Whether or not to attend graduate school is a momentous choice in your life. It will affect your financial, artistic, and personal life tremendously while you're attending school and will have a lasting effect on many areas of your life, most notably on your career. Exploring your career direction, thinking carefully about the utility of the degree, researching the most appropriate schools for your aspirations, and planning the financial support for graduate education will all play a part in the decision.
The timing of graduate school can be important for several reasons: the development of your work, your financial standing, your readiness to undertake one to three years of intensive work, and your ability to establish yourself in a new community are just a few. Some students attend graduate school immediately upon graduation while others opt to work for a while first. Taking a few years off or more between undergraduate and graduate programs offers, some say, time to mature and prepare for the intense work of graduate study. Others will argue that moving directly to your graduate degree program is efficient and will enable you to start your career sooner. The decision is an individual one, but bears considerable thought as to what is best for you.
Degree Programs Overview
Most SFAI students who go to graduate school pursue the Master of Fine Arts, but there are other options that might be more appropriate, depending on your goals. To decide which is best for you, ask yourself three questions: What do I want to do professionally? How much can I afford? Where do I want to live after graduate school?
Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is typically a two-year degree emphasizing studio art. Most programs encourage the production of a body of work that you can show in galleries or museums. The academic component of the degree varies between schools but usually amounts to about 25 percent of the course load. The MFA is the requisite degree for virtually all college teaching jobs in the United States. Having an MFA, though, by no means guarantees a college teaching job. A strong exhibition record is essential as well and, even then, teaching jobs are highly competitive and initially pay very little. Pursuing an MFA with the thought of obtaining a tenure-track teaching job in studio art immediately after graduation is a notion that some people have, but is not a likely reality in the current job market.
Master of Arts in Studio Art (MA) is offered at some schools as a preliminary degree before starting an MFA program. Other schools offer only the MA. This is not the degree to pursue if you hope to teach; in most cases, it will not qualify you. British art schools offer the MA, but it is only sometimes accepted as equivalent here. Students who wish to pursue a PhD sometimes use this degree as a stepping-stone.
Master of Science in Education (MS in Ed) is a two-year degree that is best for people who wish to teach in elementary or high schools. If you hope to be an administrator, you will probably need a PhD or an EdD. Master of Science in Education programs usually lead to state certification and licensing as a teacher in the public schools of that state.
Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) is a one-year degree offered by some art schools as preparation for teaching, combining a master’s degree with teacher certification. It is not as highly regarded as the MS in Ed but it is better than certification alone.
Master of Arts in Theory/Criticism/Curatorial Studies are programs preparing students to be art critics and curators rather than academic scholars or studio artists.
Teaching Certification is not a degree, but rather a one-year program of coursework and student teaching that prepares you to take a licensing exam for certification as a single-subject art teacher. If you'd like to teach K-12 in California, you will need a teaching credential.
Masters in Art Therapy programs differ from school to school. Different schools offer the MPS, MAT, MA, or MS degree. More important is the recognition of the program by the American Art Therapy Association. A degree in art therapy, while highly involved in issues of developmental and abnormal psychology, does not lead to licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist or to state certification as a psychotherapist. For those, you need to earn a degree in psychology, counseling, or social work.
Masters in Architecture (MArch) programs comprise three years of graduate study in architecture. Some programs have a highly creative and conceptual approach to the field, intended for those who have little or no undergraduate experience in architecture but who have ideas and interest. Those programs encourage artists to enroll. To be licensed as an architect, you must complete a three to five year internship after the completion of the degree and take an examination. Contrary to public belief, math is not a major component of these programs. Admission is usually based on an essay and other evidence of visual and conceptual ability.
Masters in Design programs are often aimed at those whose undergraduate degree is not in design. Specializations may be in graphic design, illustration, or industrial design. Professionally, a degree in design opens the same doors whether it is a graduate or an undergraduate degree. Sometimes, a graduate degree is helpful if you want to teach design, but more often faculty are hired for their professional experience.
Master of Arts in Art History or in Museum Studies are offered at many schools, but to excel professionally, the PhD is preferred. The master’s degree qualifies you for an entry-level job in a gallery or museum. The curriculum emphasizes academic research; the best programs are in cities that have major art collections from the historical period of your interest as well as museums and galleries with international reputations.
Choosing a School
The choice of school is governed by a variety of factors, each requiring a good deal of research and thought. While the rational consideration of each factor is important, there is a certain serendipity involved in the decision, too. It is important to listen to your gut reactions as well as to your research results in finding the school best suited to your development. Gather information from a variety of sources: websites, catalogues, faculty recommendations, current students, alumni, and portfolio days. Visiting the school is the single most revealing piece of information you can collect; if at all possible, go there and observe the classes, talk to the students and the faculty, and experience the atmosphere of the school.
The reputation of a school is a weighty factor that is based on mythology rather than fact. Still, the mythology can be important. If you choose a famous school, one that is widely known and respected, you may find potential dealers, collectors, and educational institutions look at your work more seriously; acceptance at these schools, of course, is highly selective. Another indicator of reputation is inclusion of alumni in the Whitney Biennial.
