Table of Contents » Chapter 2 : Post Graduation » Chapter 2 : Applying to Graduate School

Chapter 2 : Applying to Graduate School

There are many schools with good graduate programs in ceramics. The trick is finding the one that is right for you, and if you are right for them. At the end of this page are links/information to find out about specific schools, a personal reflection about applying to school and a blog link about being in graduate school.

In December a group of students gathered together over roasted chicken, salad, yams and a few bottles of wine to discuss graduate school. In attendance was one student just finishing an MFA program, one who just started, one who was applying, one who was thinking about it as well as a spouse. These were the questions that they were asking each other:

When is the right time to apply to graduate school?

  • What are your expectations of graduate school?
  • Why do you want to apply to graduate school?
  • Is it important to have “real life experience” or time off between undergraduate and graduate school?
  • How has your drive to work in the studio changed after undergraduate school?
  • Do you think there is a certain maturity level required for when you go to graduate school?
  • What will your partner / spouse do when you are in graduate school?

How do you determine what is the right school for you?

  • Do you apply to schools that artists you admire attended? By the professors teaching there? The graduate work coming out of a school?
  • Are you applying to graduate school to become a teacher? A studio artist? An administrator? Does this change where you apply?
  • What schools should you apply to? What are the most important deciding factors to you? Money? Location? Faculty? Peer group? Existing reputation? Facilities?
  • What degree are you seeking in graduate school, MA? MFA? International PhD? What does this degree mean for you during your education and your future?
  • What are the graduate students from this school doing after completion of their studies?
  • Is the school rooted in cross discipline art making or not? Is it important to you if the faculty work in multi media or mostly ceramics?
  • How competitive is the school to get into? How many applications do they receive each year and for how many spots?

How do you actually apply to school?

  • Really, I mean, really, how does your application look? How does it read? What font? What words? How do your images of work look projected? (Suggestion: Have several people look your application over before you send it out. Don’t forget to tailor each application to each school – be specific!)
  • Who will you ask for recommendations? Someone from your past? Someone current? Someone not in your field? (Don’t ask your mother!) Suggestion: See chapter 3 – how to ask for letters of recommendation.
  • What work is important to include in your portfolio – what do you want the school to know about you? What information do you want the school to know about you in your applying essays?
  • Does your work fit with your artist statement, statement of intent, and application cover letter?
  • How much does it actually cost to apply (including transcripts)?
  • Who evaluated the applications? Just the ceramics professors or all of the art faculty?
  • Is a GRE required for your application / acceptance?
  • Is this an online application, or both snail mail and download?
  • Have you allowed yourself enough time to put together a strong application – many deadlines are in January.
  • What is the application process of the Schools: you may hear back as early as the end of January or as late as May!! Ask when you can expect to hear back from schools.

What kind of Program is interesting to you?

  • What is the time structure of the school: do you want to work in a two or three year program and what is the difference?
  • How long do you have to complete the degree requirements? For your thesis exhibition? For your written thesis?
  • What does the evaluation of your performance look like? What are the ramifications of these reviews?
  • Does the program encourage or discourage you to exhibit your work during your time at school?
  • Is there access to exhibition space in the school? In the town/city?
  • Is there an option to be involved, exhibiting, or other wise with NCECA or CAA?
  • Is the studio 24 hours access? Do you have access to the studio during the summer and winter breaks?
  • What are you encouraged to do during the summer and winter breaks: work in the studio? Travel? Residencies? Study abroad? Workshops?
  • Is there a visiting artist program, how large or small, and in what areas? What is the interaction between the visiting artist and the students? Who chooses the visiting artist? Where does the funding come from for the program (student raised, existing budget or raised)?
  • What classes are you expected to, or have access to take in and out of the studio – Critical theory? Art History? professional development? teaching? Other studios?
  • Can you take classes all across the University or only in your school?
  • If you are teaching as a graduate student, are you mentored into this position or “thrown to the wolves”? Are you teaching clay or other courses/media in the school?
  • Does this school offer (quality and in depth?) Ceramic Art History , Aesthetic Philosophies, Art / Craft theory ?
  • Is there a graduate students handbook that would help answer your questions – on line or hard copy?

How important are the facilities?

