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As undergraduate students approach graduation, the old “What’s next?” pressure starts coming in from all sides – parents, professors, fellow students and your own frantic brain. The thought of leaving the safe, warm university environment and entering the cold unknown of the world outside can be daunting, even more so than accumulating thousands of dollars more in student loans (you’ll deal with them later). Therefore, there’s a natural temptation for many to enter graduate programs the very next fall. However, there are a multitude of compelling reasons to wait a year, or more, before starting your MFA. If you’re an undergrad considering this option, you’ve probably heard the “wait-a-year” argument before, but I ask you to step back from yourself and approach this article with an open mind. After all, you can only do your MFA once!
First and foremost, do not attend the same university for your BFA and MFA. The only truly convincing reason I can see to do this would be having a family member who works at the university and awards you free or reduced tuition, but even so, I recommend looking elsewhere. Working with the same faculty in the same environment and surrounded by the same peers will offer you nothing more than an extension of your undergraduate work. New eyes and the general feeling of a “fresh start” go a long way in creating an invigorated and more mature body of work. This will also prevent overly emulating faculty and fellow students, as was mentioned by group members in the “Comments” section of this blog.
Now, “Why wait?!”, you ask? First, think about why you really want to go back to school right away. Ask yourself these questions, and try to be as honest with yourself as possible. Remember, nobody else has to see your answers; this is only for you:
- Am I considering graduate school because I’m not prepared to find a job or pay off student loans?
- Am I considering graduate school because I don’t know what else to do?
- Am I considering graduate school because my parents/professors/peers are pressuring me to make decisions about my future?
- Am I afraid that I won’t continue making work if I’m not in school?
- Am I considering graduate school because I want access to a studio?
- Am I in a rush to get through school so I can start my career?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, consider the following:
- Eventually you will have to pay off your loans; waiting will only accumulate more interest. Piling on grad school loans before you understand what it means to have a $200 loan payment every month is not a very informed decision.
- Finding a job and working for a while in a related field, even if it’s not your ideal job, can help you to learn new techniques or gain experience that could be very attractive to schools offering assistantships. You might even find a job you prefer to what you would gain from an MFA.
– Working in any field will allow you to save up some money to use once you do go to graduate school. You’ll add some experience to your resume, which will come in handy if you need to earn cash part time while you’re in school or afterward. Your stint in the professional world will also give you a taste of reality: Those fun loan checks that used to replenish your bank account every semester... you now have to pay them back, plus interest. Having this experience may cause you to rethink that expensive private school in the middle of New York City and consider attending a school that offers assistantships and has a lower cost of living.
- Ever wanted to travel? Now’s your chance! Travel can be a great way to inform your work on a conceptual level and broaden your understanding of yourself and the world. Once you’ve caught the momentum of your MFA, you won’t want to pause your career to backpack through Europe.
- Just because you get a job doesn’t mean you can’t leave it and go back to school. It’s all part of the journey. If you don’t think you’ll be motivated enough to apply to grad school after one year of working, then it’s probably not for you anyway.
- Take your time. You made a big decision to go to college and you completed your goal. Take a breather before you make the next big decision. Grad school isn’t going anywhere. You need time to soak in what you’ve just learned and approach your work with new ideas, not recycled old ones.
- If you’re worried about not having facilities outside of school, what do you think it’s going to be like after you finish your MFA? It’s going to be the same story. You need to be resourceful. There are plenty of schools in your community and short-term workshop programs that can keep you learning and in access of facilities. Set up your own little studio space with rudimentary supplies. In my “in-between” years, I picked up new techniques at jewelry classes and workshops and worked on strengthening my conceptual foundations at my home studio. You have to push yourself a lot harder when you don’t have access to fancy equipment.
- If you don’t think you’ll have the motivation to work on your art when you’re not in school, then you already have the answer to whether or not you should apply: NOT. Grad school requires self-motivation and self-directed exploration. Your professors are not going to be handing you an assignment sheet or a due date. Not to mention, the direction you do receive from your grad professors will not be there when you become a professional artist. If you can’t self-motivate, this isn’t the career for you.
- Have the self-confidence to work alone for a while. Don’t think of an MFA as a security blanket to prove your artistic abilities. The “MFA” is just a piece of paper at the end of the day. Your work is what you’ll have to show for it. You should have confidence in yourself whether or not you have “MFA” on your resume.
- Take time to think about what you want to accomplish in school. No matter what, during your first few weeks you will probably feel lost and overwhelmed. Having goals, like you would a business plan, will help you get back on track faster.
- Every single professor I interviewed with said that they preferred applicants who had taken a year or more off, and they strongly encouraged new work during that time. Your time off and updated portfolio could help you get into your dream program or get that much-needed assistantship!
I am a strong believer in taking time off in between undergraduate and graduate school. I myself took three years and grew incredibly during that time. I had the opportunity to travel and live abroad, which informed most of the work I created for my grad portfolio and still continues to inform my work today. It also gave me something to talk about in my interviews and was an impressive advantage over other applicants. Secondly, I had a “real” job and learned what it was to pay the bills without help from mom and dad. The work experience I gained demonstrated my work ethic and responsibility and made me more attractive to schools with assistantships. Additionally, I took classes at local schools which allowed me to develop technically at a much lower price than university tuition, and led me to work with many different instructors. I discussed with them their own journeys as professional artists and I made important professional connections. Those connections served as references for my MFA application and have led to some great opportunities. Connections are important in small specialized craft fields and going out into the world is the only way to make them.
Of course, there are plenty of satisfied students who go directly from undergraduate to graduate programs. But slow down and give it some thought. Open your mind to other options. You’ll want to make the most of your MFA, and rushing into it might not be the best way to do so.
I am really impressed with Jessica's reasoning in this article!
Harriete Estel Berman
Artist/Maker and Mother of two post bachelor graduates that are getting life experience and saving their money before they take their next steps in education.
Thank you so much!!
Awesome post Jessica. Thank you very much.
There is simply not enough of this kind of discussion for people who are at the end of a programme. Well-considered and useful; thanks for taking the time to write this. I will be sending my own students to read it!
Thanks to all for the feedback!
Hi Jessica, this was a great post! I love your last picture, I actually went to Thailand this past year.
I studied jewelry and earned a Bachelors in jewelry and metalsmithing and near the end of my degree became frustrated with what I hadn't learned. I thought long and hard about getting my MFA, and did some research but like you said it was hard to find information. And I feared I would not learn enough new techniques while earning my MFA.
I found that I wanted to learn how to set stones, engrave and so on, so instead of an MFA I went to trade school and it was the best learning experience I've ever had for me. It doesn't mean it's for everyone.
I think about earning my MFA in the future, it's always a possiblity. I keep my eyes and ears open for opportunity all the time. Thanks again for writing this, I look forward to more of your posts!
I just saw this post now as I'm going back and rereading past discussions so that I can get the blog up and running again- apologies for the delay! Thank you so much for sharing, Valerie. I completely agree that an MFA isn't for everyone and it's great to hear that you did the research and realized trade school was the best option for you. I try to explain this to my own students as well as the graduating seniors in our undergraduate program. It seems that some students are so determined to get an MFA that they don't take the time to really think about whether or not it's what they want or even need.