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Grad School: Beast, Burden, or Blessing?

Students and designers often ask me about the graduate school experience. Does a graduate degree in design offer more job prospects? How much research do you have to do? Will you get to teach? Will you get paid more when you have a graduate degree? And do they make you write a lot?

These questions always come to me in the Spring to Summer semesters at the University, but by this time, most deadlines have passed for graduate school applications. So first I tell students they need to apply next year. Then they frown a little, but I remind them that this added time helps you craft a good submission packet. They smile. Finally, I turn the tables by not answering their questions about better pay, getting to teach, or writing a lot. I begin with, What exactly do you want from graduate school? The chance to make self-directed work? Do you want to do more scholarly research and writing, getting published in peer-reviewed journals? Do you need the chance to make “new forms” without a client to hound you about your aesthetic philosophies? When I ask the aforementioned, people seem both confused and frustrated by the questions. Get used to it, because that’s what you’ll encounter as a grad student: questions.

The entire master’s degree experience should be about questions, and you should enjoy the opportunity to seek out the answers, realizing that you may never actually find them. Like King Arthur’s Knights in search of a Holy Grail, graduate school will take you down many paths, through many obstacles, and into some dead ends. For me, graduate school was a design immersion that significantly opened my eyes. I learned to treat client work differently. I began to take a different approach to selecting my clients. I also started to see design everywhere, through a more appreciative lens. Prior to graduate school, I would look at things from a single perspective—my own perspective—but graduate school expanded my empathetic sensibilities (thanks to graduate school, I have more empathy; conversely, some programs strip you of it, making you a whole lot more insular and even egotistical).

Graduate school means different things for different people, but it is largely a chance for research, service, and scholarship that should encourage reflection; it allows the student to define their own values and sense of purpose (or critique those of another party). Many designers want and need that, and I was one of them. At an undergraduate internship in 1993, a mentor told me, “Whether you like it or not, design is not about authority. Not art, not creativity. It’s about service. You’re giving people something they want. You’re answering their needs.” Obviously, this mentor was jaded, but I began to take that advice at face value. But I eventually felt that maybe service for clients and consumers represented only one facet. Growing skeptical about this issue was the first step towards graduate school, and it prevented me from becoming too complacent and too jaded. It also forced me to get out of a dead end job.

As a University of Washington Seattle graduate student from 2001-04, I found a place for self-analysis, to question how design has an impact on society, culture, and design itself. I had to put these questions and answers into writing in order to ground ideas every single day: course proposals, project proposals, exhibition proposals, thesis drafts, seminar papers, grant proposals, scholarship applications, and essays. As a graduate student, these classroom essays meant critical response & reflection. Fortunately, we had talented mentors, who instilled the value of writing and emphasized that it also enables you to participate in the design discourse. Our critics and professors were well rounded and encouraged us to be, whether that meant designing, writing, or analyzing. Sometimes, we did all three.

Where did teaching fit into the equation? Not every program offers the chance to work as a teaching assistant (helping a professor with instructional or administrative duties), or graduate teacher (teaching a class on your own). Many designers I meet have a desire to teach and they go into graduate school presuming it will open those doors. However, it is possible to teach without a master’s degree based on a strong record of design achievement, peer recognition, or outstanding clients. Four years of undergraduate study plus two to three years of graduate school isn’t the only path to teaching. Do you think Paul Rand had his masters as an instructor at Yale? If you decide to teach, the first thing you learn is that it’s a lot of work, on top of all the other requirements: studio classes, art history classes, electives, and of course your every day life (eating, sleeping, entertaining, etc.).

For many, work will take a back seat during the entire engagement. Prospective graduate students should be prepared to leave the work force for 2-3 years during their studies. You may return to work with a gap in your professional experience, unless the graduate school you’re attending has a strong professional practice component. University of Washington Seattle, where I went, has such a component and connects you to clients in the Seattle area or on campus design projects. University of Cincinnati and many others will do the same. Chances are that if you study in New York City, you will have plenty of opportunities to freelance if you can get out of the graduate studio from time to time.

