Table of Contents » Chapter 2 : Post Graduation » Chapter 2: Attending Graduate School

Chapter 2: Attending Graduate School

Congratulations, you made it through the all consuming process of applying to graduate school. And now you get to do it! Here are a few articles from accomplished artist and educators sharing some tips on how to fully engage with the process.

Some Thoughts on Making Pottery in Graduate School

By Margaret Bohls

Graduate school isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of good and successful potters who never went to graduate school. With a commitment to a dedicated and continuous studio practice and the right choice of community, you can cultivate the evolution of your work and build a clientele.  If your ultimate goal is to be a studio potter, there are excellent apprenticeships, residencies, and certificate programs that can help you to do this. More...

Graduate school is hard. It is hard for painters and sculptors, photographers, printmakers and potters. You are asked the difficult questions, you are forced to face and overcome your weaknesses; you must question all your “givens”.   You are asked to consider not only the content of your work but the context. Where does your work live within the vast field of art? What is its relevance to a contemporary audience? Who, exactly, is your intended audience? What traditions are feeding your work? How are you contributing to the sustenance and growth of those traditions?

One certainly can develop skill in graduate school, but graduate school is primarily about the development of knowledge and the ability to create content.  The graduate curriculum is designed to accelerate the growth of your work. It is a place to examine and grow the conceptual and formal aspects of your work.  Graduate school is also designed to develop your ability to teach.  Teaching ceramics at a college or university requires knowledge about the history of ceramics, ceramics technology (clay and glaze formulation, kiln building, mold making, digital fabrication) art theory, craft theory, and the ability to think and speak critically about all forms of art.

Some advice for those who want to make pots in graduate school:

Choose a school that clearly supports pottery. Look for programs that have produced good potters. There does not necessarily have to be a potter on the faculty, but that is certainly helpful. Look for programs that teach the history of ceramics, craft theory, and ceramics technology.
Work collaboratively. Initiate projects that involve social practice and community. Being a successful potter involves developing relationships with those to whom you want your work to be relevant.

Research! Read and write about the issues that are important to you and your work. Grad school is as much about your own intellectual development as it is about the development of your work. Also, being able to articulate your ideas in writing will greatly enhance your ability to manifest your ideas within your pots.

Become a good designer. Pottery exists at the intersection of art, craft and design. The best pots combine content, function and form in a way that the three mutually enhance one another. Drawing is an essential skill for a potter. If your school has design faculty, take full advantage of their input.

Take any class offered on the business of art. Learn to write grants and how to best represent yourself and your work.

Develop critical dialogue with your peers in graduate school, especially those from other disciplines. Your peers often have as much to offer you as your faculty. The better your community understands you and your work, the more support you will get.

Network with potters in other schools.

Stick to your guns. Doggedness is one of the most important qualities of a good potter. If you can easily be convinced that pottery is not a valid pursuit, you probably should not be a potter.

Work your ass off. Prioritize and defend your time in the studio and maximize your productivity when you are in the studio. Set clear and challenging short- and long-term goals for the work that you make. A good work ethic is essential to being a good potter.

By Andrew Casto

This fantastic essay is part of the Graduate Handbook from Iowa University Ceramics Department, written by Andrew Castro. It has been modestly edited.

– Andrew Casto

There are lots of ways to approach your time as a graduate student with us. Every artist is different, and we thrive on that diversity. That being said, here are a few thoughts about how you might structure your three years:


Try everything you can during your first year. It’s a great opportunity for exploration, and you’ll have significantly less pressure than later on. In year two, try to evaluate what worked well and what didn’t during your first year. Critically assess your efforts, and narrow your focus to a few ideas and techniques worthy of deep studio time. Year three needs to be full-tilt focused effort toward your MFA show. You should know what your work is about, how to make it well, and be able to execute a museum quality solo exhibition by spring semester. More...

  1. Look Around You for Answers:

You will be surrounded by other graduate students during your tenure here, as well as faculty members, lab supervisors, and other support staff. No one person has all the answers you need, and you should cast as wide a net as possible as you search for advice, feedback, and friendship with your colleagues.  Find ways to interact with these people – ask for studio visits as much as possible, and collaborate with your peers.

Start keeping an eye out for committee members early. If you like a faculty member’s work, or hear good things about them, find a way to meet them and get to know them – early. The more input you can get from your committee members, the better. They will all be willing to meet with you as much as is helpful – but it’s your job to initiate those interactions. We’re all quite busy of course, but we want to make time for you. We aren’t likely to always seek you out, so make sure you take the initiative to get as much from your faculty as possible. We expect that of you.

Give and get from your direct peers. The people around you most will be your friends and colleagues for the rest of your life. Treat them with respect, and help them when they need it. Talk about your work, and theirs, with honesty and curiosity. You have a responsibility to them, and they have the same to you – each of you only gets so many people to be in grad school with. Don’t be dead weight – someone not working, not striving, and not focused not only lets down themselves, but also their peers. If someone around you is slacking, call them out – tell them you expect more of them, and that you’re here to help them get back on track.

