With the rise of design careers, many prospective design professionals are weighing the many and varied options of gaining the necessary qualifications to get that dream job.
This guide will walk through the different educational programs available for aspiring designers, as well as the scholarships, fellowships, and funding methods available to pay your way to your next career goal.
Weighing Your Options
The first consideration is what type of educational program fits your current skills, needs, and professional objectives. Younger professionals with limited experience and qualifications may want to consider a four-year university program in one of the many design-related fields available at modern institutions.
More established professionals with a well-designed portfolio and extensive background of professional experience may prefer shorter-term programs like design bootcamps and professional certifications.
For folks who already have a BA in marketing, web development, fine arts, or another related field, getting an MFA geared toward digital design is also a great choice. As technology evolves past some of the more traditional undergraduate concentrations, a graduate degree can close the gap and modernize your skills to boost your hiring viability.
Of course, each path incurs some degree of cost to the student. Many cost-savvy students will want to identify all of the ways they can reduce this liability, through obtaining scholarships, fellowships, and employer support to make sure the benefits significantly outweigh the costs of a given educational program.
Let’s outline some key resources for cost-considerate students to consider.
The first and most intuitive place to look is the varied scholarship programs available to students, typically based on which state you live in, your current financial circumstances, and your potential for high achievement.
The best way to qualify how scholarship organizations make their decisions is through a combination of student needs and student potential. Before we jump into a list of all of the design-related funding opportunities, let’s briefly touch on the typical application requirements:
- Personal Details: All scholarship and fellowship programs will require at least the very basic contact details, including your name, address, phone number, and the institution you are (or are planning to) attend. This is to prevent scammers and bots from applying to these programs, so some verification (i.e. photo ID) may also be required.
- Cover Letter/Essay: Typically clocking in around 500 words, a brief introduction and cover letter is going to be key to attaining a scholarship. Try not to be too predictable here, and demonstrate what distinguishes you as an applicant.
- Portfolio: Of course, many programs will prefer you demonstrate your passion for art and design through the submission of some of your work.
- Financial Needs: Some programs (though certainly not all) may want some demonstration of your financial situation. This is for scholarships and fellowships that seek to assist people who would otherwise be unable to attend a program.
- Transcript: You may also need your high school and/or higher education transcript, which denotes your academic performance.
Assuming you’ve managed to check all of the application boxes, let’s take a look at the different scholarships available to help you on your way. As these are subject to change every year (or even every semester), it’s best to defer to a few aggregators which regularly update their listings based on what’s available. Here are a few links to get you started:
- Scholarships.com: Scholarships.com is a good starting point, which allows for specificity based on which field you’re looking to study. Some scholarships will be for general use, while others will be specifically catered toward design-oriented majors. This aggregator allows for great specificity based on your field of study.
- Cappex.com: Cappex is an aggregator that focuses more on geographic location, specific universities, and demographic information. This is a useful tool if you have a clear idea of where you’ll be attending.
- Niche.com: Niche is another useful aggregator that allows for filtering available scholarships based on your proposed area of study. This is a well-organized aggregator with an easy filtering system.
- Petersons.com: Petersons lays claim to nearly $10 billion in scholarships, which is a pretty hefty pool to search in. You can customize your search results for specific locations, universities, majors, and other useful criteria.
There are so many great scholarships out there that the real problem is going to be narrowing down your list of applications! The best method is going to be to use these aggregators to narrow down scholarships as much as possible. The reason for this is that fewer applicants will apply to highly specific scholarships, while far more will apply for generalized ones.
The difference between a scholarship and a fellowship can be a bit tricky. The key distinction is that a scholarship is a financial aid contribution to a student’s studies, while a fellowship is more of an ongoing contract between the institution and the student.
Fellowships typically entail some combination of work responsibilities and deliverables, which will accompany some form of compensation for the student.
These can often be conceptualized as job opportunities. There may even be some degree and/or experience requirements, so this is a path best designed for professionals looking to pivot their career towards design.
In practical terms, a fellowship is going to be much more of a longer-term path and formal contractual relationship while scholarships tend to focus more on simply providing financial assistance to students in need.
Which path you choose will be largely based on what you qualify for, your current professional and financial situation, as well as what type of commitment you’re willing to make.
Of course, design students aren’t limited to only scholarships and fellowships. Let’s take a look at some other options, which are particularly relevant for working professionals.
Additional Funding Options
A great way to get your design degree paid for is to see if your employer would be willing to sponsor you. Many companies will pay some (or even all) of the tuition, so long as the employee is willing to bring those skills to the workplace. Check in with your boss or the HR department to see what educational benefits might be available to you.
Another approach is by participating in formal design competitions, of which there are quite a few. Of course, winning a competition will require a great deal of skill. Successfully winning an art competition or publishing your work in some way is an excellent way to prove your skills, boost your university program application, and possibly even win some money to dedicate to your design education fund!
Last but not least, it’s worth considering the wide variety of shorter-term and more affordable educational programs, particularly technical bootcamps and/or associate degree programs. There are a huge variety of excellent technical bootcamps available to aspiring designers, many of which are far more affordable than more traditional degree programs.
For bootcamps, it’s best to be highly specific in regards to which elements of design you are seeking expertise and certification in (i.e. UX/UI, graphic design, animation, game design, etc.).
Another option is pursuing an associate degree, particularly if you do so at a local community college. These programs are typically more flexible, more affordable, and more embedded in the local community. This is a great way to boost your skills without breaking the bank, while also supporting your local town and meeting people in your area.
There is also a wide variety of massive online open courses (MOOCs), which are a great way to experience a sort of ‘buffet’ of design-related courses and careers. As these are either extremely cheap (or even free), this is the best starting point for aspiring designers who aren’t sure exactly what they want to do just yet.
It’s a good idea to take a few of these courses to help orient yourself within the field. For the highly self-motivated, MOOCs may be enough to get you started on your professional path.
Whether you plan to get a scholarship for a top-tier graduate degree program or are participating in a short-term bootcamp certification program, the first step is going to be ironing out exactly what your career goals are.
Will you pursue a gig in animating video game characters? Or perhaps designing the perfect user experience for a corporate website? Maybe you prefer to spend your time iterating the perfect images in Adobe Photoshop.
Designers have a diverse set of professional options, and each approach to finding and funding the appropriate education will depend on where you want to end up.
Being as specific as possible will help narrow down the best scholarship for what you want to do, as well as the best program to help you start down the path!