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 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.

Do I need an MFA?

-By Pete Pinnell

(Based on a column that originally appeared in Clay Times magazine)
This is the time of year when all of us who teach in MFA programs begin fielding calls and emails from prospective graduate students inquiring about our schools. Even if you’re not interested in going to grad school, I think this topic raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of education in the ceramic arts.

Do I need an MFA? Another way to phrase this might be,” what might I gain from an MFA”? The short answer is that it enables an artist to teach at the college level since virtually all college art departments require instructors to have an MFA. However, having a degree doesn’t guarantee a teaching job. In today’s job market, saying that an MFA enables you to teach is a little like saying that owning a football enables you to play in the NFL. Full-time college teaching positions are few and far between. It’s not impossible to get one, but it’s not easy either. Only a small fraction of MFA grads ever teach full-time. Part-time (“adjunct”) positions are relatively easy to get and can help out (with both experience and income), particularly early in one’s career. However, they don’t provide a living. Adjunct positions pay little and usually offer no benefits. At adjunct pay rates, you could teach the equivalent of a full-time load and still be earning under the federal poverty level. More...

If an MFA doesn’t provide a job, what does it give you? The answer, in one word, is education. A good MFA program can, in just a few years, provide the student with a great deal of knowledge, insight, and artistic growth. It will help the artist find his or her “voice”, that is, to set the directions that they will follow for many years. Just as importantly, students learn how to step back from their own work, and look at it with a clear, critical eye. The ability to critique artwork (including one’s own) is one of the skills that enable an artist to continue to grow and develop over a lifetime. In short, an MFA degree isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.

Is an MFA the only way to acquire this knowledge? No, of course not. Anyone who’s spent time in our field can point to many excellent ceramic artists who have not been to grad school. Some of my favorite potters don’t have an MFA, but all have earned the equivalent through many years of hard work. What successful artists, with or without degrees have in common is a willingness to work hard, explore broadly, take artistic risks, and view their own work with a critical eye.

What could you do instead of the MFA? For one thing, you could buy a lot of equipment. An MFA is expensive, and the amount spent earning the degree could easily provide a nicely equipped studio. As for knowledge, that can be gained from reading, attending workshops, and going to conferences. Insight can come from arranging critiques with other artists, either formal or informal. A small potluck of ceramic friends, for instance, can provide a friendly, non-threatening venue for feedback and growth. Another way to get a critique is to take part in longer, hands-on workshops with an artist whose work you admire. These situations might also allow you to spend time discussing and reflecting on issues pertinent to your work. Of course, even if you have an MFA, it’s a good idea to do all the things I just mentioned: learning should never stop. But for the person who is involved in self-education, these activities are even more important. Which is better? That depends on your personal situation, and (perhaps) on how you hope
to include art in your life. If you wish to teach in a college or university, then the degree is essential. If you simply want to develop as an artist, then either approach can work. Keep in mind that self-education demands more discipline from the artist: outside of the university, you won’t have a committee of pushy professors urging you to keep moving.

Many people start with the notion that they want to be full-time artist: that is, to earn a living from making and selling art. That’s certainly possible, and a great many people do it and derive immense satisfaction (if not immense remuneration) for their effort. I certainly enjoyed the twelve years I spent as a studio potter, and think back wistfully of the long, uninterrupted hours I spent in my studio. For others, the pressure of making a living can suck all the joy out of art. More than one artist has quit all artistic activity after experiencing it as a job. It can be freeing to realize that art can be one’s life without providing one’s livelihood. Many artists have a day job and use their studio as a pleasurable means of escape. If this is what one wants, then an MFA can offer the educational benefits we discussed above but is certainly not essential.

