It’s a refrain in my world: “Should I go to grad school?”
After teaching higher education art courses and serving as an academic adviser for many years, this is one of the most common issues I tackle with students. It’s so common, in fact, that I am really looking forward to using this post as a tool to help educate people when making decisions. So, if you are thinking about grad school, especially with an art (MFA) specialization, this article is for you.
Most people asking the question want to gain advanced skills and expertise in an area of interest. Often, it’s because they are concerned about finding a better, stronger, higher-paying career track. Or they didn’t learn as much as they expected in undergraduate school.
I have to be honest: These reasons worry me, especially if the individual wants to major in design or communications.
Are they looking to acquire a portfolio, a skill set, a broader understanding about a subject? Different schools have significantly different offerings. It is possible to attend grad school and get little-to-no hands-on experience in a particular specialization, if the school does not have the facilities or faculty to support the subject matter.
Yes, it’s possible to go to grad school and not learn much about your chosen field. It’s unlikely, however, as this is also a sure path to putting yourself on academic probation. Grad students are expected to meet much higher standards than undergrads.
Consider and separate the desirable skill sets you want from your personal depth of knowledge.
What do you want to learn, specifically?
Most programs are unlikely to offer art-related hands-on business, software or marketing skills. You might be pointed in a direction of self-promotion, shown examples, and expected to act on them. Don’t expect to be “taught” how to do things in grad school; you’ll likely be expected to be extremely independent.
Again, find out who you’ll be spending your time with, and see if they have skills, advice or expertise you could benefit from. If acquiring techniques is your main goal, I suggest looking at some of the better schools that focus on career preparation. They often have lower fees and shorter lengths for completion.
Gamble on yourself, not the program.
Another response to “Why do you want to go?” is less spoken but more felt, and has to do with fear or reluctance about entering the “real world” upon graduation.
Statistics show that grad school enrollments have been high since the Great Recession. Fear or extreme difficulty finding jobs has recently made many students seek an immediate escape, especially if their parents are supportive. This plan is often aimless, and may not provide any foundation, unless the student has a personal epiphany or the program sparks deep inspiration in them once they arrive.
Most importantly, don’t expect a spark to emerge at random. You will probably have to find it on your own.
Do your homework on the program, location, facilities and especially the faculty.
I highly recommend a visit to the campus and meeting the lead teachers you will be involved with. If this goes well, it could also be the difference between a full ride and a lifetime debt sentence, because if voting faculty like you, and grad spots are competitive, it could help shoe in your acceptance.
Voting faculty on MFA candidates want to bring in those who will enrich the academic environment, and they have the selection power to make it happen. Your portfolio, cover letter and other communications should only be prepared and targeted after—you guessed it—you’ve done your homework.
Recently a favorite author of mine, Aram Saroyan, blogged:
Saroyan refers to an underbelly that many students who enroll in grad school seem to be unaware of: MFA as “cash cow.” Graduate tuition can subsidize many other aspects of a school, and full-paying customers can pay close to 100K for a degree at some institutions. For some, this could mean repaying school loans for the rest of your life.
All artists, even established ones, know that we aren’t often in the highest of pay scales. With this in mind, I am of the opinion that you should only go to graduate school in art if you can capture a teaching assistantship, which should waive your tuition and even pay you a modest stipend. You’ll work hard, but it will give you a direct window into perhaps the truest of all reasons for getting an MFA: You want to teach.
You need an MFA if you want to position yourself to teach art in today’s higher education institutions.
Going to graduate school is the best possible way to prepare for this. If your mentors are good teachers, it will be all the more valuable.
You will observe the effectiveness of certain teaching methods, how to plan and follow curricula, and you’ll get an idea of how Art Department faculty operate administratively. You will also make tons of art, read, and learn to discuss and write about art academically.
Each school is a little different…. It all comes back to the aforementioned warnings: Know what you want to get out of it. Do your homework. Gamble on yourself, and not the school!
Photo by Mariah Fox.