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  • Postmortem: Getting the Degree

    [05.21.09]
    - Dan Carreker

  • 3. Having a financial plan.

    Going back to school is a huge financial obligation, and I knew I would have to plan things carefully. Before enrolling, I made sure I saved up some money, cut expenses, and applied for every loan and grant I could. I found ways to stretch my student loans by purchasing textbooks online at a discount, and verifying which supplies I would actually need before buying them.

    In order to save on tuition I took most of my general education classes at junior college.  At these community colleges the cost per class was less than $150; at the four year college the same class would have cost nearly $1000. Many of them I transferred before I even started, but I continued to takes several classes at the community college even after I had started enrolled in the gaming program. Since each school has its own policy on which units they would accept as transfers, I was careful to check with the administration department before enrolling in any off-campus classes.

    Planning to work while in school was a bit trickier. The school schedule changed every 11 weeks, and while some classes were available at night or on weekends, they were less flexible and my goal was to graduate as quickly as possible. Students who worked regular jobs often had to take fewer classes per semester due to their work schedule. Instead, I relied on finding odd jobs which wouldn't conflict with my class schedule: doing freelance art work, transcribing film footage, and once even designing a wedding.

    Even with my preparation, things got very tight. While unexpected expenses have a way of cropping up for everyone, to "starving students" on a tight budget, unanticipated events represent a real threat to finishing their schooling on schedule.

    For me it was an unfortunate vehicle breakdown which meant I had to sell my car and rely on carpooling to get to school. A reoccurring billing error didn't come to my attention until my tuition was several hundred dollars overdue and had to be paid before I could continue to take classes. Thankfully I had friends and family who helped me out; without their assistance I would not have been able to finish school on schedule.

     4. Building a network.

    A significant advantage of going to a game design school versus a more traditional school was the opportunity to create industry contacts. The game industry, despite its growth, is still a small world and having someone that can recommend you is a strong asset. Though the school from which I graduated was new, I was still able to build contacts with talented individuals, both those who were in my class and those who were underclassmen. Even after graduation, we regularly email each other potential leads to jobs and keep in touch.

    Teachers can also provide a good basis for networking. While many of them do not announce their connections, they usually have had working relationships with people working in the industry. They also have former students who have gone out and joined the job market.

    There was one potential type of contact, though, which can easily be overlooked. Schools often bring guest speakers onto campus, either to provide a glimpse into the industry or as a way to introduce the students to their company. These are often people with great deal of experience and insight into the industry and therefore are an excellent source on information about what opportunities are currently out there.

    When a hiring manager for a local game developer came in to talk to us, I waited around afterwards and offered to take him out to lunch. During that lunch not only did he provide me with excellent advice on what he was looking for in an applicant, but he also gave me a tour of his studio and put me in contact with a designer who worked there. These are the types of contacts that can make a huge difference in starting a career, particularly during difficult economic times.

    5. Joining a SIG.

    There's the academic world and there's the 9-to-5 reality of the job. For students it can be hard to gauge how closely those two match. Having working professionals, unaffiliated with any school or curriculum, available to do "reality checks" and offer advice is an incredible resource.

    The International Game Developers Association has several SIGs (Special Interest Groups), each one focusing on a different aspect of the industry. Joining the IGDA can be done online for free and, once joined, members can sign up to any SIG that interest them. Midway through my education, I joined a few that were of interest to me and started correspondence with people who were doing exactly what I hoped to do upon graduation. The members were amazingly gracious with their time and insight and provided much needed advice and occasional critiques.

    Not only did their advice help me personally, but it also had a trickle down effect in helping other students and, eventually, the school itself. Advice on portfolio building from the members of the Writer's SIG, for example, was not only something I was able to apply to my own portfolio, but it also provided the school a basis for setting portfolio submissions standards for any of their students interested in narrative design.

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