Sarah Dawood | 27 Nov 2014
If a conventional graduate position doesn’t appeal, you could combine several interests and build a portfolio career
On leaving university, some graduates will have already paved their way to a steady full-time job. But for others, working nine-to-five in the same place every day just doesn’t cut it.
Instead, they opt for a portfolio career: splitting their time and skills between two or more part-time positions.
Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at careers website Prospects, says that multi-strand careers are a growing and significant part of the jobs market that many graduates are choosing over conventional careers. “In 2013, only 20% of those with portfolio careers were doing so because they needed to take more than one job to make a living,” he says.
Graduates in the creative arts – such as artists, actors and photographers – are most commonly those with at least two jobs, Ball says.
Laura Mackenzie, head of careers and employability at King’s College London, says that portfolio careers are also common among those who want to set up their own social enterprise or build an academic career, as it enables them to build up their skills base or portfolio of research.
Mark Flynn, a 25-year-old architecture graduate, wanted the freedom that self-employment brings. After graduating, he set up his own architecture collective and now also works as a freelance graphic and exhibition designer, and a spatial designer in a boutique property agency.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in a typical architecture job – and there were none available anyway,” he says. “So I tried to be proactive after graduating by self initiating my own projects.”
“The major downside is the lack of job security,” he says. “The trade off is you get the opportunity to work on a wide range of creative projects. And with freelance work, you choose your own hours.”
Tom Barnes, a 23-year-old English graduate, wanted to build up his experience and contacts in the theatre industry. As well as starting up his own theatre company, 2Magpies Theatre, he has completed an arts administration internship and currently works front of house at two theatres in Nottingham.
“I’ve found it incredibly useful to have multiple jobs in different venues,” he says. “It’s a good chance to have conversations, keep up to speed with what’s going on in the region and suss out new opportunities. Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation, so working front of house or in the theatre bar is perfect for networking – especially when you’re getting paid for it.”
But for some, working many jobs isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Mackenzie explains that those wanting to go into an arts-based career will often have to take up other jobs to make ends meet.
“People often combine developing their artistic portfolio – where pay can be poor – with more steady work,” she says. “This might be nothing to do with their creative field, or closely linked to it.”
Hayley Wright, a 27-year-old fine art graduate, works as a student experience tutor at Manchester Metropolitan University’s business school, alongside being a freelance artist who creates textiles and embroidery. “It was never my plan to have a portfolio career,” she says.
“At university I never considered anything other than making art full time. But I hadn’t considered the logistics and just hoped everything would be wonderful and easy.
“After graduation, I needed money and started temping at universities. Initially I did so to fund my lifestyle as an artist, but over time I started to enjoy the work and began to realise that I could use my skills in different ways.
“Having a portfolio career has given me the financial security to make the creative work I want to make, without having to worry too much about profit,” she says.
Juggling several job roles isn’t always easy. “You need to be resilient, confident and optimistic,” says Jan Moore, assistant head of the careers and employability service at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Great people skills will help to get your name out there, but there is always uncertainty in portfolio careers.”
It’s also important to be highly organised and flexible, as you’ll be doing several things at once and facing tough deadlines, Moore says. Organising your finances is part of this, and she suggests that if you’re going to set up a company – whether an entrepreneurial venture or a theatre group – it’s worth getting business advice.
Flynn adds that having a clear, coherent vision will help you get to where you want to be: “Rather than taking a scatter-gun approach, you need to think ahead to the job you’d eventually like to get to and select projects that will help you towards that goal.”
The uniting factor among the majority of graduates in portfolio careers is that they’ll go to any lengths to pursue a desired career choice. This might be through gaining lots of experience in their field, or doing a completely unrelated job on the side.
Either way, if you can do what you love while earning enough money to get by, that can’t be a bad thing. “The projects I do now tend to be more for fun than money,” says Wright. “But because I’ve managed to forge a career where I can use my creative skills on a day-to-day basis, I feel fulfilled.”