Once you’ve set your mind to attending an MFA program it’s time to start investigating what’s out there. It’s important to look beyond the first schools that come to mind- your undergraduate institution, your friend’s MFA program or the big name schools in your field. The most important rule of this part of the process is to keep an open mind. Until you’ve seen the studio, met the other students and talked to the faculty members, you won’t have a clear idea of the working environment at that school.
It can be easy to get caught up in the “name game”- those schools you hear about at conferences or that program every artist in this year’s Exhibition in Print seems to hail from. It is more than likely that those schools have earned their status with strong programs, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right place for you and, on occasion, it can take more time for a good reputation to fade than it takes for the quality of a program to fade. In the end a graduate program is what you make of it, and you’re much more likely to make the most of an experience in which you feel comfortable, stimulated, encouraged and above all else, happy!
So, what’s out there? I am certainly most familiar with my own field, Metals and Jewelry, but I imagine most of my advice applies to all disciplines. If possible, start by speaking to your undergraduate professors. Their suggestions will give you a starting point and since they know your work well they may have a good idea of other schools that match your interests. Next find a list of schools. For Metals and Jewelry students there is no greater resource than SNAG’s list of Educational Institutions HERE (If you’re limited by location you can open the document in Excel and arrange the institutions by state.) Set aside time to simply pull up websites, check out student and faculty work and read the description of the program. From there begin to create a short list of schools to research further.
As you think more about and explore various programs here are some things to consider:
1. Length of the program. A year makes a huge difference. Are you focused enough to crank out a thesis in two years? Can you support yourself financially for three years as a full-time student? That extra year is a luxury I personally was not willing to sacrifice because I didn’t want to rush my way through this important opportunity. However, this meant that I had to find a school in an area with a lower cost of living and with as much financial help as I could get.
2. Type of work made. Looking at student and faculty work can help you get an idea of where your work fits in – it should be more or less along the lines of what you’re interested in making. Is the work conceptual? Traditional? Design-oriented? Does it integrate or focus on new technologies? Is the work diverse? Or similar? What materials are being used? A more traditional program likely has a major in your discipline, while some schools are moving toward very open “studio art” majors with no clear lines between departments. There will always be a range of how “material-centric” a program is, particularly in craft, and it’s important to speak openly with faculty if you’re interested in exploring other media.
3. Facilities. This may require a visit, but it’s important to see what your studio space will look like and how much space you will have to yourself. Make sure that the program you choose has the equipment for the kind of work that you do or work that you may be interested in doing in the future. Some schools specialize in certain areas and may have some great equipment you haven’t had the opportunity to work with yet. Also look to the other departments on campus. For example, though I’m a Jewelry/Metals major I also have an interest in incorporating fibers into my work, so it really appealed to me that my university has a Textiles program. I’m able to take independent study hours with the faculty in that department and work with them to explore other media.
4. Cost. Schools vary in price so really think about what you can afford. Sure, there are student loans, and though they seem to fall out of the sky you will certainly be rethinking that notion when you graduate and have to pay them back plus interest. Will you be able to begin payments right after graduation? Consider the fact that you likely have a few more years of struggle ahead of you after grad school (let’s be honest, we’re not lawyers here) and it can be easy to get so caught up in paying back your student loans that you forget to continue your career as an artist. Realize that taking on big loans may leave you considering other options, such as moving back home with your folks, working a “normal” job or finding a wealthy spouse!
5. Assistantship opportunities. If you want to teach in the future consider a school that offers teaching assistantships. Having teaching experience under your belt right off the bat is a great opportunity, and let’s not forget about our old friend, Money. Keep in mind that teaching takes up an enormous amount of time and requires a high level of focus (and a low level of social life) to accomplish everything you need to do during the semester.
6. Location. What is the cost of living? What galleries or professional networks will you have access to? Is this a place you would be willing to live after graduation? It could be helpful to establish yourself and stay in the area where you attended school with greater access to those networks, at least to begin your professional life.
7. Program structure. How many credits do you need to complete? (Remember, credits = $$!) Is it loosely structured (includes more independent study) or highly structured (more specific class requirements)? A loosely-structured program offers more independence but requires more self-discipline.
8. Studio access. Will you be able to access the studio 24/7? During breaks? Over the summer? Having access outside of the regular academic year can be crucial for a busy graduate student.
9. General environment. This definitely requires a visit. Every school has a different “feel” in the studio. Everything else may be right on the money, but if you don’t feel comfortable it’s simply not the right place for you. You want to go to a school where they’re just as excited about you as you are about them, so don’t try to push yourself into a program that just isn’t for you.
There are so many great programs to choose from and each will shape you in a slightly different way as an artist. Start your search early and allow enough time to do so before deadlines start approaching. Most importantly, keep an open mind and don’t try to force a fit. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not the right place for you, no matter how much you had your heart set. The perfect program for you is out there and it’s your job to find it!