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Grad school

Post #1329 • April 14, 2009, 12:20 PM

While I was in Portland I got together with an old student of mine from Miami, and we talked about his going to grad school. I don't feel like I gave him adequate advice, so here's my second attempt. Go to grad school if:

1. You want to teach at the college level. An MFA is typically required.

2. You want to study with a particular person who teaches in a graduate program.

3. You're coming into fine art from a non-fine-art background. (I did this myself, going from illustration to painting.) This is a good way to get a feel for the fine art world and its particular concerns. Or you're moving from one medium to another, or one discipline to another, and could use the additional guidance.

4. You need facilities beyond the typical studio arrangement, i.e., your medium is glass or bronze.

It's not a long list, and probably only the first item is non-negotiable. It's not impossible that if you really want to study with someone, you could approach him directly and ask to do so, informally. If you're the studious type, you can ply yourself with whatever information you need using the library and seeking out other artists. If you work in a facilities-intensive medium, you're going to have to figure out how to make your work as an independent artist anyway, and you might as well figure it out now rather than later.

One can garner many of the benefits of grad school by other means, particularly concentrated time to work. If you have to indebt yourself to go to school, you're essentially borrowing money to buy time to work, but it's an imperfect transaction because grad school will oblige you to spend time on art history courses and writing a thesis. You'll then graduate, and be forced to pay for that time with interest. If you don't immediately start making a living off of your art, you will then have to find other work, and that will subtract from your studio time as a professional, which is the point of all that schooling.

If you really just want the time to work, I would pay for it up front, or as you go. It may be harder to pull it off, but your time will be yours. You'll be able to classify yourself as a professional rather than a student, which brings with it a certain seriousness that's hard to muster when you're enrolled at a university. You can study art history in the way that artists should study it - idiosyncratically, free from expository writing and its attendant deadlines, with an eye for form rather than dates.

Grad programs vary widely in the level of support available, and in what they give to whom when scholarship time rolls around. If they pay your way, by all means, go to it. Being a student is fun. If they pay part of your way, you have a complicated decision to make, especially if they can't promise the same level of support all the way through. If they offer you no support, be careful. I have a fiend who graduated from an Ivy League MFA program, one of the schools famous for inserting graduates directly into New York City gallery rosters, with $100,000 in debt and no gallery. Her work was good, too, and had all the markings of contemporaniety that you'd think a gallery would be looking for. The debt ended up getting added to the family mortgage, where it remains today.

Regarding Item #1 above, you should have a look at a January article that Thomas H. Benton (pseudonym) wrote for the Chronicle. (Hat tip, Danah Boyd.)

Nearly every humanities field was already desperately competitive, with hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. Now the situation is becoming even worse. For example, the American Historical Association's job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Language's listings are down 21 percent, the steepest annual decline ever recorded. Apparently, many already-launched candidate searches are being called off; some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year.

I have a friend who just attended the CAA Conference, and the situation he described indicates that the art programs are in the same boat. Benton continues:

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:

- You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.

- You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.

- You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.

- You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

Benton is talking about PhD's, who have somewhat different educational needs and work in an an intellectual field conducive to development in a classroom. Artists are not quite in the same boat, at least for now, but the advice about scarcity of teaching positions still holds. At least consider becoming a professional from the get-go. If you then end up in school, so much the better.




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