An Introduction to Graduate Education in the Visual Arts - Student Perspectives

An Introduction to Graduate Education in the Visual Arts - Student Perspectives

Of course, teachers and school administrators don't have all of the answers - which they readily admit. As a matter of fact, they often mentioned the importance of looking and listening closely to the students themselves for guidance and inspiration.

That's exactly why we went out and found a group of graduate students and recent graduates to tell us about their education and the choices that they've made - what they liked, disliked, how they found a school, why they did what they did, and are they happy about it all now.

We interviewed eight people. The questions we asked were meant to address some of the most basic questions that you probably want to ask and, thereby, help you sort out some of the pros and cons that you might not have yet considered. Of course, everyone has their own unique situation - and so do you! But, by having these people articulate their experience here, it can give you more direction and resolve along your own education and career path.

Our questions and their responses are summarized in this section. Again, if you'd prefer to read the full and unedited text of any one response, you can check it out from the section at the bottom of the page, "Students and Graduates - Full Responses".

1. Why did you choose to pursue a graduate degree in the visual arts?

All of the students agreed that graduate school was the right decision for them, although each for different reasons. Consistent with the top responses of the academic leaders interviewed for this article, the top two reasons were:

  • Preparing for a career in teaching, and
  • Advancing their work or artistic skills

Other responses included professional advancement and focus, the opportunity for increased salary, or simply an interest in learning more about the subject.

Mike Rivas, a recent graduate from the Otis College of Art and Design, was one of those who returned to advance his art: "I owed it to myself and my work to push the limits of art making by placing myself within the rigorous critical environment of a graduate program in studio art."

"I have been a professional artist for some time," said Bernt Savig, a graduate student in the Department of Art at the University of Southern Mississippi. "(I) decided to go back to school to get my MFA in the event that one day I might want to teach at the University level. Also," he added, "it was a good way to get re-involved full time with painting."

2. How did you decide that this was the right time for you to pursue one?

The right time for one person is often the wrong time for another. As Tim Jones, a graduate student at Maine College of Art, said: "Graduate school is like having a baby, there really is no right time, you just have to do it."

Most of the students who we interviewed appeared to agree that some time off between their undergraduate programs and the graduate pursuits was a good idea, as six of the eight took at least some time off.

For some, like Fiona Jappy, from the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, the time in between was time to work professionally: "I was glad to take a year out... it gave me the opportunity to experience other issues such as the job market which, in turn, reinforced my desire to further my art."

For others, it was an opportunity to travel: "The older I got, the more inevitable this decision became," said Daniela Llera-Smith of Old Dominion University in Virginia. "I had traveled extensively all over the world and felt that I would not be seduced by the restless wanderlust that seems to grip those freshly out of their undergraduate school years."

For others still, the best time just comes in good time: "My children were old enough to let me go back to school," said Jody Mattison-German, a recent graduate of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

But don't wait too long, warned Carol Mayer, a graduate of Columbia University's School of the Arts in New York, who now works for American Bronze: "The older you get, the less likely it is that you will have the time and desire to get an additional degree."

So, when is the right time? There's no one, single answer. Look inside your own heart; understand what's happening in your own life; take advantage of the opportunities that you can make for yourself.

The Most Popular Graduate Degrees

  • 757 MA's were awarded in the visual arts in 2000; the top three majors were Art Education, Art History and Criticism, and Studio Art and Design.
  • 1,941 MFA's were awarded in the visual arts in 2000; the top three majors were Fine Arts, Painting, and Photography and Film.
  • 50 Doctorates were awarded in the visual arts in 2000; the top majors were Art Education and Art History and Criticism.

- Statistics from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 2000-2001 HEADS Report, which was completed from a survey of 228 of its accredited member organizations.

3. What are the most important factors that you considered when evaluating and choosing a graduate program in the visual arts?

So, now let's say that you have all of these ideas about attending graduate school. You know that you want to do it, and you know it's the right time for you. How do you start sorting out your options?