  • How many Kilns and what types? Clay mixers? Wheels? Pugmills? Extruder? CNC Router? Glaze Mixing? Wired studios? Clay mixing? Mold making? Wood shop? Computer lab? (access to) Resource library? Photography/ documentation set up?
  • What is the studio layout: Are the graduate student studios with clay only? With other graduate students? With undergraduate students?
  • How easy is it to move work from the graduate studio spaces and the kilns and are there any obstacles? Elevators or stairs? Big doors? Fork lifts?
  • Are the facilities near the studios?
  • Do students mix or buy their clay? Glaze?
  • Are the studios private or public, how private, how public?
  • Is the school going to be under a planned remodel, renovation or moving during your time there?

How is the student community?

  • Is there a student art and/or ceramics club? How active is it?
  • Is there regular participation with NCECA or CAA, and is there support for this?
  • How strong are the other areas in the school (art history, art criticism, sculpture, design, painting, photography, printmaking and so on)?
  • How many graduate students are there total? And in ceramics in particular?
  • What is the size of your community? How often are your interactions with this community?

Lets talk about Money, Honey…

  • Is there funding? What type? How much? Where is it from? Scholarship? Assistantships? Loans?
  • What do you have to do to get this money?
  • Is funding performed based? Is the funding very competitive? Is the funding consistent or variable?
  • What are the additional costs beyond tuition?
  • Does funding cover the materials, firing, and/or health insurance? What kind of fee’s are going to be on top of your tuition?
  • How expensive is it to live where the school is? What is the wage there? See this link for a cost of living comparison:
  • Most students under age 26 are covered under their parents insurance. For those non-traditional students, most schools provide relatively affordable basic health insurance to their students. Even cheaper insurance can be provided in programs where you also have full funding. Do your research, what kind of insurance do they offer?

Location location location…?

  • Does the location of a school actually matter to you?
  • How important is proximity to your family or home base?
  • Is this a location that you want to stay in, or is it a way point in your life, does this actually matter to you or not?
  • Are there things in a specific schools region that will affect your experience in graduate school? Museums? Galleries? Art Centers? Landscape? Climate? Culture?
  • What is the population of the town or city? How does the population density correlate with the cost of living?

Questions concerning Faculty and Personnel

  • Who are the professors and what kind of work are they making? How much are they exhibiting their own work? Are they primarily teachers or artist or both? Are the professor studios at school or at home?
  • Are the professors settled or “on the move”/ Does the age of the professors matter to you? Where are the professors in their career and does it matter?
  • Will the professors be retiring, on sabbatical or on maternity / paternity leave during your education?
  • Does the gender of the faculty matter?
  • How many professors are there in the ceramics as well as the entire art department or school?
  • What is the accessibility that you will have with your professors in and outside of ceramics? Casual? Structured? By chance?
  • Is there a technician, or is a graduate student the technician?
  • How much faculty support do you receive once you finish school?

How is it to go to graduate school with a partner? A family?

  • Are there employment opportunities for your partner in their field while you are in school? Does the quality of this job matter?
  • What is the minimum wage for the state the school is in? What is the cost of living?
  • If you have children, are there good schools or daycare programs in the area?
  • How difficult is finding housing and arrangement for children, family and pets?
  • Is there family housing?
  • Does the school offer you access to health insurance for you, and your family / partner?
  • How are you and your partners going to keep some balance in your own lives individually and together as a couple?
  • Is the partner welcome at school? Do other graduate students have partners?
  • Is there convenient transportation – parking passes, transportation?
  • Are there perks to having a student id? Ex. outdoor recreation rentals, sporting events, bus transportation etc?
  • Will your partner/spouse come with you or will you live apart for some of all of grad school?
  • Grad school will be stressful at times, how will you balance your personally life with your school life?
  • What is your financial situation really like? Do you have money saved or will you take out loans to attend school?

What to do when you’re Accepted / Rejected:

