I can, without any fear of contradiction, state that I never commissioned a photographer with letters after their name whilst I was an art director. A role that I held until the early Noughties and from the late Eighties. The work and the personality of the photographer were my only considerations.
The majority of the photographers I worked with were either self-taught or educated within the polytechnic system in the UK. These offered diplomas, not degrees, and highly career focused education.
Those that attended camera clubs progressed through the Royal Photographic Society levels of study and achievement, collecting letters after their names, but rarely taking these into the commissioned editorial or advertising areas of the medium. Their goal was to achieve the highest accolade the RPS offered, not to create a portfolio for commission. LRPS, ARPS and FRPS.
Until the creation of the ‘new universities’ in 1992 the academic requirements for teaching photography were primarily practice based, with photographers using a teaching income to support their art practice and social documentary work. Teaching at polytechnics meant five days a week in class and therefore restricted a commissioned practice in which you had to be available at all times and often at short notice.
That was then, but this is now. The RPS continues its awards system with little reference to the commissioned environment, but with the arrival of photographic degrees within universities and the death of the polytechnic system, letters after your name have become common place.
If you are young or old and want to study photography within an academic setting the chances are that you will start with an undergraduate degree, a BA (HONS). A two, three or four year period of study invariably within a university.
The transposition of such learning from a polytechnic to a university has seen contact hours drop from five days a week to a maximum of two and a half, and a move away from the idea of photography as a trade to an art form. Photography within university higher education has had to adopt an academic rigour outside of the photographic practice once taught. Now theory and academic research constitute the learning framework of the medium if you want to achieve a BA after your name.
The balance of practice and theory can be a contentious issue. There is no national curriculum for studying and teaching photography and therefore that balance is reliant on the background and interests of those leading the course and teaching the modules. Therefore, intensive research of who is going to teach you on a photographic degree course is essential to ensure that the letters after your name have delivered you to the destination you wanted.
The benefit of a good postgraduate degree is broadranging in its potential for learning. It should introduce you to new ways of thinking, looking and communicating. New writing and reading, transferable inter-personal skills and challenge your understanding of what photography is and can be. It will also of course, explain how to use the tools of your trade. Not just that of photographic capture, but also those of marketing, publishing, and contextualising your work within a professional environment. A BA will provide you with an education that you cannot get on YouTube, and give you time to mature, but you will rarely if ever put the initials after your name. Once you have your BA you might want an MA, as the bachelor becomes the Master. Most universities expect applicants for a Masters to have an undergraduate degree in a related field, but you may be able to apply without one if you can demonstrate relevant experience. One year to focus on a specific personal project can be appealing to those who have been working on a commissioned basis, those who wanted to continued their under-graduate education directly into post-graduate, and those looking for an opportunity to develop their practice. Whatever the reason, it is an investment of time and money – the average cost of a taught Masters degree in the UK is £8,740, but postgraduate fees can vary greatly between different subject areas – I would therefore advise that you sure why you are doing one, and that you make sure that the course you choose is the right one for you. A one year course passes very quickly, and being focused from the beginning will help you get the best you can from the course you choose.
There was a time when an MA was a required qualification when applying for a teaching position within Higher Education, but that time has passed and now a PHD is often seen as an expectation of all applicants. Despite this, if you have the required experience, but not a BA, a one year MA could help you with a recognised Higher Education qualification added to your application.
This takes us onto the PhD and the qualification that not only adds letters to the end of your name but also to the front! PhD is short for Doctor of Philosophy and is an academic or professional degree that, in most countries, qualifies the degree holder to teach their chosen subject at university level or to work in a specialised position in their chosen field. After earning a master’s degree, the next step is a PhD, which entails both working and performing research at an institution. However, in photography gaining a PhD is not simple.
The traditional PhD programme places major emphasis on independent inquiry, the development of competence in research methodology, the communication of research findings, and development of teaching skills. To apply this to photographic practice is not straight forward, but have no fear there are two other types of PhD a photographer can consider. The first is a Phd through practice and the second is by publication. Both require a considerable amount of reading and writing but they can also take into consideration the work you create and have created. The time it takes to complete a Phd can vary with a full-time PhDs usually last for three or four years, while part-time PhDs can take up to six or seven. Not only will it take up your time, but it will also cost you. In the UK, being a self-funded PhD student can be an expensive undertaking, with an annual tuition bill of approximately £3,000 to £6,000.
Just as with an MA there are many reasons for undertaking a PhD, but wanting to teach at a university is a major instigator for many. For those already teaching it may be a requirement to further their career, although the majority of positions stress that equivalent professional experience would also be relevant. You should never be put off applying for a teaching position just because you do not have a PhD!
In summary, you do not have to have letters after your name to be a photographer, but you may need them to teach photography. If you receive them as a consequence of learning they will act as evidence of a commitment to that learning. That is something to be proud of whatever you choose to do with those qualifications. However, the addition of that learning should add to your understanding of photography and your role as a photographer. There is a limit to what you can teach yourself, how far you can challenge yourself and what you can find out about yourself independently. Never forget that a progression through education can be a progression through life not only photography.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/