There are many schools with good graduate programs in ceramics. The trick is finding the one that is right for you, and you for them. This page contains a long list of pertinent questions to consider about graduate school. You will also find links for information about specific schools, and personal reflections and tips from those who have applied and attended graduate school.
The Critical QuestionsWhen is the right time to apply?
- 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?
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?
What of the application?
- 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?
- 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?
What of 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?
What 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: money.cnn.com
- 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?
What about 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?
Who are the 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?
What about your partner or 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 if you are 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:
Graduate Programs in Studio Art & Design College Art Association website, for $26.00 you can purchase a directory.
Attend NCECA the year before you apply, many schools have booths at NCECA, as well as current graduate students and Alumni will have a lot to say about their experience. In addition, Ceramics monthly has been highlighting different graduate schools – this would be worth investigating.
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…”
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. Read More...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.
At last, it was March, and the letters began to arrive. First one, two, then three ‘no, thank yous’ in the mail. Four and five were not far behind. Needless to say, I was disappointed. To put it more accurately, I was crushed, but I had already bought my tickets to Seattle. I was still going to NCECA. So, with my tail between my legs, I visited with old friends and colleagues at the conference and, when they asked me how my applications were going, I had to tell each one “I didn’t get in.” Let me tell you, it was no picnic.
Admitting what I considered to be a failure wasn’t easy, especially when I felt that I had a good chance of being accepted to at least one of my chosen schools. After taking some time to lick my wounds, I was able to reflect on conversations I had at NCECA and around the studio where I was a resident. It was especially encouraging to speak with friends who were current grads at the programs where I applied. Many of them shared stories similar to mine, where they applied to X number of programs, getting into none or one. After speaking with them, I felt fortunate to have a second (or third) opportunity to reapply with the prospect of having more than one school from which to choose. Last year just wasn’t in the cards, but reflecting upon upsides to making more work and gaining perspective on my motivations toward grad school have been valuable.
Now that application time upon me once again, I have increased confidence that what I’m submitting is more developed and considered than last year. I feel more than ready to take on this challenge and sincerely hope that I get into a program of my choice. At least this year, though, I know that I’ll survive it if I don’t.
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.Read More...
Twelve years elapsed between my undergraduate and graduate training. In those twelve years I matured as a person and as an artist. I taught elementary school for six years, I set up a home studio in six different locations, and eventually, I fulfilled my dream of becoming a full time studio potter.
When I transitioned from school teacher and part-time potter to full-time potter, I had to come to terms with what it means to be a full-time professional artist. I had to figure out how to develop gallery contacts, ways to build my name and my work, and to find venues to sell my work so that I can make an income. It was a long process but eventually all the pieces started to fall into place. And right about when they finally did I decided to completely shift gears and head back to school.
I could settle down. I had achieved much of what I wanted but I was bored and frustrated with my work. Being a full time artist is hard enough when you love your work. When you don’t, it’s impossible. The need to rekindle my love of clay was what drove me to go back to school. I had explored, taught and experimented on my own. It was time to let others teach me new ways of thinking and looking at artwork.
I began grad school with a very clear idea of what I wanted to get out of it. I had three goals. One, I wanted to make new work that was exciting enough to keep me working in the studio for years to come. Two, I wanted to learn how to push past boredom. I wanted to know how to work through or around stagnation. Three, I wanted to learn techniques and approaches that were sustainable beyond graduate school and that I could bring back to my own studio.
All through school, I focused on those three goals and used them in making decisions. I chose to work with professors that would push me, give honest critiques, and who could teach me how to continually develop my work and the ideas behind them. For me, this was the way to accomplish goals one and two. My studio practices in graduate school came from years of learning how to manage a personal studio and my time. For example, I decided not to take the time to mix my own clay because I knew that upon graduating, I would not have access to a clay mixer. Also, aside from some fun side projects/experiments, I chose to not fire my work in gas or soda kilns because I would not be able to continue to do so in my own studio.