There were a wide range of factors that our interviewees considered before finally choosing their graduate school - but the most-often cited factors could be loosely grouped into three categories:

  • Faculty
  • Curriculum
  • Job training

Other important considerations mentioned included:

  • Cost (including tuition and the availability of funding)
  • Accreditation
  • Location
  • The students
  • The facilities
  • The environment at the school
  • The school's reputation

Some of the students we interviewed appeared to weigh one or two factors most heavily. For example, Mr. Savig only mentioned the faculty in his response: "I felt it was important to consider the art of the teachers I was going to be studying with. If I felt they had something to offer me I would consider taking from them."

Others, including Mr. Jones, appeared to take a more balanced approach: "I considered accreditation, the experience of the faculty, the practicality of attending (everything from location to scholarships), and the range and quality of student work."

And, then a few had other factors that were more personal and less tangible - yet still important considerations.

Explained Mr. Rivas: "By far, the most important factor in deciding which school to attend was the balance between dialogue (theoretical, critical), and practice (the environment that I would be making work in-"How receptive are people to discussing the 'object'?"). I was interested in a place that would entertain the importance of both without placing one above the other."

Another great resource for helping you choose and evaluate graduate programs is another article, mentioned earlier in this piece, titled "How to Get Into America's Best Art Schools." Although that article does not specifically refer to graduate school, there is one section which does, and you'll find that many of the same criteria for choosing a school do apply.

Who's Going Where? Diversity at a Glance...

Total enrollment in graduate programs in the visual arts: 8,978

  • Total at private institutions: 4,587
  • Total at public institutions: 4,391

Total MFA's graduated in 2000: 1,233

  • 592 Male, 641 Female
  • 979 White, Non-hispanic
  • 71 Hispanic
  • 122 Asian, Pacific Island
  • 6 American Indian/Alaskan
  • 55 Black, Non-hispanic

- Statistics from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 2000-2001 HEADS Report, which was completed from a survey of 228 of its accredited member organizations.

4. Were there any important qualities about your school which made it stand out more than the others on your list of possibilities?

This list of important qualities turned out to be very similar to the list in the previous question, including some overlap and some new factors. The top responses here were:

  • Location
  • Program structure
  • Faculty-student ratio
  • Curriculum

"Location," as our respondents explained, referred to different things.

Ms. Jappy referred to the campus itself: "(T)he location of the school made it stand out from others. The surrounding area is very beautiful where lots of inspiration can be drawn from the landscape and as my work is based on the landscape and different cultures this sounded ideal."

Ms. Llera-Smith referred to the proximity of off-campus destinations: "The location of the school is also very desirable. The Hampton Roads area is made up seven cities which range from densely populated to rural. The area boasts several important museums, miles of beaches and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. A few hours drive takes you to Washington D.C., Charlottesville, the remote Eastern Shore of the Outer Banks of North Carolina."

Mr. Jones appeared to refer to his own location relative to the school: "I needed a high-quality, low-residency program due to my location and daily responsibilities." The implication here is that he needed to find a program that was close in proximity to where his life and career were already going on.

"Program structure" appeared to refer to things such as the residency requirements, and the ability to work with and move between departments.

Other important qualities to consider included:

  • Faculty
  • Facilities
  • Job training
  • Financial Aid
  • Interaction with other students

5. Given what you now know, what are tips could you provide for other students with regard to choosing and getting accepted into school?

All of our interviewees had excellent and practical tips for prospective graduate students who may be following in their path. The ground covered ranged from specific to general; here are just a few of their responses:

Mr. Savig: "I think it is important to interview the teachers to see if they are people you will be able to learn from. It is important to select a school based on your own needs."

Ms. Mattison-German: "Tour the schools, talk to current students, former students and graduates. Build your portfolio through undergrad, private or community programs. Trust yourself."

Mr. Rivas: "Think about possible peers, faculty, facilities, location, and reputation. Be prepared for rejection; apply to more than one school. Just because you think that you're perfect for the school, the school may not feel the same way about you."

Ms. Daniela Castillo, of California State University, Hayward's Department of Art: "Be very confident and provide a stunning portfolio. WRITE WELL because you will have to do a lot of it, starting with your statement of purpose. That really impresses the admissions review committee."

Ms. Smith-Llera: "Balance idealism with practical concerns. I firmly believe that an ambitious student will find success at most schools."

These are all great nuggets of wisdom from the people who have already been through the grinder. Please take their words seriously, and check out what our other respondents had to say, too!

