Making the Most of University

In 2009 I started my degree in Commercial Photography at the University of Derby, I graduated from university with a 2:1 but it wasn't really the grade I cared about, it was the skills, experience and contacts I left university with that was most important to me. I was asked by one of my fantastic lecturers Mark Hall, to share some of my tips to make the most of your University Degree. 

Hey, don't take this post as a 'you must go to university' that’s for you to decide, there are huge for and against arguments, and I know plenty of very very successful creatives who didn't take any academic avenues. But if your heart is set on university these top tips may just help you make the most of it:

1.Enjoy Your Time 

I’m going to start this blog with the less ‘educational’ piece that I learned. University is a once in a lifetime experience, it’s not for everyone, but honestly I think most people can make their time at University an unforgettable one.  For the younger undergraduates, most have come straight from an academic childhood, from School into sixth form/college, sometimes with the odd gap year thrown in. From day one University lands you in a situation most of us at that age haven't experienced, you’re waving goodbye to your parents, stood in student digs with complete strangers… slightly daunting but mega exciting. Use those first few weeks to truly embrace your new freedom, meet new people, explore the new city/town you’re living and if you are like me, learn to cook! 

That enjoyment shouldn’t dry up after your first few weeks of university, sure you will have less time to party but it doesn't mean you can’t enjoy your time along with studying. Use those new friends you have made to study with, work on projects together and bounce ideas off one another. 

2. You have to be willing to do the work

Ok, now onto the serious stuff, university requires you to wear many hats and keep several people happy all at one time. You’re parents want you to listen, learn and achieve, your lecturers will give you all the skills, advice and techniques you can ask for but they won’t force you to listen and your new friends only care about how many jagerbombs you can drink on a student night. You have to be willing to balance your lifestyle and maximise the opportunity for learning that’s in front of you. 

It may sound obvious saying you have to be willing to work when you’re paying well over £3000 a year for an education, but there are a lot of distractions out there, it’s how you balance them that will really make the most of your degree. If the party lifestyle is just too appealing to you, make going out with friends and nights out rewards for completing assessments and hitting deadlines, the only person who will make you work at university is yourself. 

3. Collaborate with peers

It quickly becomes apparent that your first lecture involves you sat in a lecture theatre surrounded by 40+ other students all striving to do the same thing as you, plus a few very experienced lecturers already killing it in the market stood at the front, you’re probably all ready to quit right? Yes, one day your peers will become competition and you will more than likely end up fighting a few of them for the same job, but during university they're just a similar aged students, all sharing the same passion in your industry and striving to make awesome work.  There is nothing stopping you making friends with all your class mates, and if attempting to make friends with 40+ students sounds a little scary right now, try setting up a Facebook page for your course and year, or your lecturer may have already done it for you. 

Don’t just connect with peers on your course, one of the joys of university is that there are hundreds more students studying a hundred more subjects. Make friends with everyone you meet, us Brits seem to find talking to strangers a little uncomfortable, but at University this rule doesn't seem to exists, so benefit from this. The more people you meet, the more collaborations you can take on during your degree and you’d be surprised who you collaborate with. Take Photography for example, you could certainly work with a Graphic Design Student, Videography Student, Fashion Students, but you may even collaborate with more academic students, you just never know! Here’s 5 things that you can benefit from by befriending fellow peers: 

    •    More chance of collaborations

    •    Easy to share and borrow equipment

    •    Great contacts for when you graduate - recommendations, referrals etc

    •    Learn skills in other subjects

    •    You make new friends  

4. Appreciate Your Lecturers

The first thing I realised when I started studying at university is that the lecturers are not the teachers I was used to through school and college. Teachers have a job to teach you something, make sure you listen and make sure you pass your exams. The difference is that lecturers will teach you everything they know, but they won’t force you to listen, take notes or even turn up for their lectures. Sure they care about you passing and learning everything you can about the industry, but they won’t force you to do anything. The HUGE benefit of lecturers is that they are a professional in their industry (the industry you want to break into) and they’re usually practicing their trade, as in they’re actually creating work and lecturing at the same time. If you really want to maximise their wealth of knowledge you need to start picking their brains and asking questions both in lectures and 1 to 1 sessions.  Cram as many 1 to 1 sessions in as you can / they will let you before they say no. Ask them if you can join them whilst they’re working outside of university,  they may invite you along for experience or as an assistant. Don’t be afraid to ask, even if they say no they will see your passion and motivation for the industry! 

5. Finally, worry about what you learn and not the grade you receive

In the creative industry, people judge you on your personality and the skill set you have. It's less about the grades you have, in fact, I rarely even tell people that I have a ‘degree’ but I do speak about what I learned at University. Graduating with 1st class honours or 2nd class honours at university is a fantastic achievement & goes some way to reflecting the time and effort you put into your course. I’m not taking that away from anyone (if you’re interested I came out with a 2:1), but my own experience is to learn as much as you can, don't worry if you don’t hit top marks, as long as each assignment/project you undertake you come out with a new skill set you can take into the industry, you will succeed massively at university! 

Lastly I would just like to say a huge thanks to my lecturers during my time at Derby University, Mark Hall, Laurie Haynes and Cameron Jinks, you all gave me a great footing in the photography industry. I hope you’re all keeping well!


Yes that's really us below looking more fresh faced than we do these days and slightly chuffed that we somehow squeezed a car into the university studio.. even if it was a Vauxhall Corsa! 

If you're interested in what we got up to at Derby University here's a graduate video from what feels like a very long time ago now. A great job by videographer Michael Bell on creating this! 


Are you about to start your journey as a student, how are you going to maximise your time? Have you been there and done that, do you have any useful tips to share with current students?