An Introduction to Graduate Education in the Visual Arts - Academics

An Introduction to Graduate Education in the Visual Arts - Academics

Academic Leader Perspectives

First, we interviewed leaders from 13 graduate programs, including 9 from graduate admissions departments and 4 from graduate program directors and/or faculty. The questions and their responses are in this section - if you'd prefer to read the unedited version of a specific school leader's response, you can check out the complete text of each interview through the Academic Leaders - Full Responses section at the bottom of the page.

Ultimately, most everyone agreed that the choice is a very personal decision. Or, as Sheri McKenzie of the California College of the Arts said: "The reasons for entering graduate school are as varied and individual as the students themselves."

In other words, one size does not fit all. People are different, and graduate programs are different, too. One of your most challenging tasks will be figuring out whether you and a particular school will work well together.

Please read on, and we hope that it will help you explore more about where you stand and the choices before you.

1. What are the top three reasons that students choose to pursue a graduate degree in the visual arts?

Of course, there are many reasons for going after a graduate degree - personal reasons, practical reasons, professional reasons. But, based on the responses to this question, it is clear that there are two primary, and distinctly different, reasons for pursuing a graduate degree in any given artistic field:

  • Advancing their work or artistic skills, and
  • Prepare for career in teaching or career advancement

Far and away, "advancing their art" was the most often-cited top reason for students who chose to attend grad school. And the reasoning seems clear:

Graduate school gives students "two years of uninterrupted time to develop their work," said Carmina Cianciulli, Assistant Dean for Admissions at Temple University's Tyler School of Art.

"Students understand that they will be able to focus all of their attention on their own work during this time," agreed André S. van de Putte, Associate Director of Graduate Admissions at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "(They will) develop a mature understanding of what it takes to remain professionally active as they pursue a career in art."

Then, seeming almost the opposite, there's a large number of other students choosing to attend graduate school who aren't necessarily thinking about their art work or their artistic skills. The second-cited reason: Pursuit of an MFA, the highest degree available in the Fine Arts, so that they can teach.

"Years ago it was assumed if you had a Master's Degree college teaching was assured," said Ken Kerslake, a retired faculty and founder of the Printmaking Program at the University of Florida's College of Fine Arts. "That is no longer true, as many community colleges and even high schools are requiring (an MFA)."

Another common response was "networking," meaning that many students see graduate school as their best opportunity to meet and work with leaders in their artistic field, to get internships and recognition, to have their name and their work seen by influential people and audiences.

A brief but excellent piece on this topic was offered by David A. Ross, former Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in an introduction for San Jose State University's School of Art and Design.

2. Professionally speaking, why should students pursue graduate programs in art? What advantages can they attain from it? When is the best time to pursue one?

WHEN and WHY to pull the trigger and go after that graduate degree are also matters of individual choice, depending so much on personal and professionals goals.

"There is no best time to pursue the degree," said Tom Lightfoot, Chairman of the School of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Each student has his or her own agenda."

In general, though, our graduate school experts did have some common perspectives:

"The most successful students in our graduate programs enroll after taking a break in their education, said Nadine Bourgeois, Associate Dean for Enrollment Management at the Parsons Schools of Design. "We find that students who have some had work experience (in virtually any area) are better adapted to the graduate study experience."

Cianciulli agreed: "Students who wait a while before entering an MFA tend to be more focused, and more motivated."

Dr. Ellen Horovitz, director of the Graduate Art Therapy Program at Nazareth College, offered this advice: "The best time to pursue education is when it fits into your lifestyle (whatever that might be) in such a way that you can offer the proper attention to receive maximum benefit from your studies."

3. What are the three most important factors that prospective students should consider when evaluating and choosing a graduate program in the visual arts?

Once you've decided to "go for it" and attend graduate school, which program to attend could be the most decision you'll make. The school you choose will play a huge role in the path that your career will follow for the rest of your life.

That's why we asked graduate school leaders to tell us some of the most important things that you must consider when making this decision!

Many of the responses reflect the need for you to know what you want from a graduate education. Certainly, the more you've explored your own goals and direction, the more you will get out of it.

"By knowing what you want, the schools will sort themselves out," said Mr. Lightfoot. "Internationally known artists on the faculty might be appropriate for making contacts in the art world but not necessarily for reinforcing the solid fundamentals necessary for a career in teaching art."