In one way, going back to school was really hard because I upended my life and my work. But in a more meaningful way, it was really easy because I went back when I was ready. Knowing what I wanted out of school and my professors, being confident enough about my work to take chances, and being mature enough to really listen to all the discussions and critiques were critical elements that allowed me to have a fulfilling graduate school experience. In the end, graduate school helped me fall in love with clay all over again and gave me the tools to insure it will be a long and happy relationship.
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.Read More...
I chose to go to grad school for two reasons: I wanted to be a better artist, and I wanted to earn the credentials to teach. Both of which I still consider good reasons and graduate school made these goals accessible. However my approach was uninformed and based on very vague notions of what I wanted from a grad program. I thought, “I’ll get to spend all my time making work in studio and it’ll be great!” Wrong. Graduate school (in its better incarnations) does not involve “spending all of your time in studio” it involves lots of academic study time, extra-cirricular obligations, and stress—inducing situations (largely self-imposed, but inevitable). Add to this maintaining a healthy relationship with a partner or spouse, making ends meet, and getting your work done equals a very difficult time indeed.
There were many schools it was obvious I need not apply to, being a potter, and assuming that’s what I would continue to do. There were several I chose simply because of their reputation and with no other reasoned basis. Some were recommended and some were known to me through anecdotes by other professionals. Either way I was incredibly fortunate to land where I did given my haphazard method. My ‘hindsight’ advice is to gather information like your life depended on it. Visit schools, contact alumni from those programs and ask them about their experiences, and do not assume that because you like a certain professors’ work you will benefit from studying with them. Needless to say, I applied to eight schools, was accepted to two, and of those two it was obvious which was the better program for me. Like I said, I lucked out.
Once accepted to this school I came face to face with the other big no-no and treated it with equal disdain and ignorance. Financial Aid. In my desire to go to school and not let anything hold me back I made a very big mistake and took on an incredible amount of debt. So much so that I will be dealing with its financial consequences for the rest of my life. This is the biggest mistake I made . . It does not mean I chose the wrong school, but it would’ve benefited me to take a step back , consider the ramifications of this debt and perhaps planned better. Even wait a year or two to build income, and then re-apply. Or perhaps consider a fifth year post-bac instead of taking the full plunge right away. There are several programs that offer significant funding, but even fewer that offer full funding plus stipends or employment. These are worth considering as alternatives to the more expensive, less funded programs. Also, State schools generally have more funding available and if you find one you want to attend it may be worth considering moving to establish residency before matriculating. There are many options and everyone should do what’s best for them, but this means taking the time to really define what those circumstances are before you commit. Another thing to ask your self is, “do you need to go to grad school at all?” This is a hard question to ask yourself sometimes, but a necessary one. Are you committed enough to this profession to incur the financial and time consuming risks it requires? Answering ‘no’ should not be a point of shame, instead it is likely the wisest choice you’ll make.
A few last thoughts about what did and didn’t work for me. One thing that was a significant contribution to my success in school was distance between earning my two degrees. I spent five years between finishing my undergrad and applying to grad school. This made a huge difference in my attitude and ability to cope with the challenges I faced. The students I saw struggling in my program were often ones that had little or no time between degrees. On the other hand, the opposite may be true as well. Too much time, enough to say, start a career, may make accepting the limitations of school a very unpleasant experience and I’ve seen people fight hard against their professors because they are immobile in their ability to adapt. A factor that decidedly worked against me was having no financial stability when I accepted. I was completely dependent on loans and my spouse for financial support and this caused undue worry and no lack of marital strife.
Lastly, it is important to understand that when you enter a program you will meet the people who may one day be in a position to offer you a job, a reference, or in turn ask you for an opportunity. It does no one any good to be a jerk. I’ve watched many people who are brilliant artists shoot themselves in the foot over and over because they couldn’t bury the ego enough to work with a group or get along with their fellow students. It is far easier to build a professional opinion of someone from their transgressions than from their camaraderie and this will haunt you if you can’t deal with a diversity of opinions.
Readings about Art as a life Career:
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