24. Shopping for a Graduate School
This is one of those subjects that could easily fill a book all by itself. Certainly the discussions about whether or not to go to graduate school at all would take pages and pages. But we’ll assume here that you’ve thought it through and considered all the factors and that graduate school is what you want. We’ll also presume, just to simplify the discussion, that your qualifications are first rate and any program in the country would be proud to have you.
To be a careful shopper implies the gathering and evaluation of information. NCECA keeps a database about graduate ceramics programs and each school will gladly send you brochures and promotional materials. Where possible, get a Graduate Catalog, a current timetable of courses, and a copy of the departmental requirements for degree completion. If you can visit while classes are in session, do so. Talk to current students. If you can’t make it to the campus try to talk to current students by some other means, perhaps at the NCECA conference. Discuss your choices with your current professors. And here are some of the issues you need to consider.
Facilities. This means classrooms, kilns, wheels, clay mixers, leaking roofs, unreliable forklifts, ventilation systems, and cramped studios, everything that could possibly make your experience broad and exciting or narrow and frustrating.
Faculty. Who teaches at this school and what is their personal work like? When is their next sabbatical scheduled? If there is more than one ceramics professor (as you hope), how well do they get along? Multiple professors give you more viewpoints on your improvement, but many departments divide into ‘camps’ with loyalty issues and petty discourtesies that could make your time there a purgatory. Also, what sorts of visiting artists or temporary faculty do they bring in? Do the faculty teach gently or ferociously, attentively or absent-mindedly? Are their students on a long tether or a short leash?
Fellow students. How many other students are in the program and how diverse are their backgrounds? What are they like? These are potentially life-long friends, even future spouses. These will also be your guides through many of the practical difficulties of graduate school and university regulations. These are your core colleagues for the rest of your ceramics career, the start of your network. No zombies, psychos, or hermits, please.
Curriculum and Regulation. Is it a two or three year MFA? What are the administrative hoops you’ll have to jump through? Will you have “undergraduate deficiencies” you need to make up? Is the office staff helpful and friendly? Will you have time for unsuccessful explorations or are you obligated to succeed brilliantly from the very beginning?
Expense and support. Some departments are poor and others are not. What are the relative in-state and out-of-state tuition rates? How many assistantships are available? Do you pay for your own materials or does the department cover that? Is subsidized housing available for students and if so, how long is the waiting list? What scholarships and grants are there for ceramics students? What’s the departmental view on students selling their work, collectively or as individuals?
Local culture. Is this an urban or rural setting? What’s the cost of living or the availability of housing? If you or your spouse are looking for work what will you find? If the “scene” is boring will that help you to spend more time in the studio? Do you have prejudices against the local weather or culture that will make you miserable most of the time? Will you be too close to home to avoid family distractions or so far away that you ruin yourself every time you travel home for a visit?
Prestige. Does this program have a reputation that you want to be a part of? If you’re hoping to teach, do their graduates tend to get teaching jobs? You will be known as one of Professor So-and-so’s students or as an MFA from “X.” How do you feel about that? If you benefit from their reputation they will also share in yours. How do you feel about being prodded to excel, to push yourself and your work upon the world? How public are you?
I have given you a lot of difficult questions to answer and people have certainly committed themselves to graduate programs without doing this much research or soul-searching. Either way, carefully researched or luck-of-the-draw, you are likely to do some suffering in graduate school. The path is simply too long and too steep not to include some pain and disappointment. It is part of your job simply to endure, and to overcome, and to grow stronger. On the other hand, you can protect yourself from the truly defective graduate ceramics programs, the madhouses and the snake-pits, just by taking the time to ask questions and to make informed choices before you apply.
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