  • If you get accepted into a lot of schools, how do you decide which one to attend – What is important to you?
  • How much does money make your decision?
  • Really – what are the deal breakers for you, and what does not actually matter that much?
  • Do you feel like you are in a rush to go to school? And is this rush real or are you caught up in the moment?
  • If you are rejected from schools, at what point to you decide to go where you are accepted, or do you apply again?
  • Often you will be interviewed by the faculty from that specific school that you have been accepted, or if you are on their short list. The questions that you are asked will vary from school to school, and from applicant to applicant. The school will ask you what they want to know about you. There are not right or wrong answers here, the faculty are trying to get to know you, so speak from the heart, and if you don’t know the answer, its better to say that, don’t ramble on and on. The faculty are trying to figure out if you will be a good fit to their school, and if they are the best school for you. Sometimes during an interview, applicants ask about financial support right away, and often the faculty are not in a position to answer that question yet – so wait until at least the end of the conversation, or once you have been accepted, send an email asking to set up another phone call. I would suggest that you have a few questions ready to ask them, and its helpful if the questions are specific to their school. It is a good idea to follow up the interview with a thank you email.
  • Is a post-bac program a good alternative for you? Some schools may defer your graduate application to the post-bac program?
  • Many applicants do not get accepted the first or second time applying to graduate school, how will you handle this, what kind of back-up plan can you make? Is it try and try again…or are you done with this process?
  • Some faculty will be willing to explain to you why you were not accepted into their program, if you are lucky enough to get this information, don’t argue with them.
  • Some schools may be interested in accepting you into their program after you have been a post-bac at their school – ask them about this.


  • When deciding if, when and where to apply, is helpful to speak with a professor, or someone who has been to graduate school to help you get a list going. Usually people apply to 4-8 schools. It is expensive to apply to school, so plan ahead.
  • Visit the schools you are interested in – can you see yourself working there. Make sure you let the school know you are coming an set up a meeting with faculty if possible.
  • Some schools require an interview on the phone or in person. If you are interviewing at a school, bring your portfolio on a flash drive, a resume, questions to ask during the interview.
  • Speak with current graduate student in the program, remembering that they are in the middle of graduate school themselves (having a good day, having a bad day).
  • Speak with alumni from this school if possible.
  • Clearly lay out your financial plan before you start school, the vast majority of students attending graduate school will need to take out loans at some point, consider this carefully and figure out what your comfortable level is (see Chapter 1 in the field guide for help with this).
  • Have a back-up plan, graduate school is not for everyone, many artists and professors do not go to graduate school. They have what is called “professional equivalency”. Once a friend of mine had so much anxiety about graduate school, he threw-up, try to avoid this.
  • Try to foresee how the school and department will work for you upon graduation. Does the faculty have a strong track record in actively placing and recommending their grads? Are they socially and professionally respected and active? Great recommendations and connections are essential, especially if they are from those who are respected in the field. Does the school and program have a reputation that will stand out in the hiring process? Will they program prepare you in the portfolio/resume building process? These are things that will matter when you leave the program if you are seeking a teaching career, though they may be the last things on your mind when you are applying!” – Stephanie Stephenson

For a specific list of schools, try these sources:

Personal Experiences about applying to, and during graduate school:

Blog by Emily Nickel: Emily Nickel

“The final application has been completed! After two years of research, portfolio building, school visits, and letter writing, I’ve reached the other side of the river that is submitting graduate school applications…”

Applying to Gradate School: part one

Applying to Graduate School: part two

Essay by Seanna A. Higgins, January 2013

This time, last year, I was doing exactly what I’m doing now; preparing applications for graduate school. After several years away from academia, I had decided it was time to continue my education, and go for that notorious MFA. I had spent a full month preparing my portfolio, collecting references, writing statements, and organizing five separate applications while working several part time jobs. I thought, “this is hard, but it will be worthwhile once I get that letter.” I had even planned a trip to the upcoming NCECA with the anticipation that I would be meeting my future classmates during the conference.

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Essay by Grace Sheese, February 2013

I had always wanted to go to grad school to earn my MFA in ceramics, but I was 34 years old and had been a full time studio potter for 5 years before I decided to do so. Now that I have completed my MFA, I think waiting was one of the best career decisions I have made.

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Essay by Sean O’Connell, March 2013

Hindsight is 20/20 . . . and my perspective about graduate school has changed since I attended in 2007. Even so, now that I’m a few years out I’m still filling out applications, gathering materials, and trying to refine a packet that advertises my skills, but in this case its for employment. I have few regrets, but the ones I do have are significant and will continue to be factors in my pursuit of a career, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

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Readings about Art as a life Career:

Inside Higher Education Article: The Myth of the Starving Artist

New York Times Article: Right Brain Thinking

University of Alberta: Creative License

National Public Radio: “Teachers Make” a difference

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project:
A Diverse Palette – What Art Graduates Say About Their Educations and Careers

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project:
Painting with Broad Strokes: Reassessing the value of an Art Degree