…about applying to, and during graduate school
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.
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.
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.
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.