On the other hand, you may have to kiss your freelance dreams goodbye whether you like it or not. Administration and professors have been known to prohibit any additional work outside of graduate studies, especially if you get assigned a teaching or research assistantship. However, you may find yourself running errands such as picking up the professor’s dry cleaning on the way back from getting his students’ art supplies. How’s that for a swell teaching gig?

Designers see stars when they think of the design work, teaching, and research they have the chance to do in graduate school. So much so, that they’re willing to shell out any amount of money to do it. At my first teaching job out of undergrad (yes, I was able to teach without a graduate degree, and you could too), one of the assistant professors told me about his Yale experience. As a graduate student, he worked on design every day, every night for three years straight. By 1998, six years after leaving graduate school, he had $64,000 in student loans left to pay off. No financial plan. Before you start, have a financial plan, for god’s sake. Don’t get into deep debt. With student loans, realize what you’re getting into and plan to pay it off diligently. Rates are competitive; don’t take the first thing you get offered from a University student loan officer. Look at your bank. Consider a credit union if you’re a state employee. Ask your current employer if you can have them finance part of it while you continue to work. Consider borrowing from family with the promise of paying them back.

You may wind up losing a lot of money during the process, but it could be worth it. You may also wind up losing a lot of sleep during the process too. You have to live between teaching classes; attending studio, seminar, and history sessions; being married; getting homework done; and planning a thesis. Even though graduate school ruined my sleep hygiene because I had to stay awake many consecutive nights, I appreciate the value of a strong and ambitious work ethic more than ever. I also learned a whole lot about time management.

When it comes to the questions that I get asked about graduate school: cool design projects, finding work, teaching, research, or getting scholarships, I cannot answer any of them because it depends on you, the institution, where the institution is located, and your own personal finances. I can, however, answer two questions completely and wholeheartedly. Will you have to pull a lot of all nighters? Yes, yes you will. And will you get used to not having answers? Maybe.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ARCHIVE ID 4383 FILED UNDER Design Academics
PUBLISHED ON Jan.30.2008 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Pesky’s comment is:

Thoughtful article, Jason. If only someone said all that to me years ago.
I never graduated from Pratt Institute where I went to school. A serious mugging in the streets of Brooklyn changed all that. And yet, for years, I worked from Manhattan's Madison Avenue to New Orleans' Poydras Street without ever needing any degree. Experience, I convinced myself, was the best teacher.
But when asked to teach at 2 design schools lately, the impediment of non-deploma status shot up like the Berlin Wall. Didn't matter if I had qualifications, or skill organizing a quarter and I understood that perfectly. How could you ask students to strive for a degree if the teacher never did? The few design courses I have taught at Atlanta's Portfolio Center were exceptional fun for me, and now I kind of regret not getting that accreditation.

On Jan.31.2008 at 12:02 AM
Joshua Spohrer’s comment is:

Thanks for writing this article, I found it helpful. I know I'll seek out grad school at some point, if only because I have learned how to grow in a school environment and I like the school experience, but it's good to put the decision in context.

In my opinion, grad school is worth about a BA from 30 years ago. Sure, a lousy portfolio or interview will still sink MFA candidates, but, on the whole, I believe they're taken more seriously.

Professional practice would probably be a deal breaker for me choosing a school, as I've found it difficult to leap over the experience gap so many employers see. The work that's not quite professional business tends to be marginalized, really locking out designers without at least a full year professional internship before leaving undergrad.

But enough "what I wish I'd known 3 years ago." Great essay.