Here's what they said:

    1. Faculty was the most common consideration cited. This includes their quality, accessibility, experience, connections, and reputation. Linda Walsh, Graduate Advisor at San Jose State University's College of Humanities & the Arts, said that it's important to look for teachers, mentor and artists at the school whose work and ideas will challenge you. And, of course, you also must consider these qualities in light of your own specific artistic field of interest.

    2. Location was important enough to be a close second. Is the program in a geographic place where you will be comfortable and focused for the next two years of your life? For example, if you aren't comfortable with the commotion of a big city, you may want to consider a school in a smaller setting. You must consider the effect that your surroundings will have on your work.

    Carol Kim, Director of Enrollment Services at California Institute of the Arts, said: "Though by no means essential to one's success as an artist, a good rule of thumb would be to study in the same city you wish to practice in. Your two to three years spent in school will provide you with a network of artist friends and contacts whom you will be able to easily call upon if you continue to inhabit the same artistic community. This time will also give you an opportunity to become knowledgeable about local exhibition spaces and other opportunities to show your work."

    3. Focus and Facilities - Does the school have the program, the curriculum, and the on- and off-campus resources to meet the expectation you have for your graduate education? What exactly are the degree requirements? How often are the classes important to you offered?

    4. "The students" was also a common response. Said Ms. Kim: "Students will learn as much from their classmates as from their faculty. The more inspiring your peers are, the more you will learn."

A few other important considerations were reputation, challenge, the availability of financial aid, and diversity.

Added Ms. Cianciulli: "It's important to visit the colleges that you are most interested in, and speak to the current graduate students. Many students wait to see which schools will accept them before making visits. Be sure that if you can the living expenses as well as the tuition."

Many of these factors can be loosely wrapped up into a more encompassing term, cited by Mr. Van de Putte, called "compatibility." He explained: "This would include such things as: are there artists on the faculty with whom I'd want to work, will the facilities be adequate for the work that I am interested in creating, will I find myself challenged by the type of student who attends this school, and will the school have the level of diversity that I desire."

4. How is your graduate art program different than those at other schools? How is technology integrated into your programs?

Certainly, every art program is unique, and every art program should be regarded that way. We asked this question so that you could get a glimpse of some of the unique qualities that graduate art programs have. For example:

  • Many graduate programs are interdisciplinary with the school of art - but some, like the University of Michigan's School of Art and Design, go even further, even requiring classes beyond artistic fields of study.
  • The School of the Art Institute of Chicago does not require graduate students to declare a "major" within its MFA in Studio program, supporting the idea that artists ideas are ever-changing.
  • Some have become adept at taking advantage of their physical surroundings. For example, at CCAC, students have opportunities to learn from and contribute to some of the Bay Area's culturally diverse neighborhoods through the Center for Art and Public Life.
  • Students are required to take classes that introduce them to the digital technologies which are in use today," said Cathy Corcoran, Executive Administrative Director, Graduate School at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. "All departments , from Photography to Industrial Design , from Computer Arts to Graphic Design provide students with the cutting edge equipment, facilities, and technology required as standard by the industry."

Please take a few moments to read the responses of each of our interviewees to gain their perspectives on how they believe that their programs differ from the others. If one in particular catches your attention, by all means, contact them and ask for more!

If you want the information, but you don't want to contact so many schools, Ms. Cianciulli suggested a few additional resources: "Websites like and are good places to start. Also check out the National Portfolio Day Association's website for National Portfolio Day events. Also, read the faculty bios in the schools that interest you and research the schools that the faculty attended."

Who's Going to Graduate School?

About 10 percent of all undergraduate students in the visual arts eventually go to graduate school, if statistics from the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design hold true for the greater population. According to AICAD, a total of 3,800 students from its 35 member institutions are enrolled in graduate programs, representing about 10 percent of the undergraduate population at the same schools - that's a 20 percent increase in graduate school population over the last five years!

Also noteworthy: AICAD reports that about 85 percent of those enrolled in graduate programs are going full-time. AICAD Executive Director Mr. Bill Barrett said that students are almost forced into going full-time because schools often require students to take large blocks of credits at one time, making part-time enrollment very difficult.

