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RISD students enter tough job market, aided by internships and alum connections

Establishing a career as an artist is notoriously difficult, and RISD students rely heavily on internships and connections with alums to break into the art world.

Jacqui Alexander RISD '05, an illustration major, will start her first formal internship at the Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Inc. gallery in New York City this winter. She used online resources made available by RISD's Alumni and Career Services to secure her employment. RISD's Alumni and Career Services Web site has close to a thousand postings for part-time and full-time jobs, internships and freelance opportunities.

"They have an extremely comprehensive database," Alexander said.

Alexander said she was looking forward to integrating her artistic skills with real-world demands, an experience only an internship could give.

Alexander also emphasized that the woman who hired her for her internship at the gallery is a RISD graduate.

RISD's career services department is merged with alumni relations, and the two offices share one building. This forms a powerful networking medium for students and alums alike to "get into the artistic circle," said Tom DesLongchamp RISD '07, a film, animation and video major.

Director of Alumni and Career Services Steven Whitten, who joined RISD's career services department 18 years ago, said he thinks internships serve as crucial preparation for the working life of a RISD alum, even venturing so far as to say that he would like to see internships made a graduation requirement at the college.

According to Whitten, post-graduation surveys conducted by RISD students reveal that around 67 percent of students in each class do an internship over the course of their undergraduate career, and half of these do at least two. Whitten said these statistics encouraged him. "No experience is more important than an internship experience," he said.

RISD students repeatedly stressed the crucial importance of networking; many attributed more than half of internship and job-search success to having contacts and connections with people working in the field. "It's all about who you know," said Jared Zimmerman RISD '05, a graphic design major who will also receive a special Bachelor of Graphic Design degree in 2006.

Zimmerman spent part of last summer interning at the DIY lifestyle magazine Readymade in Berkeley, Calif. Later in the summer, his boss recommended him to an industrial design company, Lunar, which he joined as an intern. Zimmerman said he is confident of an offer of employment should he ever decide to return to the company, but he has his sights set on graduate school for now.

RISD students and administrators agree that knowing professionals in the field greatly increases a student's chance of finding internships and employment upon graduation. But "it's undeniable that there is a lot of luck involved as well," DesLongchamp said.

Most RISD students establish connections by taking on project-based, commissioned work during the semester and school vacations. DesLongchamp said he tries to work "on as many projects as possible one after another" in order to meet people who can "point me in the right direction."

Students said projects not only help them navigate within the complex professional network of the artistic community, but also allow them to continuously improve as artists.

Internships vary in availability and nature across concentrations. Industrial design, graphic design and other design majors are more career-oriented than other students, particularly those with majors in the fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, according to many students. But competition for great internships is intense across disciplines in the art world, students said, emphasizing their commitments to staying competitive in the job market by focusing on improving their artistic skills.

Caity Kennedy RISD '06, a painting major, said students should constantly work on projects so they do not "get stuck" and can continually improve their art. "We work hard to try and get better at what we do, not to try and impress," Kennedy said. "Attending art school helps us develop our skills so that we can do better in the future."

Kennedy said she is not apprehensive about securing an internship, adding that any competition she does feel only inspires her to improve herself as an artist.

RISD students also use personal Web sites to enhance their employment prospects. Some students, such as Kennedy, use their Web sites primarily to keep in touch with friends and family from home and to show loved ones their work, but others say the personal sites are necessary public platforms for showcasing their visual credentials, as well as publishing their resumes.

Students hope prospective employers will contact them through their Web sites. "Potential employers are able to see all your work at once," Alexander said. "It's an online portfolio for anyone's easy reference."

RISD's Alumni and Career Services takes time to critique each student's portfolio. "We want to equip each student with the tools that they need in order to succeed in the real world," Whitten said. "RISD prides itself in educating our students to think, to know that they are not living in a vacuum. They should possess the necessary skills to be able to strike a balance between their incredible artistic talent and dealing with practical issues in the real world."

"It is so much a part of an artistic education and should most definitely be a professional prerequisite for all RISD students," Whitten said.


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