Does a potter need an MFA? So far in this column, I’ve repeatedly spoken of “artists” and “art”. What about potters? Frankly, this opens a giant can of worms that we could discuss at far greater length than this column allows, but I feel that pottery making, as presently practiced in North America, is an art form. The personalization of the decision-making processes, the ways, means, and language of critiquing, the manipulation of formal (visual) characteristics, even the current (Post Modern) emphasis on content places us firmly within the Fine Arts world. We may inhabit the fringes of that world, and fight (at times) with its premises and its values, but this is where we are. We could certainly question whether this is appropriate: is an Art School a good place to learn pottery making? Yes, I think so. The contemporary Western approach to ceramic education, which is so prevalent as to be nearly universal, is for each potter to develop a body of work that is unique and individualistic. That work may make reference to the work of others (living or dead), but we expect it to be as unique as the person who made it. This is in contrast to the apprentice system in which the student learns to make the master’s work, not his or her own. It is only upon reaching “master” status that the potter may begin to make decisions and develop a distinct voice, and that personalization may never occur. That approach may be more efficient, but I don’t believe it does a good job of teaching the kinds of self-critiquing skills necessary for an artist-potter to grow and develop professionally.

Who can get into an MFA program? Most schools I’m familiar with require pretty much the same things. We expect an applicant to have an outstanding portfolio, a bachelors degree (not necessarily in Art), an outstanding portfolio, a good knowledge of Art History, an outstanding portfolio, excellent letters of recommendation, an outstanding portfolio, an ability to write (usually as evidenced by an artist’s statement), and an outstanding portfolio. Of all the requirements listed above, the portfolio is (obviously) the most important. In all honesty, I use the portfolio as a “weeder” to get the number of applicants down to a manageable level, and then I delve into the rest of the applicant’s information. MFA programs are extremely competitive today, and no matter how good someone’s grades and letters might be, if the portfolio isn’t competitive, then the applicant isn’t either. It’s not enough for the recommendations to tell us that the applicant will make very good work “someday”- he (or she) needs to be making very good work now. “Someday” applicants need to be in an undergraduate or “special student” (non degree) program first.

What should be in the portfolio? It should contain the applicant’s best work, whatever that may be. I’m not looking for any particular approach, and I (and my colleagues) are quite open to pottery, vessels, figurative, sculptural object, installation, and/or just about any other art made from clay. We simply want to see good work. I prefer that the work in the portfolio be fairly new: if it contains work that’s several years old, I might question
the applicant’s drive or dedication. Otherwise, I have no particular preference for “breadth” or “depth”. I simply want the applicants to put their best foot forward.

Information regarding age, gender, religion, national origin, marital status, or disability of the applicant are irrelevant, and I would never let that information affect my decisions. I’m looking for interesting, talented, industrious artists who are open to growth and able to work well in close association with the faculty and their fellow grad students. I know that some older artists fear that their application won’t be taken seriously, but that is certainly not the case here, and it shouldn’t be elsewhere.

How do you decide where to apply? To begin with, you choose the people with whom you wish to study, then you find out if you can afford that program (some schools are more expensive than other, some offer more financial aid), and finally, you make sure the school has the equipment and studio space to enable you to make the kind of work you envision. I’ve heard this process described as “the four Fs”: faculty, fellow students,
funding, and facilities. Faculty comes first on that list, and for good reason. You go to school to learn, and good teaching is what makes that possible. If it is at all possible, you should travel to every place you wish to apply, both to meet the faculty and to talk with the grad students
currently in that program.

In second place is fellow students. The quality of one’s colleagues plays an important role in the quality of education. Anyone who attended a good grad school will recall the endless hours talking and debating with fellow students. So many of the insights that one gains in school is an outgrowth of that interaction. You want to make sure that you choose a program in which the students are as motivated and energetic as you are. Funding is also important, unless you have sufficient savings or family money you can fall back on. No matter how good the program is, it may not be worthwhile if your degree is going to leave you in enormous debt, which could impinge on your range of choices after school and prevent you from achieving your ultimate goals. On the other hand, most things in life are not free. We take it for granted that you must borrow money in order to own a car or a house. You should expect to borrow some money in order to afford a graduate degree, but excessive debt could make it impossible to travel overseas or accept an artist residency. Before you accept any offer from a grad program, figure out how much you’ll need to borrow and then look at loan tables so you’ll know how much you’ll be paying on your loan each month. This can help you put these costs into perspective.

