard practice for everyone. When class is finished and everyone leaves for the day, that’s only the beginning for you. Practice on your own. Seek out other things you can learn that will supplement what you’re learning in class. Really try and master the material.

For that matter, you’ve got to keep learning throughout your life, particularly after graduation. As Senior Animator Ed Hull said in Episode 21 (and as many others have echoed), the key to thriving in a computer graphics industry in particular is to continue learning after school. Keep taking tutorials, practicing your craft, attending events, participating in forums, and even entering into competitions. Learning is a lifelong process.

You’re in charge!

Go for it! Dive into your education with energy and excitement. School is a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow.

Engage with your teachers and classmates, and actively participate in class discussions. Aim for the maximum instead of the minimum. Establish a strong relationship with your career services department. Take advantage of a school’s facilities and hardware while you’re there; your tuition is helping to pay for it so you might as well use it! Attend events, seek out various awards and contests that are available for students, and remember to always keep learning.

YOU are the most important factor here. Your effort and engagement make the biggest difference in your results. YOU control the quality of your education!

Do you have any other thoughts on the education process? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, and if you want to hear from other CG artists I’d encourage you to check out the CG Chatter Podcast and subscribe on iTunes here or on non-iTunes devices here.

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