An Introduction to Graduate Education in the Visual Arts - Employer Perspectives

An Introduction to Graduate Education in the Visual Arts - Employer Perspectives

But there's more to graduate school than simply going to graduate school and getting a degree, right? Most of the people who go to graduate school for the visual arts expect that they'll GET something out of it, whether that means a job and career, or personal and artistic growth.

The academic leaders who we interviewed said that many graduate students expect to become teachers, make great contacts and/or become more "employable" within their field. Our students said that they expect valuable experience and exposure.

We interviewed eight employers and/or business owners who consider visual arts Masters graduates for employment, or who are working professionals with special insight into the value of a graduate degree. Three of these interviewees are with representatives from art school departments and five are from private industry.

Not all interviews were conducted as formally as those in the first two sections, so the full text of their responses is not available in every case. For some of them, though, you can see their full responses to our questions in the section at the bottom of the page, "Full Responses - Employers".

We're hoping that this segment will help you to generate some ideas about your employment possibilities and help you start to visualize where and how you might fit in with your graduate degree. Please read on, and use all of the information that you can!

1. What advantages do employees with a graduate degree in the visual arts bring to your company?

The basic question that we asked here was: Why do you hire people with graduate degrees? What do they bring to the table that other prospective employees can't?

The answers: Knowledge, versatility, balance, dedication to the work, credibility, and more...

"They are well-trained and versed in areas that they can then pass on to our students," said Mette Hansen of the Connecticut Institute of Art. "A (graduate) degree is invaluable and cannot be replaced merely by experience."

"The more art background you have, the better off you are," said John Weber, Curator of Education and Public Programs for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "(People with graduate degrees in the visual arts) understand our subject matter, they care about it, they do a better job and makes the work more meaningful to them"

"We need a balance of people," said Carol Crews, Practice Manager for Doblin, an innovation strategy firm which hires Masters of Design graduates. "We have anthropologists on staff, information specialists, people with design backgrounds and business strategists... There are lots of arts in our background because creativity is so center to what we do."

2. Are there specific positions at your business that must be filled by Masters graduates? If so, what are they?

As noted in previous sections, many schools require a graduate degree for teaching positions. For example, Jo Buffalo, the Division Chair at Cazenovia College said that the graduate degree is required for tenure track positions, and that teachers are not considered for full-time employment without one.

But not every school requires a graduate degree for its teachers. Although Ms. Hansen made it clear that they prefer their teachers to have a graduate degree: "If they are knowledgeable in their field and have a proven track record in the industry; that's what we are interested in."

Those who we interviewed beyond the academic world also had their preferences for graduate degrees in certain positions, but none of them went so far as to call a graduate degree a "must" for any position.

"They tend to be requested, rather than required," said Mr. Weber. "But, certainly, we want an MA or MFA for our curator positions and in our education department. There are some positions in publications and editorial where an MA or an advanced degree in conservation would be important. Also, among our art installers, although they are not required, they are common."

Ms. Crews said: "Two roles that would be highly preferred are Senior Information Designer, which supports everything we do for our clients, and an Invention/Brand Specialist - anyone that I would hire into that role, I would want to have a Masters in Design or at least a masters."

But, not every employer is impressed by a graduate degree, and not every sector of the visual arts field demands it.

"Talent is far more important," said Christine Creager, Creative Director for The Campbell Group. "If students feel they need to go that extra step to get a good portfolio then go for it - but it doesn't matter if they have a good undergraduate book or a good graduate book."

"I have heard one comment that graduate degrees may become important to employers of industrial designers, (but) I do not see evidence of this," said Roger Schneeman, vice president of the Industrial Designers Society of America, Midwest Region.

Importantly, though, it was clear through the interviews that we conducted that, whether or not a Masters is a requirement, a preference or a non-issue to an employer, a graduate degree will get you some additional notice, and it will often get your foot in the door a little easier.

And, sometimes, that little something extra is all it takes to land the job of your dreams.


