Do You Have a Creative Job? That’s (Partially) for You to Decide

Isaac Kaplan
Oct 24, 2017 8:48PM

Photo by Štefan Štefančik.

Thousands of people graduate with arts degrees each year, moving from the creative incubator that is university to myriad jobs in the professional world. Some are lucky enough to find creative positions that mirror their artistic training. But the cultural sphere is not traditionally ripe with available jobs—each year, for example, there are 25,000 new music performance graduates who compete for just 200 to 300 open orchestra posts.

The common perception is that a lucky few hundred arts graduates get to truly flex their creative muscles, while the rest are condemned to creativity atrophy in 9-to-5 desk jobs. But it’s not that simple. Whether you see your profession as creative depends not solely on the job description or workplace environment, but rather on how you define creativity, and how you view yourself.

That preliminary finding comes from a study published in American Behavioral Scientist earlier this month, titled “I Don’t Take My Tuba to Work at Microsoft: Arts Graduates and the Portability of Creative Identity,” which was co-authored by Danielle J. Lindemann, a professor at Lehigh University, Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and Heather Laine Talley.

The authors sought to find out if people “who are inherently creative, who hone their creativity in art school, when they go out into the world, do they see themselves as using that creativity in their work?” Lindemann explained. The study found that the answer depends on numerous factors, including those beyond the specific field of the job itself.

Significantly, the results showed that numerous arts graduates who are currently working in the same non-arts profession, such as lawyers or scientific researchers, can have differing views on the relationship between their creativity and their job. The study’s authors attribute this variance to the strength of an individual’s “creative identity”—essentially their conception of their own creativity.

The study partially drew on the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a national survey of 13,581 arts graduates, which asked respondents to report if their creativity was relevant to their work in a written response to an open-ended question. The authors processed the SNAAP responses, along with responses to another SNAAP question that asked if respondents were “satisfied” with the creativity called for by their job, to determine how people saw themselves using creativity at their workplace.

Roughly 87% of arts majors who went on to work in arts-related jobs were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their opportunities to be creative, while only a total of 60% of those in non-arts positions indicated the same. While this does show that arts grads are generally more creatively satisfied in arts jobs, it dispels the notion that arts jobs are synonymous with creative jobs. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it contradicts the idea that a majority of arts majors entering non-arts jobs see their work as antithetical to creativity.

Among specific professions, researchers observed differing viewpoints on creativity. Within a group of science and engineering researchers, for example, the study found that one respondent had called the job “remarkably creative” while another noted that “nothing I do relates to art or creativity.” Lawyers also had differing opinions. “Arts [are] creative. Law is thinking,” one wrote, while another reported that “art training has carried over into the legal world with creative thinking.”

The authors chalked some of the difference up to “particular occupational environments,” like how a workplace functions, which prior research has found to have an impact on creativity. But Lindemann maintained that there are other factors at play. Contextual professional factors “do not account for the totality of the variation in the way individuals think about their creativity in relationship to their work,” the authors write.

Since the study relied on self-defined ideas of creativity, part of differentiation can attributed to whether a respondent understood creativity as limited to applying the skills they learned in arts school, adopted a more wide-ranging definition of creativity, or fell somewhere in the middle. One respondent trained in music offered a nuanced point of view, writing that his arts training is “relevant in working with others and needing to consider people skills,” but added that it was also “not relevant because I don’t take my tuba to work at Microsoft.”

“Schools in general should be preparing students to think more expansively about the skills that they’re gaining,” said Lindemann. She noted that you can train a student to play the tuba, but they’re likely not getting a job in a professional orchestra. “It’s not just about a tuba,” she added. “It’s about learning to be creative, learning to think, learning to deal with ambiguities.”

Students with a more deeply ingrained idea of themselves as creative, the research suggests, might be more likely to see themselves as creative across contexts that are not traditionally associated with creativity.

In addition to using SNAAP data, authors also conducted an online survey of student at nine colleges to see if double majors saw themselves as more creative, and if they carried that creativity with them in different contexts: from arts classes to non-arts classes. The results, according to the study, “suggest that people who have stronger senses of themselves as creative see their creativity as useful across more contexts.”

The authors acknowledge that the study does have some limitations. For one, the SNAAP data didn’t directly ask about whether or not individuals viewed themselves having “creative identities,” leaving authors to make that inference based on written responses. Additionally, the study looked only at arts graduates, meaning broader analysis of those who studied different majors or fields would reveal if the “creative identity” can be generalized. The authors also note that future analysis should look at the mobility of a person’s creative identity to different contexts and within different social networks in relationship to factors such as gender and class.

Additional research is important considering the weight that the business world is placing on creativity in an increasingly post-industrial economy. Studying how creativity works within people and how it functions beyond arts-specific environments will be a factor in ensuring that educational structures correspond to present and future economic conditions.

But even today, SNAAP data shows that a large portion of people would go back to art school and do it again, Lindemann noted. “Obviously, they feel like they’re gaining something from the experience,” she said. “Even if they’re not playing a tuba in an orchestra [after they graduate.]” Indeed, whether you bring your tuba to work, whatever that job is, depends to some extent on you.

Isaac Kaplan