Ask around: you’ll get subjective opinions but sometimes a pattern will emerge. It is also important to realize that reputations differ widely according to major. Check with the faculty in your department for their ideas of the best programs in your medium.
The faculty has a lot to do with the school’s professional reputation but even artists who are not art stars can be wonderful teachers. Check out the work of the faculty at the schools you are considering and try to meet with them, asking them about their interests and teaching styles. Ask alumni and currently enrolled students for their views of the teachers.
This is sometimes the deciding factor, but it probably shouldn’t be. Generally, private art schools are more expensive and offer less financial aid than university art programs. The best you can hope for at a private art school is that grants and loans will cover tuition. Universities, especially state supported ones, often pay you to attend in one of two ways, teaching assistantships or fellowships. Teaching assistantships are best if you hope some day to teach because they build your experience and offer opportunities to impress faculty who may recommend you for teaching positions. Fellowships, gifts of money to support your work, are given to reward excellence; they are flattering and look good on your resume. The down side is that the size of the financial award is sometimes inversely proportional to the reputation of the school.
In virtually all schools and universities there are substantial amounts of aid based on financial need. Investigate specific application procedures and availability of grant aid, assistantships, and fellowships before you apply. Graduate students are eligible for greater loan amounts than undergraduate students are. Also, usually parents’ income is not factored into aid decisions. For planning purposes, it’s a good idea to ask if your financial aid will remain the same all during your graduate program; some programs offer a higher award the first year to assist you with moving and getting settled, and then reduce the award in subsequent years. In addition to financial aid from the school, there are numerous organizations that offer scholarships to talented and needy students.
For many, graduate school will require taking on additional student loans. This is a financial reality that many face after graduation, armed with an MFA, but without a job. It's important to understand these financial realities before making choices about graduate school. To estimate student loan repayment figures, visit the FinAid website.
The choice of location is more important than simply finding a climate that appeals to you or having a chance to explore a new part of the country or the world. Ideally, you would decide where you want to live long-term and apply to a school in that area, for you will be building a network of colleagues, faculty, gallery contacts, arts community members, and friends while you are in grad school. It is easier to establish yourself as an artist when the network has been built and the reputation of your school is known locally. The four primary art regions in the U.S. are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. All have different schools, stylistic, and philosophical preferences. Find the one that fits you best.
Studio space, tools, darkroom, and editing facilities are crucial in deciding where to attend school. Some schools have marvelous studios but lesser curricula and reputations, while other great programs have limited space and equipment. Ask yourself, “Will I be able to do my work?” Comfort and convenience are secondary but not unimportant.
There are two paradigms in MFA programs: the tutorial approach, where you’re given studio space and you work under the tutelage of an instructor, and the seminar approach, where emphasis is on periodic critiques by other students under the leadership of a faculty member. Most programs include some of both approaches. MFA programs also have required courses in art history and critical theory. Some programs require a major area of study such as painting or sculpture, while others are interdisciplinary. Think about which combination of curricular structures makes the most sense for you as an individual.
The number of students in the program is another important consideration. Is the faculty free to teach graduate students or are they overloaded with responsibility for teaching and advising undergraduate students? If there are many graduate students, there may be more competition for resources, faculty attention, and fellowships.
This is where serendipity comes in. Perhaps the most important factor in determining which program to attend is the intangible quality of fitting in. Some of the most prestigious programs may just not feel right while a less famous school may feel as though it’s home on your first visit. Visiting the schools on your list, spending time talking to people, and looking around will help you decide if you would be comfortable yet challenged as part of that community. Trust your instincts.
In addition to information from catalogues and websites, the College Art Association publishes a guide to graduate programs, their faculty, selectivity, and financial assistance. SFAI staff and faculty may also be graduates of these programs; ask around to find people who can give you firsthand accounts of the programs.
There are pluses and minuses when considering a degree from a foreign university or art school. Some of the benefits are low tuition in state-run schools and possible living allowances. The chance to live and work in another country is exciting, and some countries currently have cutting-edge art movements happening. However, consider the disadvantages as well. European schools are far more selective than American colleges; the top graduate programs in Germany and Holland accept less than one percent of their applicants. Additionally, they will sometimes expect fluency in the language of the country and ability to take instruction at university level. The MFA is not offered in Europe—some British schools offer an MA or a graduate diploma while other countries offer a Meister-Diplom or Certificat de Maîtresse, the equivalent of an MFA in Europe but not in the United States. Foreign credentials are not always recognized here. Some Asian universities offer the MFA.
Although international degrees don’t always help you in the U.S. academic world, they offer tremendously valuable exposure and connections to the broader art world. Spending a couple of years in a different culture can be a great asset. If your goal is personal growth and development, a foreign school may be perfect for you.