"As MFA programs expand into fields like digital media art, employers are more likely to be industry-related. MA Design (Illustration, Industrial, Interior, etc.) students are more likely to be employed in the industry as well. Many students in those programs are in management positions working with designers... I think that a broader vision of the MFA programs is that they expand and hone people's creativity and talents, which can be applied to art and design projects, teaching, and myriad other fields."
- Dr. Robert Milnes, Director, San Jose State University, College of Humanities & the Arts


3. When considering candidates for employment, how important is their graduate school's reputation?

All of our respondents who were asked this direct question agreed that graduating from a school with an excellent reputation is an advantage. However, it is just another factor is a long list of factors when considering candidates.

"The most important consideration is the quality of the candidate's art production," said Jean Grosser, Chair of the Art Department at Coker College. "Among the most important is the reputation of the graduate school as well as the types of courses selected by the candidate."

Beyond the academic, most employers also agreed that more important factors are:

  • The portfolio
  • Experience in the field / Work production
  • Interviewing skills

Said Ms. Hansen: "We would be far more impressed by a candidate's success rate post-college than if they, for example, told us they had graduated from Harvard. However, if two people are vying for the same position, an MFA will most likely be chosen."

"For beginning designers, the portfolio along with the interview is crucial," said Mr. Schneeman. "The reputation of the school from which you graduated is a positive element. If an applicant is screened by the human resources department before passing it on to the Industrial Design manager, grade point average may be important (to Human Resources). It is not important to Industrial Design. The portfolio and interview are overwhelmingly important."

"It is important because it's another input," said Ms. Crews. "(O)ur firm is small, and our resources are stretched tightly... I need help making quick decisions, so wherever I can streamline by knowing about the school that someone comes from, it helps me make a decision. While it matters, it's not make or break, though."

4. What advice can you give to graduate students on how to find and get the best job?

If you've read this far, through all three segments of this article, then you may have noticed a pattern in our questioning: Some questions we've asked to absolutely everyone, and "advice" is something that you just can't have enough of - especially when it's coming from the best sources available.

So, who better to ask for advice about getting a job than the employers themselves? Every one of our interviewees had something valuable to impart to graduate students in the visual arts who are looking for a job. Please take a look at their full responses for more; here's just a sample of what they said:

"Having an MFA does not make it necessarily easier to find a job, so follow the same steps ALL graduates do," advises Ms. Hansen. "Put together an outstanding resume. Tailor cover letters to each and every employer you send a resume to. Put together a 'sell' sheet that exemplifies your best work. Identify the various employers you would like to work for."

"Study the history of the institute you're interested in," said Mr. Weber. "If they don't have a position this year, they might the next, so stay in touch! Send a postcard to let them know that you're still interested - that kind of thing lets them know that you're really serious.

"Recognize that these jobs are very competitive in urban areas" he continued. "If you're willing to work in smaller cities, it will be easier to find a position - especially if you have a strong graduate degree."

"Networking is the key," said Ms. Buffalo. "Starting at the bottom, learning about the business and establishing relationships - then moving up."

"We are interested in recruiting recent MFA graduates who demonstrate an active commitment to their work and an interest in working closely with students," said Ms. Grosser. "Think carefully about your teaching philosophy. Be able to articulate it in writing."

"I think that there is a generally held fallacy that computer software skills can make up for weak drawing ability, but this is simply not true," said Mark Miller, owner of Miller Medical Illustration and Design. "Good medical illustrators need to be able to draw first, and then this ability applies to all other media, so polish those drawing skills!"

"An MFA has 'earned' the right to apply to some of the top Graphics/Advertising/Fine Arts Companies," continued Ms. Hansen. "However, they should not necessarily expect that holding an MFA will earn them an 'Art Director's' Position. That is something that is often proven within the field."

5. Do you recruit from any specific art schools/colleges for employees? Why or why not?

Most of the employers that we interviewed regarding this question flatly replied that they do not recruit from any one particular art school. Two explained that they advertise in certain publications, and that is enough.

Ms. Hansen reiterated a bit of her advice regarding how to find the best job: "We think that what matters most is the individual's personal success within their field. A Harvard graduate who has done little since graduating versus a Fashion Institute of Technology whose work is renowned and displayed in various museums? Not a tough choice at all."

Of course, some employers do, and so does one of our interviewees:

"We recruit from Institute of Design because it has a unique combination of research, social science and design," said Ms. Crews, referring to the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. "Those together constitute a lot of our consulting work. Graduates come ready to plug in and play - they hit the ground running."