And, again, don't forget about two great resources right here on "How to Get Into America's Best Art Schools," "How to Prepare your Portfolio for College Admissions."

6. How are you funding your graduate education? How available are scholarships and other forms of financial assistance at your school?

Looking at the tab you'll have to pay for a graduate education is intimidating, to say the least. And, in the visual arts, the cost certainly doesn't end with the tuition, as art supplies and materials are also a big part of the financial formula.

"Where am I going to get all this money?" you might ask yourself.

Of course, you aren't alone because money is a primary concern for most prospective students. And you should be comforted to know that you have options that will help you through, no matter what your financial situation.

As expected, most of the students and former students that we interviewed used a combination of financial resources to pay their way. In order, from most common to least, their responses were:

  • Assistantships
  • Federal and other loans
  • Grants
  • Scholarships
  • Personal income

And how do you plug in and work out the details? The financial aid department of your prospective school is certainly a great place to start - but don't forget about the faculty, either. They have resources and connections, too.

"It is important to be aggressive in seeking out funding opportunities," said Smith-Llera. "Speaking with faculty frankly and with advance notice gives them the opportunity to help you."

"(L)ook out for other types of grants and financial aid,' suggested Ms. Jappy. "Check on the Internet, ask in your local library - there is a lot of funding available out there, but start looking early, as often you are required to submit a written statement to say why you need funding before a deadline date."

Again, for even more information, check out's Financial Aid chapter page, and for specific information about scholarships for art students, check out's Art Scholarship Guide.

7. What kind of graduate degree are you pursuing? Why?

The MA and MFA are the most commonly-sought and offered graduate degrees, and all of our interviewees were pursuing or have received one.

Said Mr. Jones, who is pursuing his MFA: "Despite the advent of PhD programs in London and elsewhere, the MFA is still considered the terminal degree in studio art, and remains a prerequisite for most college level teaching positions in the arts. As a practicing, studio artist and aspiring professor, the MFA fulfills my personal needs."

Said Ms. Jappy: "I am pursuing a MFA because... it gives me the opportunity to advance my own painting in a studio environment, which is the most important factor to me. I can concentrate and specialize in painting, but, at the same time, I can learn new skills."

However, it's also important to realize that there are other graduate degrees available in the visual arts, including Masters of Design (MDes), Masters of Architecture (MRCH), Masters of Medical Illustration; there are also Masters of Science degrees in Teaching (MST) or Historic Preservation, and even some PhD programs in the Visual Arts and/or Art History.

You have many options - it's just a matter of learning for yourself which program will be the best fit for you and your career goals.

"The traditional image that society has of the fine artist is that they are starving, and suffering for their work in a garret. In reality, they may be extremely well prepared to make a living in various fields."

Mr. Mike Rivas

8. How does your school help its students to find jobs in the visual arts? What are your employment goals?

The goal of most educational pursuits is to become more "employable." Although this may be less true in the visual arts, where many are pursuing personal creativity, education is still an investment which most people expect will pay for itself over time.

Of course, schools realize this, and they are prepared to help their students - if you graduate and go on to succeed professionally, it makes them look better, too.

So how do the schools do it?

Just about every school has a Career Services department, although it's sometimes called something else - a Career Center, Career Placement Office, etc. Most of our interviewees mentioned that this was an important way for them to make connections and find opportunities in the working world.

"Being a successful artist means being a creative problem solver," said Mr. Rivas. "And, depending on the institution, a career services office may be overflowing with many, eclectic opportunities."

The interviewees also mentioned job fairs sponsored by the schools, hands-on teaching experience, connections with organizations like the College Art Association, and the opportunity to exhibit and publish their work.

But you can't rely only on your school - you're the one who will be doing most of the leg-work, and you're the one who ultimately must present yourself and your skills to prospective employers. And, for some, just having gone through the rigors of a graduate program speaks volumes:

"People that I work with and others that I meet are impressed that I took the extra time and expense to advance my education," said Ms. Mayer. "It has also raised my confidence level and given me additional experience that has proved useful in the real world."

Finding the Right Job

According to the academic leaders and students interviewed for this article, one of the best ways to find a goob job is to work at it while you're in graduate school - networking, career services departments, and going to job fairs, conventions and workshops.