5. How selective are graduate schools for the visual arts, and what are some hot tips for getting accepted?

"Most graduate schools are receiving more applications than they can possibly accept," said Mr. Kerslake. "As a result standards are high and competition stiff."

This sentiment was the gist of most responses, as the majority of the leaders interviewed considered their programs to be very selective - although others took the question a step farther to point out that many others are not.

For a general idea, consider that about 55 percent of undergraduates are accepted into the art programs to which the apply, while only 36 percent of graduate students are accepted - this, according to Bill Barrett, Executive Director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, who referred to AICAD's annual survey of the 35 accredited schools in its membership.

With regard to "hot tips" for getting accepted, the portfolio was the item most commonly-mentioned mentioned by our interviewees:

"Produce a first-rate portfolio of art and design showing skill level," advised Ms. Corcoran. "Plus, a first rate letter of intent, which communicates your reasons for applying to a specific discipline."

"I don't think that people are careful enough with their portfolios," warned Frank Lind, Dean of School of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. "That's what will make you or break you, no matter how many good references you might have. Either do it yourself very carefully, or get someone else to take professional slides of your work."

Mr. Van de Putte added: "I usually recommend that prospective students show an academic or professional curator their work. These professionals see a lot of strong work, and they may be able to identify problems with the portfolio."

But, what if you don't have a portfolio, and you still want to enter graduate school? Nadine Bourgois, Associate Dean for Enrollment Management at Parsons School of Design, offered this advice: "Although Parsons only offers programs with portfolio requirements, there are some schools - particularly large state universities - which offer fine arts programs not requiring prior studio study or a portfolio."

It is advisable to read very carefully an article by Mr. Kavin Buck, Artist and Director of Recruitment & Outreach, UCLA School of the Arts & Architecture, titled on "How to Prepare your Portfolio for College Admissions."

Some other tips:

Mr. Lightfoot: "Serious students should make contact and stay in-touch with individual faculty members in the specific program they are interested in. Do not just send in an application and sit back and wait for an answer."

Ms. Bourgois: "One of the single most useful tips about applying to graduate schools is FOLLOW THE APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS - especially when it comes to specific requirements about the type and forms of work accepted for consideration? (Also), many schools require a statement of intent - and countless students assume this is not a critical part of the process compared to their portfolio. This is a grave error. Students can use the statement as a way of clearly defining specifically why the program they are applying for is a good fit for their educational and artistic goals."

Mr. Kerslake said that students should pursue "recommendations that describe your strengths and uniqueness in some depth - so choose who you ask carefully. Keep in mind that the people reading your recommendations have read hundreds and standard recommendations are usually ignored."

For a more in-depth look at this topic, please read the feature on "How to Get Into America's Best Art Schools," which also includes a segment on graduate school admissions.

6. How do most students fund their graduate education? How available are scholarships and other forms of financial assistance at your school?

Once you've figured out why you want to go to grad school, and where you want to go, then? there's the big question of money. How will you pay for it? What are your financial options?

Our respondents mentioned everything in the book: Some students will win scholarships, grants and fellowships; others will find assistantships, work study programs, and part- or full-time jobs; many students will rely on student loans, housing assistance, and personal savings.

Many took the "realist" point-of-view that most students will finance the bulk of their graduate education through student loans. But an equal number mentioned scholarships, with the availability depending on the school and varying from only a few available to half of the students enrolled receiving some form of scholarship.

As Mr. Lightfoot points out, though, the majority will piece together whatever they can: "Most students cobble together work, scholarships, assistantships, and loans, along with personal or family savings in order to afford the increasing cost of graduate education."

Said Mr. Lind: "Assistantships are excellent part-time jobs, but the vast number of students finance the bulk of their education with loans, which are quite available."

Ms. Cianciulli said: "Not all assistantships or fellowships are awarded by the individual department or major. Most art schools also offer technical or non-teaching assistantships in administrative areas. Be sure to ask the Admissions Office or Graduate program office about potential assistantships in admissions, dean's office, financial aid, or housing."

For a detailed look at Art Scholarships, read through the Art Scholarship Guide, which highlights ideas, information and resources for funding your art education, including graduate education.