  1. Use Your Summers Wisely:

Just going home and hanging out at your parents’ house is a waste of valuable time. Treat each summer like a residency opportunity. Go somewhere where you can get input from others outside of this place. If you don’t have luck applying to residency programs, make one for yourself. Travel with friends, see art, make art anywhere you can. If you treat the summers like extra studio time away from courses, you’ll be even more productive when you come back. Places that have been great for students have been Watershed, Haystack, The Archie Bray Foundation, Anderson Ranch, Penland, The Vermont Studio Center, Grin City Collective, The Norther Clay Center, The Clay Studio of Philadelphia, Harvard Ceramics, Arrowmont, Taos Clay, Greenwich House Pottery, Medalta, AIR Vallauris, CRETA Rome, The European Ceramic Work Centre, The International Ceramic Studio at Keskamet, Guldagergaard in Denmark, Red Lodge Clay Center, The Clay Studio of Missoula, Ox-Bow, etc, etc, etc…

  1. Take Advantage of The University:

This is an incredible community of scholars from all over the world. There are resources available to you as a student at this university that you’ll never have access to again in your life – make them count! Any peripheral interest you have, such that it informs your work, can be researched, informed, and investigated with the help of experts. Your elective course options in the curriculum are excellent ways to capitalize on these resources, but even if you don’t have room to take a course in an area, find out what’s available on campus and figure out a way to make use of it. Libraries, Museums, Collections, Exhibitions – everything is game.  Visit the temporary exhibits and exhibition spaces in the meantime, and get to know museum staff members if you can.

  1. Find Ways to Build an Exhibition Record While You’re Here:

Many people might tell you not to spend your time exhibiting work externally in graduate school so as not to be distracted from your work. Without some external exhibitions on your CV however, you’ll feel deficient when you leave, and you’ll spend extra time then building up your resume to be considered for jobs and opportunities. It’s fine to exhibit work that winds up looking outdated later – no one will remember. If they do, then you’ve made enough of an impact to net you opportunities, and that’s a great thing. International juried exhibitions are surprisingly easy to get into as an artist from the US – give them a shot in particular. Rarely does anyone look to see where you exhibited work in Rome… it could be a closet in a bakery, and it would still sound impressive on your CV.

  1. Don’t Get Bogged Down with Overly Technical Courses in Other Areas:

It can be tempting to take every course that sounds interesting – be wary of those that are extremely process heavy, and if you choose them, make sure they relate directly to what you need in your existing body of work. If you don’t plan to use metal, there’s little reason to spend a semester in hot metal casting, because it will rule your existence. This isn’t to say those courses aren’t extremely valuable and GREAT to take if they make sense for you… but if it’s just a tangential interest for you, save it for another time in life. You’re here to make the best work you can, and you need to guard your studio time preciously.

  1. Guard Your Studio Time Fiendishly:

You will be amazed at the number of distractions available to you – everyone loves to have partners in procrastination. Don’t get sidetracked. Your three years will be over before you know it, and if you spend all your time at the local pub….There are worse things to do with your time of course, but you’re here to make work. Make a schedule that works for you, and stick to it. If you need privacy, become nocturnal, and get work done when others sleep. Our graduate space is open and communal – wear headphones if you don’t want to be bothered. It’s a great signal to others that you’re in your own space and focused. Try to be the first one here and the last one to leave – and pat yourself on the back when it’s just you and the 3rd shift janitors in the building.

  1. Ask for Help and Advice from Faculty (Again)

As mentioned above, you are surrounded by accomplished artists and faculty members – 40 of them. You should use them as much as possible to help you. It’s totally normal for grad students to ask for critiques or seek feedback from faculty in other areas. We enjoy this! Beginning to ask for advice early helps you form relationships with a diverse faculty cohort, and affords you time to build a long-running dialogue – something that you can’t really do later on in your time in school. Look at the faculty’s work, find people who you think may have things in common with you, and ask for a studio visit. These can be priceless interactions, but they only happen if you initiate them.

  1. Teaching, Surprise – you’re a college professor (sort of):

Many graduate students teaching as part of the MFA education, and / or their financial support. Most people are nervous when they start teaching. Having a teaching assistantship sounds great on paper – tuition waiver, a stipend, insurance… sign me up, right? Except when you realize you need a syllabus, and that you’ll be the person in front of the room of staring silent eyes on the first day of class.

Good news – odds are you already know how to do this. Think about the best teachers you’ve had… and pretend to be them. Most often, you related to them because you saw a part of their humanity that resonated with you. They probably didn’t have it all together – they might have shown up late, wore weird clothes, or went on ridiculous tangents. Probably you enjoyed those things though. That’s called being yourself… and you can do it too.

  1. Your studio

Cleaning it is recommended. Seriously. Messy spaces equal messy work, no room to make your work, and no way to find your work. We have limited space, and if it’s cluttered with abandoned projects, old pizza boxes, and your own personal stash of site-specific objects, you’ll be frustrated. Ultimately it’s your preference and responsibility to keep the kind of space that fosters your creativity the best. If that’s utter chaos, we can try to be hospitable as long as it doesn’t infringe on your neighbor’s health or space.

Each grad space has an 8 foot long shelf, 8 foot long table, and locking cabinet assigned to it. There are other tables around, and other equipment you can keep in your space. There should be enough wheels for one to live in your space if needed, and there are also tools that generally stay in the grad space, like a smaller slab roller, pneumatic extruder, an air-powered 3d ceramic printer, a MakerBot 3D printer and scanner, a full color ceramic decal printer, and a vinyl plotter. These are for the group to use, but if one person needs one exclusively and it’s fine with everyone else, it’s ok for it to have an extended stay in that person’s space.

Your space is your home. Nurture it, constantly re-evaluate it, make it yours. You should find ways to make it an efficient environment for the creation of your work, and we’re happy to help you customize it. It should be the place you want to be more than anywhere else while you’re here.