Also, Mr. Weber stated that, although they do not recruit from any particular school for employees, they do often recruit from San Jose State University's School of Art and Design for interns. Then, of course, if they get someone good, and a position opens up...

6. What's the salary range for a newly-hired MA/MFA graduate?

"The area where an MFA DOES differ from any other graduate is salary" said Ms. Hansen. "They have spent more time in school, spent far more money on their studies. Employers realize this; thus they tend to pay more in general to an individual who holds an MFA/MA."

The range of salaries reported by our respondents found that teaching salaries vary between $35,000 and $50,000; for a broader idea of the salary range to expect at public and private institutions, see our sidebar on "Teachers Salaries," based on data from the 2000-2001 Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) Report, completed by the National Association of Schools of Arts and Design from an annual survey of its member organizations.

In the private sector, according to our respondents, salaries ranged from $30,000 to $95,000, depending on the position and experience. For a slightly better idea of the salaries in museum work, see our sidebar on the Salary Range for New England Museums, based on statistics from the New England Museum Association's 1998-99 Salary Survey.

"The range for freelancers is all over the place depending upon your niche, skills and work ethic," said Mr. Miller. "(B)ut some with considerable experience can make six figures doing advertising work."


At a Glance: Salaries

Teachers' Salaries

At public institutions*
Average salary range: $25,290-$66,468
Highest salary listed: $125,000

At private institutions*
Average salary range: $27,502-$65,642
Highest salary listed: $118,180

* Includes salaries for positions of lecturer, instructor, assistant professor, associate professor and professor

- Statistics from the National Association of Schools of Arts and Design, 2000-2001 HEADS Report, which was completed from a survey of 228 of its accredited member organizations.

Salary Range at New England Museums

All Average Salaries ranged from $22,200 (for an educational assistant) to $61,500 (for the Director). Here's a closer look at the breakdown for some positions most relevant to the visual arts:

  • New England Museum Curator: $27,000-$37,000
  • Conservator: $35,500-$46,200
  • Educator: $29,200-$34,600
  • Exhibit Designer: $39,000

- Statistics from the New England Museum Association, 1998-99 Salary Survey, reflecting data from 210 of its regional member museums.


7. How is the job market right now for MA/MFA graduates?

The economy has been getting grim reviews in the media for quite some time now, and most of our interviewees were not too optimistic, either.

"I have to be honest, it's really rough," said Ms. Crews. "There were a lot of people in the last few years going into the high tech arena. For a while you could name your salary - but I haven't gotten a call like that in a long time."

"The job market for college level teaching is VERY competitive," said Ms. Grosser. "In Graphic Design, MFA graduates have many more choices and many more options both in teaching and in the commercial sector"

"In such an economy, companies feel a crunch and look to downsize," said Ms. Hansen. However, she continued, at the Connecticut Institute of Art, "we did not cut back salaries or instructors. So at the College-level, the circumstances for an MFA may still be positive."

"There are a lot of art jobs out there in galleries and auction houses," said Mr. Weber. "An advanced degree helps you get an interview, and that's often the difference between getting a job and not getting the job. I will often weed out a stack of resumes based on who has an advanced degree."

Perhaps the best places to find information on the outlook for the visual arts job market would be career centers and placement offices on campus.

8. Tell us about some of your MA/MFA employees.

9. What does your company do?

These questions were offered as an opportunity for our interviewees to tell a little bit about their company, their services and their employees. A chance to brag a bit, you might say. Some took advantage of it; some did not.

It may be a good idea to browse through their info to see what they have to offer!


Full Responses from Interviews with Employers of Graduate Students

For this article, we interviewed eight individuals who are either directly responsible for hiring or are knowledgeable of the industry and the demand for employees with graduate degrees. A full transcript of the responses to our questions is available for five of them; click on the individuals below:

  • Jo Buffalo, Chair, Department of Art, Cazenovia College (NY)
  • Carol Crews, Practice Manager, Doblin (IL)
  • Mette Hansen, Director of Career Services, Connecticut Institute of Art
  • Jean Grosser, Chair, Art Department, Coker College (SC)
  • John Weber, Curator of Education and Public Programs, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Other Sources

For this article, we also used this information from:

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Introduction   |   Academic Leader Perspectives   |   Student Perspectives   |   Wrap-up

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