Acceptance standards vary depending upon the school, the year, and the interests of the faculty who review applications. For MFA programs, the portfolio and statement are usually the most important factors. In other fields, grades and test scores count heavily. In all cases, personal interviews can be an important factor, even if they are not listed as a requirement of the department.
Generally, the portfolio is by far the most important factor in admissions decisions. Most schools will require submission of at least 20 images of your most recent artwork or two time-based works. For more information, see the Portfolio page.
All schools require that you write about your motivations for attending graduate school, who you are, and what your work is about. The importance of the statement varies greatly; some schools weigh it as heavily as the portfolio while others will only consider the statement if the committee is undecided about your application. For more information on writing a statement, see the Artist Statement page.
Some schools have a minimum GPA requirement, usually 3.0, but most art schools don’t place much emphasis on grades unless they are really poor.
Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation from faculty or others in a position to judge your promise as an artist and a student. The letters should not tell the committee that your work is good; they can see that for themselves. Rather, recommendations should attest to your maturity, intelligence, seriousness, and dedication, factors that can’t be easily identified by looking at your work and academic transcripts. Mediocre letters neither help nor hurt your chances for acceptance, but strongly supportive and well-written letters can have a very positive effect. Think about the difference between “Ted was a student in my Photo class and he is a very nice person” and “Mary is, without question, one of the most committed and dedicated young artists I have ever taught.”
Provide each person with a copy of your academic record and your personal statement, giving them something concrete on which to base their comments and serving as a reminder that they have agreed to provide you with this service. It is your responsibility to make sure the letters are received on time by the admissions office; check with them to see if letters have been received and, if not, contact the faculty again to remind them of the deadlines.
Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
Like the SAT or the ACT you took in high school, the GRE is a test of general ability in reading and logic as well as mathematics. It is rare for MFA programs at art schools to have this requirement; however, some MFA programs within large universities require the GRE although they don’t typically weigh the scores heavily. It’s usually just a general requirement of that particular university for all graduate applicants. You should verify this requirement with the Admissions office prior to applying so that you have adequate time to schedule a test date if needed.
The application form provides the Admissions committee with important information about your candidacy, and it should be completed carefully. Make a copy of the form and use the copy as a draft to check that your information fits in the spaces and that you understand and respond appropriately to the questions. A well-planned, neat application form speaks of your meticulousness, forethought, and care.
Most MFA programs have deadlines for admission and only consider applications once per year. Most do not accept applications for spring semester, only for fall. The best advice is to find out the deadline dates and follow exactly the application procedures outlined by your chosen schools. Typically, deadlines for MFA programs are in early to mid-January for admission in to the following fall semester. Some deadlines can be as late as March, so be sure to verify all of your deadlines prior to beginning you applications.
Financial aid applications should be filed as soon as your tax information from the past year is available (late January to early February). Some schools may have different deadlines to apply for financial aid based on their state requirements. Always be sure to verify any deadlines with the Admissions and/or Financial Aid office.
Applying to Non-MFA Programs
Applying for graduate programs other than the MFA requires different procedures. In these programs portfolios are normally not required, and grades, GREs, and statements become far more important. Personal interviews are often required to determine your seriousness and commitment. If you are changing fields, you may be asked to complete up to two years of undergraduate coursework and knowledge requirements such as proficiency in a foreign language or mathematics before being accepted to the master’s program.
Even the least competitive MFA programs are more selective than most BFA programs: you must be prepared for possible rejection. Every year, really good artists are rejected from even mediocre MFA programs for no apparent reason. In most cases, you will never be able to learn why. Most often, it’s just a question of faculty identifying with some work and not with others, something over which you have no control.
If you are determined to attend a school that rejected you, talk to them. While they may not remember your work specifically, they may be able to give you advice about what you need to work on and offer you more insight as to the nature of their graduate admissions committees. The faculty don’t usually resent applicants who try more than once; they see it as a sign of courage and determination. If you can afford to wait another year and work on your art in the meantime, apply again.
Accepting an Offer of Admission
Once you have received acceptances and offers of financial aid, you can decide where to attend. Sometimes, however, there are deadlines for responding before you have heard from all of your schools. If this happens, contact the school and ask for an extension of the deadline. If they refuse, decide whether that school is your first choice. If it is, accept the offer and write to the other schools, withdrawing your applications. If it isn’t, place yourself on their deferred list and let them know later, understanding that if there is no space left, you will lose your chance to attend that school. Alternatively, you can call the first choice school and ask if a decision has been made; if it has, they may be willing to tell you over the phone.
When you decide to attend a school, you are expected to make a tuition deposit to hold your place. Even if you are fully covered under financial aid, they may require this nonrefundable deposit, generally $200 to $500. If you change your mind or accept a late offer from another school, you will lose your money. However, the loss of the deposit might be acceptable should a later offer include substantially more aid or benefits.
As soon as you decide where you will be attending, let the other schools know that you are withdrawing your application, so they can offer those places to people on their waiting list. It is also a nice idea to thank the people who wrote letters for you and tell them where you will be attending.