As for facilities, you just need to find a program with the minimum necessary to do the work you envision. If you are interested in a particular program solely because of the studios or the equipment, then you should just skip grad school and put together that studio or equipment for yourself. That way you’ll still have it after three years. You’ll want to ignore location. Who cares if the school is in a place with nice weather, good clubs, excellent skiing, or other amenities? Once you’re in grad school, you’re never going to leave your studio anyway- except for brief periods of sleep. Having good skiing nearby will only serve to remind you that you’re way too busy to even think about skiing.

You’ll want to apply to a number of schools because entry in most programs is competitive, and no matter how good you are, you probably won’t get into every place you apply. If, after applying, you are lucky enough to get accepted to several, then youcan compare the larger package (costs, facilities, location, etc) and let that information help you decide. But first and foremost, choose the right faculty for you, and your approach to art. If you are interested in making pottery in an MFA program, it would be wise to find out if the faculty in that program are willing to treat pottery making as an art form, since that viewpoint is far from universal.

Deciding when, how, where, or even whether to go to grad school are extremely difficult, personal decisions. However you decide to structure your life, I hope you will always find joy and satisfaction in the act of making, and pride in the results of your effort. These are the things that give meaning to our work, and keep us striving to be better.

You can email me at

Advice on applying to graduate school from Professors:

“Once you have done your research and have selected the right MFA programs for your goals and desires, give yourself plenty of time for the application process. Ask a few professionals to work with you for feedback on content and language as you write and edit your statement and letter of intent.  Also gather their responses to your selection and arrangement of images for the portfolio. When your materials are complete but before you submit them, ask someone with an eagle eye for detail to proof them carefully. It’s time consuming but incredibly educational, satisfying, and to your benefit to clearly articulate your thoughts and to present your images well in a graduate school application.”
-Cary Esser, Professor at Kansas City Art Institute

“I think it is really important for grad school applicants to invest in visiting the programs they are most interested in. There is no substitute for face to face visits with the potential faculty and peers, to have a chance to check out the town, to see what it feels like. Your gut tells you a lot!
– Josh DeWeese, Professor at Montana State University

“Think deeply about a long lifestyle choice of working in the arts, one that offers a strong passion of purpose, but less immediate financial security.
The culture within a graduate program will affect your work and how you spring forward in life.
For those who create traditional craft objects, choosing a school that values and supports craft is important.  Many schools put a greater value on contemporary art.
Be strategic in how you find your mentors and peer group, who will be your lifelong supporters.
– Holly Hanessian Professor at Florida State University More...

Think deeply about how much debt you should take on. Debt is a deterrent to starting your life professionally, weigh the costs that a university offers with the cost of living in that city.
Find initiatives within the university that can act as a springboard to other art + career streams and interests and can act as a catalyst for a new unknown niche.
Lifelong habits of continuous hard work, perseverance and networking are all absolutely necessary.”

“I believe a gap year or two is very good for a student because it helps them get a better understanding as to why they want to go, what they want to get out of it and they come into a program hungry and eager to learn after being away. It can also demonstrate to the program they are applying to that they are disciplined and self-motivated and can continue to make work outside of schooling.

I also think students need to visit potential programs and meet the professors. This is a huge investment of time and money and they shouldn’t just rely solely on the reputation of a program. They should know that the program they are going to will be a good fit for them and the type of work they make.

