“Do I really need a degree?”

This question often arises for Singaporean young creatives nearing graduation from polytechnics, LASALLE, or NAFA. Having experienced both diploma and degree programs, my perspective may be helpful to some, maybe you? This blog post won’t compare the nature of Poly vs Uni education per se. Rather, I’ll focus on the intangibles and “paper value” of having an animation diploma vs. a degree.

Parent Expectations: Diploma vs. Degree

Asian parents are stereotyped as having expectations of their children to be doctors, and lawyers, and attain a degree or masters for bragging rights. Stereotypes aside, Singaporean parents do have rightful concerns, because it’s true that starting salaries in the creative field are statistically lower than in other industries. So don’t deny or omit this information when communicating with your parents. (That’s sneaky!) I recommend that you acknowledge their concerns and do your research. Show them success stories and a strategy to succeed, easing their worries. Share with them your industry heroes, those who inspire you, and started their careers with a diploma and steadily progress, gaining world recognition through dedication and upskilling.

That was exactly what I did back in 2005, going to a polytechnic had a social stigma of failure to attain good enough grades for junior college (the straightforward path to university). But my O’level grades were excellent and I knew exactly what I wanted. So, I assured my parents I’d work my ass off to get both the diploma and the degree—and I delivered. Thankfully, the stigma isn’t as strong nowadays, but more conventional parents tend to have stronger opinions, so please be patient with them. :)

Employability in Private and Public Sectors

The private sector prioritizes portfolios over qualifications. For instance, Masonry Studios only hires based on portfolio and interpersonal skills; we’ve never considered academic grades.

So, why do grades matter?

Well, the public sector favours higher qualifications due to the need for systematic metrics. Large organizations rely on certifications due to the difficulty of assessing portfolios, emphasizing the importance of qualifications. Despite these differences, both sectors value competence and adaptability.

The Harsh Realities

In the private sector, animators and designers can potentially climb the career ladder indefinitely, with no strict upper limit on progression. As long as they can communicate and execute design plans, and can negotiate a fair return for the contribution. However, in the public sector, career advancement follows a systematic, almost guaranteed path, but your progression is capped based on your qualifications. While private sector opportunities offer unlimited growth potential based on performance and merit, public sector roles may provide stability and predictability in advancement but come with limitations tied to educational credentials. This underscores the importance of weighing personal career priorities and long-term aspirations when deciding between sectors.

Working Overseas

A degree is more helpful than a diploma in obtaining work visas. Countries and governments use education levels as assessment metrics. Overseas HR departments assist with visa requests, making the process smoother with a degree, highlighting its practical benefits beyond national borders. Furthermore, a degree demonstrates commitment and competence to potential employers abroad.

Of course, there are exceptions. My buddy from NYP didn’t pursue a degree and still had a great time as a feature film VFX animator in Canada for the past decade. All I’m getting at here is that a degree does make it administratively easier.

Salary Negotiation

Diploma holders typically earn less than degree holders, especially in the public sector. However, in the private sector, merit dictates salary (yay!), subject to negotiation skills, underscoring the importance of advocating for oneself in the job market. Knowing your value as a creative, and developing negotiation skills can significantly impact earning potential, regardless of educational background.

Developing negotiation skills can significantly impact earning potential, regardless of educational background.

Conclusion: Animation Diploma vs. Degree

While a degree may not be necessary for CGI/VFX careers in Singapore, its paper value and convenience shouldn’t be dismissed, acknowledging its role in facilitating career opportunities and professional advancement. Each path offers unique advantages, and understanding these nuances can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their education and career paths.

If you wish to read more about the nature of education you get from a local polytechnic versus a university programme, please read The poly vs uni debate.

In Singapore’s CGI scene, the debate between polytechnic and university education is a hot topic. But, instead of a full-on “Diploma vs Degree” conversation, I’ll focus on the merits of poly vs uni education. And how much it affects employability in the private sector.

Firstly, how did this topic come about?

Recently, the Masonry Studios team visited NYP School of Design’s graduation show. The following day, our newly-hired sound designer, Russell had questions regarding the show. He asked about what we looked for in the animation graduates, if it differs between poly and uni candidates, whether university education is necessary, and if so, which path—poly or uni—holds the key to success. Great questions Rus!

Key Differences: Poly vs. Uni

Technical Skills are essential in our CGI Animation industry, and polytechnic education is very effective in technical skill training. Individuals with polytechnic diplomas train to have hands-on experience and proficiency with industry-standard tools. This makes them a valuable asset in a fast-paced CGI environment. In poly, I learnt then-cutting-edge technology, like motion capture and digital sculpting. Furthermore, I clinched wonderful internship opportunities at VHQ Media and Lucasfilm. The CGI capabilities I’ve acquired in poly gave me confidence to kickstart my 3D freelance career upon poly graduation.

However, the importance of Conceptual Thinking and effective communication cannot be overstated. This is where university education shines, nurturing students’ ability to think critically, articulate ideas, and engage in meaningful discourse. These skills are vital for effective collaboration, creative leadership and the business of creative services.

In my experience, that was precisely the situation. In poly, I struggled to articulate or expand on ideas. Regardless of how hard I tried, how painfully aware I was, or how encouraging my instructors were. I was a late-bloomer and was unable to grasp the idea of conceptualisation. The university environment and curriculum forced me to acquire those conceptual thinking and articulation skills. I’m forever grateful for the uni experience.

Okay, we get it, polytechnic teaches technical skills, and university teaches conceptual thinking.

But is it exclusive?

Creative Development

Creative Development

It turns out that the distinction between polytechnic and university education isn’t mutually exclusive. I’ve encountered individuals who defy these labels. They possess a unique blend of technical expertise, creative vision, and communication skills regardless of their educational background. I personally went through a linear technical-conceptual transition through poly-uni. That said, I was well aware of poly mates’ ability to generate, unpack and articulate ideas. So, it’s not always linear, is it?

Employability: Poly vs. Uni

Masonry Studios is a private-sector CGI animation and design company. When we recruit, it’s entirely based on the portfolio, with little regard to the education level. We seek quality individuals with both technical skills and conceptual thinking. It’s our requirement at our studio because of the way we operate; it’s not the same elsewhere.

However, I advocate for balancing both skills rather than focusing excessively on one at the expense of the other. I’m not suggesting a perfect 50:50 balance, but aim for a healthy ratio and never completely neglect either. Ultimately, having both helps us understand and build rapport with those who are differently skilled than us. It will make us a better team player. But I digress…

Conclusion: Poly vs. Uni

Is Uni Necessary?

So, is a university education needed to succeed in Singapore’s CGI scene?

The short answer is “no”…

But if your lack conceptual thinking and articulation, is hindering your growth as a creative, university education will be helpful. What truly matters is your self-awareness, dedication, and willingness to learn and grow. Whether you’re a polytechnic graduate with technical wizardry, or a university alumna with conceptual chops, there’s a place for you.

Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed individuals from both camps thrive and excel. Whether you choose to focus on technical skills, conceptual thinking, there are many opportunities to carve out a fulfilling career. Remember, it’s just work—take a deep breath, stay open to learning, and trust that you’ll find your place. At the end of the day, what matters most is finding fulfilment in what you do.

So, chill, embrace your journey, and keep creating! Here’s another related article, if you’re interested in a Guide to the Singapore Animation Industry.