For even more information, check out's Financial Aid chapter page, where you'll find a great collection of articles, web pages and books to help you out.

What is an MFA?

"The MFA is a concentrated 'professional' degree for students seeking advanced education prior to becoming practicing artists or designers. The MA, on the other hand, is usually a 'liberal arts' degree with less emphasis on practice... Finally, the MFA requires between 65% and 85% of the course work to be in art or design practice, whereas the MA requires approximately 50% in studio areas."
- excerpt from "What is an MFA?", an article from the web site of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design

7. Can an MFA include a focus on just about any visual art discipline? What's the difference between an MFA with a specialization and an MA in any given specialty?

The answer to this question was fairly straightforward: An MFA requires twice the credits, twice the effort, and is considered the professional degree. Those intending to teach full-time must usually have an MFA.

"MFA is a terminal degree - the highest degree you can get - there's no doctorate you can get in fine arts," said Mr. Lind. "Usually, an MFA is a longer degree, 60 credits, compared to most MAs, which tend to be 32 credits. The place it counts most is in academia."

Also, said Ms. McKenzie: "An MFA program differs from a MA program most fundamentally by its inclusion of an intense studio experience, which we believe is critical for growing artists."

8. How does your school help its students to find jobs in the visual arts?

Schools make it a point to help students find jobs. They care about their students, and the more successful you are, the better they look. The most frequently mentioned means of helping students find their way into the working world included:

  • Networking through school faculty, students, alumni and affiliates
  • Career services departments
  • Workshops, Conventions and Programs
  • Easy access to job opening announcements

The number one way that graduate schools help students find jobs in their field is through networking with faculty, other students, affiliates and/or alumni. In other words, the connections that you make simply by attending and engaging yourself in graduate school will result in professional opportunities that would otherwise pass you by.

Explained Ms. Walsh: "Students attend national conventions... where faculty introduce them, assist them with interviews and help them learn to network. All faculty have contacts in the field and try to help students find opportunities for teaching, exhibitions, and commissions."

Many others mentioned the school's Careers Office, which typically offer counseling, access to job banks with thousands of listings, and workshops to help graduate students develop job searching skills like interviewing, resume writing and preparing a portfolio.

But the help doesn't stop there! Our respondents mentioned internships, professional organizations, Internet, dept. job posting boards, seminars and conventions, networking sessions as great resources for finding jobs beyond graduate school.

For even more information, check out's Careers/Jobs chapter page, where you'll find a great collection of articles, interviews, web page links and books to help you out.

"There's a big need for teachers now because those who were teaching the baby boomers are retiring, particularly in K-12; what our member schools are experiencing are large retirements, and they're all looking for new teachers - it's a great way to support yourself and your studio work."
- Bill Barrett, Executive Director, Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design

9. Tell us about some of your MFA graduates.
10. Tell us about some of your noteworthy faculty.

Students and faculty have been cited over and over again by our interviewees as the best indicators of a good graduate program. We offered these two questions as an opportunity for them to show off their programs a little bit. Please take the opportunity to read the individual responses and get a feel for who you may be rubbing elbows with.

Full Responses from Interviews with Top Art School Leaders

For this article, we interviewed nine admissions leaders and four academic leaders regarding some of the most pressing questions with regard to graduate school. For a full transcript of their responses to our questions, click on the individuals below:

  • Nadine Bourgeois, Associate Dean for Enrollment Management, Parsons School of Design (NY)
  • Carmina Cianciulli, Assistant Dean for Admissions, Temple University's Tyler School of Art (PA)
  • Cathy Corcoran, Executive Administrative Director of the Graduate School, Academy of Art College (CA)
  • Carol Kim, Director of Admissions, California Institute of the Arts
  • Tom Lightfoot, Chairman of the School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology (NY)
  • Frank Lind, Dean of the School of Art, Pratt Institute (NY)
  • Sheri McKenzie, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services, California College of Arts and Crafts
  • Andre van de Putte, Associate Director of Graduate Admissions, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (IL)
  • Sherri Smith, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, University of Michigan's School of Art and Design
  • "/articles/graduate-education/walsh">Linda Walsh, Graduate Advisor, San Jose State University's School of Art and Design

Other Sources

For this article, we also used this information from:

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