All too often I read letters of intent that focus only on what the program offers them, but not what they will bring to the program. I believe that considering how you fit into a program and what you contribute to it is important to consider. They will be part of that community and perhaps for a long time after they graduate.”
– Ovidio Giberga, Associate Professor at University of Texas at San Antonio

“My suggestion to young artists looking at schools would be to look at the work of recent graduate students coming out of the program.  Is the work interesting to you?  Is it unlike work that you see elsewhere?  If so, investigate!  Also: talk to recent graduates about their experiences, as well as current students.  They will be able to give you a perspective on how all of the parts fit together: faculty, peers, curriculum, teaching opportunities, funding, location, etc…”
– Jeanne Quinn Professor at University of Colorado Boulder

“Go to graduate school if you have the desire to be in an academic setting and want to develop as an artist. If you go, you’ll be part of a community that should help you throughout your career. Pick a school that is affordable, have faculty that you respect as artists/teachers, have strong student/alumni, and whose mission and resources suit your educational goals. Challenge yourself by going someplace completely foreign to you.”

– Sam Chung Professor at Arizona State University

“Graduate school is a time for self-reflection and risk taking. It takes a mature, open individual who can research and work independently. For some it can be an incredibly emotional experience. This is because making art is personal and your ideas, methods and materials are being scrutinized through the process of earning an MFA degree. Sometimes how we envison the experience of graduate school can be very different to the reality of it and our actual experiences while attending. Some programs can be very competitive and challenging and the pressure academically and socially can be intense. As a result, there are different philosophies on when to attend graduate school.”
– Paul Donnelly, Associate Professor of Ceramics at the Kansas City Art InstituteMore...

When advising students about graduate school there are a lot of factors they should consider and it takes time and a decent amount of research to determine what program is right for them and the type of work they make.  I always advise student to research the programs thoroughly to determine who the faculty are, the structure, size and length of the programs (2 year or 3 year), the facilities they offer, how many graduate students attend the program and if there is any funding available.  Graduate school is a huge investment and you want to make sure you are applying to the right program otherwise it’s a waste of time and money.  There are many different reasons for choosing a graduate program, some students pick schools based on the faculty, what they make and how they approach their practice, some pick schools based on the facilities they provide, others choose schools based on the reputation of the program and some pick programs based on their geographical location.  Learning about the faculty who teach at various schools and the facilities that are provided is a good start.  Each program has a different focus based on the faculty and facilities in their programs.  In other words, if you want to fire your work in a wood or salt atmosphere there are teachers and programs that have those specific resources, if you are interested in design and would like facilities geared to 3D modeling and rapid prototyping there are schools and teachers specific to that area of study.  Some students are looking for a practice that is multidisciplinary or focuses on social practice so finding faculty and a program structured towards those needs would be vital to your development.  You don’t want to find your self in a program that doesn’t fully support your research and the work you want to make.  Talk to your current or past professors about programs they think you should look into. More research can be done by visiting the school’s website, visiting faculty’s websites, interviewing recent graduates and asking them about their experiences in school.  Social media can also be a tool for seeing what is happening at different programs.  Most programs have facebook and Instagram accounts you can follow.  This will not give you all the answers but allow you to make more informed decisions.  I would suggest picking 5 programs to apply to; 3 top choice schools and 2 back up programs.  Some students pick even more programs but application fees to apply can add up quickly.

Once you have narrowed down your schools you can then do more in depth research to understand how a program is structured.  As a student you want to know what to expect.  You will want to know what classes you will be taking and who is teaching them especially with seminars and history courses.  Some schools have the opportunity to study abroad in places like Jingdezhen or have relationships to other departments like engineering, industrial design or architecture.  These can be incredible resources for any student.  You will want to know how your graduate committee is set up and if faculty outside of your program are available to meet with you.  For example, at some schools you can pick faculty who work in other areas outside of ceramics to be on your graduate committee, they can be a helpful resource for your research as a graduate student.  Some schools are not structured this way and you only work with certain faculty.  Other important factors you will want to know is how often you meet with your advisor; is it once a week, every other week, less?  You will want know how often you are reviewed, is it twice a semester, once a semester or if the program is on the quarter system when are those reviews. They can take place in the 2nd quarter 3rd quarter 5th quarter etc.  Some schools are incredibly structured where as others are more open, similar to a residency program and you work more independently.  Choosing the right program depends on what you want and what best suits you.  Understanding these nuances and how you work is important in supporting your research.  I had two students go to the same grad program at different times.  One left after a year and applied to a different school because the curriculum didn’t fit their needs, the other thrived there because they liked the openness of the program to pursue their ideas.  I think it is very important to visit schools.  It allows you to interview current students and faculty and ask these questions.  It allows you to see the studio spaces and the facilities to better understand the working conditions.  If one is unable to visit programs, then at the very least you should set up phone conversations with department chairs to have a discussion and be able to ask about the structure of the program and the resources it offers.

