Is grad school really all it’s cracked up to be?
Welcome to Ask Artblog, a brand new advice column where special guest experts answer your most pressing art questions! Our very first expert is Dave Kyu, artist, writer, and freelance cultural worker. Submit your questions for future columnists here. Or email ask@theartblog.org

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Dear Artblog,

Do you think that grad school is necessary for art school graduates? I am having a hard time finding a job (within my field) and I am wondering if grad school would help me secure a job, or would I be overqualified at that point? Thank you!

-Anonymous

From Dave:

First a bit about why I’m excited to help launch this column. I remember preparing for my first real-world exhibition, just before I graduated with my BFA from the Tyler School of Art. I asked my professor how to price artwork, but later learned that the professor found that question to be absurd, even arrogant. Like, “can you believe this student thinks he’s going to sell work?” I didn’t, but I was confused why the question was so offensive. I just dropped a hunk of cash on my education, why DIDN’T I know the basics? The topic of art careers is philistine in art schools, which makes those questions even more terrifying as students face graduation: their release into the wilderness of adulthood. Hopefully I can impart some of the wisdom I’ve gained from my decade building an arts career.

Now for the advice! By far, the grad school question is the one we received most. The short answer is, it depends. But we’re not here for the short answer, are we?

Personally, I didn’t go to grad school. After my BFA in Sculpture, I needed to figure out if making art was important to me—if I would still make it if I my grade didn’t depend on it. I’m happy to say I still make work (sometimes), and I’ve built an interesting and sustaining art career path. But juggling an art practice with an administrative career and a young family, I do feel that I haven’t had time to push my practice to a higher level, so the thought of paying someone to focus on just the art practice part does sound kind of enticing.

Before I consider the question, I should emphasize that grad school is not an end, but a means to some other goal. The questions you are asking yourself right now about how to keep making and showing art, how to get a job that fulfills you creatively AND pays the bills, or how the heck you make your way in the world as an adult, will all still be there, waiting for you, after grad school. Your education, your career, your life are all deeply personal decisions, and not one I can make for you. The debt that you accumulate from more school will affect every aspect of your future, so the cost of your education, and how many scholarships you receive to offset tuition, should factor into the calculus of this decision. As we consider this question, let’s try to build a framework to weigh the options.

There are two reasons to go to grad school. The first is for your career. There is a fear that an MFA can make you overqualified for jobs, but in an era where the competition on paper between your resume and anyone else’s is fierce, any little bit helps. If an employer is looking at your MFA and thinking “overqualified,” they’re either trying to underpay you, or the job is menial, and in either case it’s a bad fit.

The typical path for an MFA-haver is teaching at a college level. Yes, people without MFA degrees can teach, but only after becoming rock-star artists, and the explosion of MFA degrees makes teaching without it even less likely in the future. I was once offered a non-teaching-University position, but the salary wasn’t quite where I needed it to be. I tried negotiating by offering to teach a class also, but found not having an MFA closed that door. No MFA, no class, no raise, no job. But I got it. Why would a university offer me a teaching gig when I haven’t demonstrated that I value the institution of education? Being “outside” has led me to romanticize the opportunity of having students, peers, and colleagues that live in the world of discourse and ideas. But also, the more I see friends organizing against the adjunct system, the less I care to break into teaching.

The second, and maybe less straightforward, reason to go to grad school is for your artwork. Being in grad school alone doesn’t guarantee that your work will be better, but carving out another few years of time dedicated to your practice will move you forward. Time in an MFA program is not the same as time in undergrad. The student-to-teacher ratio is leaner, and so your peers will spend more time discussing and pushing your work forward.

So how do you get a job without a MFA? You have to network. Sorry, I threw up in my mouth a bit. Network. It’s such a dirty word for artists. And if I think about it in the context of LinkedIn accounts, I hate it too. But get that out of your mind. Think of networking as finding the tribe that shares your interests. My first job was moving stuff around in a gallery, and the more I did that, the less I was interested in the formal art world. I gravitated towards public and socially-engaged art, and started finding others who also thought “relational aesthetics” was so three movements ago. I wrote for FunnelPages, a weekly arts calendar and blog, I volunteered for Philly Stake, a micro-granting dinner for creative projects, I kept making artwork, I co-founded an artist-run space, Practice Gallery. These people have been my peers, have encouraged me to make work, and directly and indirectly, have gotten me jobs. And I’ll let you in on a secret: in almost every job I’ve had, when we have a job posting, I’m usually asked by people at the company to pay special attention to the applications of people we know. If you can, go to grad school in a city you want to live in, because those networks will help the transition from school to career. Grad school is a great way to build your network. Finding and being part of a community may be even better.

So is grad school necessary? No, absolutely not. But unnecessary? No, not that either. You’ll have to figure out what you want out of life first.

If you’d like to hear from one of Artblog’s advice columnists submit your questions for future columnists here. Or email our advisors at ask@theartblog.org. All questions confidential.

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Ask Artblog, grad school

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