One of the biggest events for students in the visual artists is the annual conference of the College Art Association. Ms. Deirdre Barrett, Assistant to the Executive Director for CAA, told us that, for students, the conference includes career development workshops with working artists, portfolio help, interviewing skills, and the opportunity to actually interview with employers. Check out CAA's website to find out more...

9. Tell us about your education at your graduate school so far. What have you liked and disliked about it?

We asked our respondents this question in the hopes of relating to you some more of what to expect. What we found was that every student we interviewed was very pleased with the direction that their graduate education is taking them - but no matter how many factors you consider in making this decision, there's a high likelihood that something unexpected will happen.

"In a funny way, grad school was almost like opening Pandora's box," said Mr. Rivas "Once the ghosts where let out, it's impossible to ignore them. The only way to deal with them now is to give them their place, but return to the serendipitous nature of creating for the sake of experimentation; be that conceptually or aesthetically."

"I believe disappointment comes when students expect a structured curriculum," warned Ms. Smith-Llera. "I believe that point of view demonstrates that certain students are not yet ready for the experience of gradate school.

At the very least, graduate school should help you to evolve as a visual artist...

"My approach to painting and drawing is gradually changing in a dramatic way for what I hope to be the better," said Mr. Savig. "I have become much more aware of the visual dialogue and have had things stirred up in ways that would not have happened had I remained out of school."

... and grow as an individual, too...

"(M)eeting new people, people from all different cultures and countries and also the lecturers in the visual arts are artists themselves," said Ms. Jappy. "They just have more experience in their field, and you can learn from that."

10. How much difference does a good teacher make? Tell us about one good and one bad experience that you've had.

No one would argue that a good teacher can make all of the difference in the world, as can a bad teacher. We asked our respondents about their experiences with teachers so that you might learn about some of the things to look for in your own teachers - perhaps even when you're interviewing with prospective schools.

Most of our interviewees had very constructive remarks, and many are included below.

Mr. Savig: "I believe that most teachers have something to offer. Of course a teacher that challenges one isn't necessarily always a nice teacher."

Mr. Rivas: "A positive experience that I had was with an advisor that I ran scared from for a year. I was having a hard time asking some tough questions of myself, and I knew that he would absolutely not allow me to avoid dealing with the issues if I met with him. He recognized my fear and made a point of tracking me down and cornering me into dealing with some of these issues. Ultimately, it proved to be an amazing form of tough love. He confronted me head on, but then took extraordinary measures to work with me in dealing with the problem...

"On the other hand," he continued, "I had experiences with instructors having problems dealing with the institution and taking it out on students, or advisors with inflated egos too involved with themselves to take part in a discussion with the student."

Mr. Jones: "I think the good teacher is one who is as tough as she needs to be to challenge the student, is intuitive enough to know when "enough is enough," is skilled enough to direct the student conceptually and technically, and is brave enough to learn from the student, when the opportunity presents itself."

Ms. Smith-Llera: "I don't believe it is so black and white. I believe that a good teacher is skilled at making students interested in a subject matter. In graduate school, we are surrounded by a group of individuals who each bring a unique experience. I feel that it is my responsibility to discover what each teacher has to show me."

Ms. Mattison-German: "Good teachers make a complete difference in the quality of education. I had one wonderful instructor who stayed interested in my work throughout my program. I also experienced a negative instructor who did not grasp the difference between undergraduate and graduate work processes."

Ms. Mayer: "I had good experiences with teachers who were somewhat flexible with their curriculum, encouraged student participation and feedback, had reasonable expectations, and had good to outstanding personalities. A bad experience was when a teacher had rigid lesson plans, short deadlines, and an uncaring attitude."

Full Responses from Interviews with Graduate Art School Students and Graduates

For this article, we interviewed eight graduate art school students and recent graduates regarding how and why they chose their school, the experiences, and the wisdom that they could pass on to you. For a full transcript of their responses to our questions, click on the individuals below:

Other Sources

For this article, we also used this information from:

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Introduction   |   Academic Leader Perspectives   |   Top of Page   |   Employer Perspectives   |   Wrap-up

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