One of the biggest considerations (in my opinion) for attending an MFA program is the cost.  Students should not apply to or attend schools they can’t afford especially since the cost of education is rising and students are taking on more undergraduate debt.  Some, applicants go to graduate school to pursue teaching as a profession and this is the wrong attitude for applying to / attending an MFA program.  The development of your work and research should be the main focus.  Teaching at the collegiate level is not a guarantee after graduation. There are very little jobs and a lot of qualified candidates. I know a lot of ceramicists who can’t find teaching positions and are saddled with a lot of debt.  Many of these folks regretted not doing more research into the costs of their undergraduate and graduate programs.  There are a lot of programs that offer a tuition waiver and a stipend while attending school.  Often this is in exchange for teaching or working some position within the program.  Some schools offer “full rides”, some offer partial funding and others offer no funding.  You will want to find out about funding when researching a school especially when visiting a program or talking to the department chair.  You want to find out what types of positions are available and how much the monthly stipend is.  In the end do the math and find out how much debt you are willing to take on.  If financial restrictions are not an issue then options will open up for private schools and the ability to study abroad.  I have had students in the past choose some of these programs due to the school’s reputation rather than the program structure, facilities or teachers who work there.  This line of thinking is that the school’s reputation will open doors for you in the field.

Graduate school is a time for self-reflection and risk taking.  It takes a mature, open individual who can research and work independently. For some it can be an incredibly emotional experience.  This is because making art is personal and your ideas, methods and materials are being scrutinized through the process of earning an MFA degree.  Sometimes how we vison the experience of graduate school can be very different to the reality of it and our actual experiences while attending.  Some programs can be very competitive and challenging and the pressure academically and socially can be intense.  As a result, there are different philosophies on when to attend graduate school.  Some people think it’s best to take time off between undergraduate and graduate school to gain some real-world experiences.  Realistically it depends on how mature and driven you are and where you are with the development of your portfolio.  If your portfolio is underdeveloped you might want to wait, with the goal of improving your portfolio.  Looking into post-baccalaureate programs, residencies and apprenticeships are all really good options for this.  These experiences can also open doors to different graduate schools because it demonstrates that you are driven to seek opportunities.  It also expands your network and practitioners who can write letters on your behalf.

There are certain situations like jobs and geography that can also be a factor.  If you want to continue to work at your current employer or do not want to move while earning your MFA there are Low-Residency Programs that allow you to earn your degree remotely, over a longer period of time.  This is ideal for artists and educators who already have established a career but want to earn an MFA.

Ultimately there is no one way to approach choosing the perfect program because there are so many different factors that can play into the decision and your ability to be accepted.  Judging the program solely based on reputation or faculty or recent graduates can be incredibly misleading.  Programs can change quickly over the course of 5 years.  There are certain schools with great reputations but that does not make them the right program for any one individual.  Finding schools that are more regional might be more cost-effective and a better fit for most individuals.  In the end, try to do as much research as possible to be more informed, it’s an important decision one you don’t want to regret.

Some other considerations and questions to ask that may affect your experience while in school are:

Will there be any major renovations happening that could disrupt my research while attending the program?

