Saturday, January 17, 2009


25. Siege

This is for those students who expect to have some trouble moving smoothly from an undergraduate degree into a graduate degree program. It’s how I got into graduate school and I’m not necessarily proud of it, it’s just what proved necessary.
To get into a graduate school program you must have an undergraduate degree, twenty slides of your work, and three letters of recommendation. Without belaboring the details, you’ve picked a school and either didn’t get admitted or know you won’t so haven’t applied. You need either better letters of recommendation or better work. (If you haven’t completed an undergraduate degree, you’ll need to get to that first.)
For myself, I had a degree from a good liberal arts college (Grinnell College, in Iowa) but I had been a sculptor, had been limited to 42 credits in the Art Department, and got into ceramics late. Further, my letters of recommendation were from good teachers who were not very public and not personally known to the teachers at the graduate school. But really, I needed more skills and better work.
Many universities will admit part time ‘non-degree seeking’ students on a low priority basis. I returned home from college to live cheaply with my parents and enrolled at the local university in one ceramics course per semester, including the summer sessions. I got better and learned many of the lessons reflected in my other essays. I also learned that the program I wanted to get into was at the University of Iowa. So I moved to Iowa City and enrolled in one ceramics course, again as a ‘non-degree seeking’ student.
Because I was only taking one course I was establishing in-state residency which would lower my tuition burden when I later enrolled full time. Further, I could be employed (however inadequately) and still get a lot of work done at school. This latter is particularly important because not only are you learning about the department, they are learning about you. Whatever your skill level, you must be seen to be cheerful, tidy, and energetic.
I moved in January and applied for graduate admission for the next Fall, not expecting to get in. For one thing, the graduate studios were over full and the professors did not want to add anyone to the press. Nonetheless, I had declared my intentions.
The following Fall I was also turned down. The limitations placed upon me by marriage, parenthood, and poverty (ineligible for financial aid), as well as the low priority of my non-degree seeking status made it difficult to create impressive enough work. And so I persevered. I also told my professors I would be applying again for the next Fall.
That Fall, with letters of recommendation from University of Iowa faculty and over two years of non-degree seeking “audition” work at Iowa, I was admitted “conditionally.” If I didn’t look the part after one semester, my admission would be revoked.
I blossomed. Having my own studio space made a huge difference and I was ready to do well. I manhandled a motorized Randall kickwheel upstairs by myself because I was unwilling to wait a day for help. I quickly made a two part sculptural piece eight feet tall and shiny black. By November, my conditional status had been lifted. My overall GPA improved every semester and I earned the MFA in the normal three years expected by the program without any further difficulties.
Yes, it would have been much easier to have earned a 72 hour BFA from a prestigious Art school and eased straight into graduate school to the sound of angels singing, but that was not my life. My first studio art class was as a college sophomore and my mentor was a stone-carver. The things I had to learn and the transitions I had to make took time and that is what siege is all about. Siege worked for me because I knew quite clearly why I wanted an MFA and how much I wanted an MFA.
It’s not the same as just wanting to make pots or wanting to earn a living making pots. If those are your goals there are simpler, less time-consuming, and less expensive ways of achieving them. You must understand your goals and expectations. It’s difficult to know when the virtue of tenacity has become the vice of stubbornness, when pride has become arrogance. If you try to use siege to get into graduate school perhaps it’s best if you think of it as, “the long audition.” Good luck getting the part.

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