Will any of the faculty be on sabbatical or leave while attending the program. (This is important if you are choosing a program based on the faculty who teach there).

Are there any faculty who will be retiring or any new hires while attending the program?

“I suggest to go to Grad school sooner than later and to seek out funded programs. Once accepted, work really hard to improve your artwork.”
– Gerit Grimm, Artist.


“Be intentional about graduate school. And, be suspicious of rankings and metrics. Consider the reasons why YOU need to engage your work within an academic program. Maybe this is about time in the studio, teaching experience, a community of peers, or access to the range of people, ideas, and facilities that exist in a university outside of an MFA program. Think about the nature of YOUR WORK, and what your work and practice need at this moment”
– Brian Gillis, Ceramics Coordinator at University of Oregon

The Critical Questions

When 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?

Which Schools are right 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 words? How do your images of work look when 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 otherwise 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 Facilites?
  • 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:
  • 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 artists or both? Are the professor’s studios at school or at home?
  • Are the professors settled or “on the move”/ Does the age of the professor 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 personal 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 shortlist. 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 no 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, it’s 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 backup 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.

Other Suggestions?
  • 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.

328 Ceramic Colleges, Schools and Universities – Digital Fire Database

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 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

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. 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

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.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

Hindsight is 20/20 . . . and my perspective about graduate school has changed since I attended. 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.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

What are the different Graduate Degrees?

KINDS OF DEGREES (from the CAA website):

This directory lists degrees awarded as either certificate, master’s degree, or doctoral degree. The delineation of degree types among institutions and programs varies widely. The following list, though not exhaustive, defines common degrees that might appear in program descriptions.

MASTER OF FINE ARTS (MFA): This degree is typically awarded for two to three years of academic and studio-based study in fine arts and humanities fields. A bachelor’s degree in fine arts is usually required for admission to an MFA program. The emphasis in an MFA program is studio practice in a particular area or medium, though a written thesis may be required in addition to an exhibition.

MASTER OF ARTS (MA): A master’s program may be course- based, studio-based, or a combination of both; a thesis may be required for completion of the degree. The course of study is generally one to two years. Often a bachelor’s degree in the area of study is not required for admission.

MASTER OF SCIENCE (MS): Programs award this degree for academic study of the arts, particularly in branches of the arts, such as conservation, that require technical skills.

OTHER MASTER’S DEGREES: Related degrees include the Master of Design (MD), Master of Architecture (MA), Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA), and Master of Industrial Design (MID).

GRADUATE DEGREES IN EDUCATION: Education degrees with an emphasis on the visual arts often mix disciplinary studies (for example, art history) with coursework in educational theory and practice. Many education degrees include substantial classroom work as well as courses focused on methods and pedagogy. In the United States and many countries, secondary school teachers must be licensed or certified. Some degree programs in education include such teacher certification. Education degrees include the following:

MASTER OF ARTS IN TEACHING (MAT): This degree is for students interested in a career in primary or secondary school education (preschool and/or kindergarten through high school).

MASTER OF EDUCATION (MED): An MEd may include concentration or specialization in the arts, as well as training in educational administration, curriculum, and theory.

MASTER OF ARTS EDUCATION (MAE OR MAED): Programs offering this degree train practicing art teachers and individuals with an undergraduate art background who seek to teach art.

EDUCATIONAL SPECIALIST (EDS): In the United States, this is a terminal (final) degree that follows a MAT or MEd and provides additional specialized skills, but does not include the research involved in a PhD or EdD.

DOCTOR OF EDUCATION (EDD): is a terminal (final) degree equivalent to a PhD, with a similar program of extensive and rigorous research, but a greater emphasis on educational theory and methods.

CERTIFICATE AND POSTGRADUATE DIPLOMA: Some programs offer a certificate (conferring professional certification) or postgraduate diploma, rather than a degree. These programs usually do not include thesis research, but emphasize practical training. In the United States, the certification may indicate that the recipient has met state requirements for teaching or professional standards in other fields.