On Jan.31.2008 at 04:46 AM
Doug Bartow’s comment is:

In addition to those concerns, students need to look at the individual grad programs very closely. Some are geared toward producing employable designers, by focusing on portfolio work and 'real world' projects. Others are less structured, and require self-motivated students who are looking to explore their own processes and methodologies in design. In general, you will find the average age of the grad student to be higher in the latter situation, as many students in such programs enter after working for a few years. Still other grad school design programs are set up to provide teaching instruction for their undergraduate students at a reduced faculty cost to the school. They won't admit that, but it's reality. I think Jason's points about figuring out 'why' to go to grad school in design are completely valid. I would offer that the program you choose is equally important.

On Jan.31.2008 at 10:51 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Yes. Knowing why you want to go to grad school is important. Few people can know that without experience working in design.

"Whether you like it or not, design is not about authority. Not art, not creativity. It’s about service. You're giving people something they want. You’re answering their needs." Obviously, this mentor was jaded

While not particularly well worded, I don't see this as obviously jaded.

On Jan.31.2008 at 02:11 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

"Will you have to pull a lot of all nighters? Yes, yes you will."

Eh, forget it, then. That was doable when I was 20. Not so much anymore. ;o)

On Jan.31.2008 at 02:50 PM
sara’s comment is:

I have mixed feelings about my graduate experience. I have a BA from a liberal arts college and when I decided to pursue a career in design I was pointed towards MFA programs, largely because I already held an undergraduate degree. However, I found that most graduate programs focus on critical analysis, research, and writing, all of which I studied in great detail as an undergraduate. The gaps in my design education were in design application and, in retrospect, I would have benefited more from a second bachelors degree. Additionally, the program I chose was more rigid than I feel a graduate education should be, so I was not offered many opportunities within my school to focus on and learn more about my weaknesses. I graduated with a 4.0 due to the strength of my undergraduate education rather than my abilities as a designer. I'm not blaming my graduate institution for my mistakenly pursuing the wrong degree - in fact, I am indebted to my professors for all they taught me and I would be a completely different designer if not for their guidance - but I feel that graduate school should provide an opportunity to explore and learn, to build upon strengths and improve upon weaknesses, which is not what I experienced.

I was also appalled at the writing skills of most of my graduate student colleagues, and I was more shocked to find that many of them had not written more than a page or two during the entirety of their undergraduate studies. I don't understand how someone can profess to be a communicator if they can't clearly write a simple position paper. I feel strongly that more critical analysis and writing should be required as part of undergraduate design education, and these skills should be expounded on, rather than learned, in graduate school.

In my experience, if you are looking for an applied design experience, than an undergraduate program is a good choice. If you want to delve into a more thorough, academic analysis of the design field, then graduate school may be right up your alley. As with any endeavor, it is worthwhile to research your options - talk with professors, students, and alumni - in order to find a program that best fits your needs.

On Jan.31.2008 at 04:47 PM
Prescott Perez-Fox’s comment is:

Jason, Thanks for writing this article. As an MA design grad, it's difficult to state the case for further education without sounding overly pompous. Thanks for helping bring us out of the closet a bit.

In answer to your question "Beast Blessing or Burden?," my response is a firm "yes." My graduate experience was extreme in all measures (including all-nighters, I'm afraid) and I learned a colossal amount about design, about the world, about business, about students and universities, and of course about myself. I was lucky in that my course allowed me to work part-time and I was also chosen to teach an undergraduate class (Adobe software to first-years.) And while teaching wasn't the focus of my degree, it was certainly an interesting experience. Should I ever teach again, which I hope to do, I will have that to lean on.

If I could do one thing differently, it would have been to wait at least a year before heading off for further education. Aside from the financial drama of never having properly worked for some period of years (not months), upon graduation I found myself in a strange spot of being a post-rookie, but not quite a seasoned veteran. Most interviews I attended touched upon my being a Master, but focused more on my work experience and portfolio. In other words, I haven't been able to instantly 'wow' anyone the way I had kinda hoped.

As you mentioned, the tutors are a large component of the overall experience. Classmates of mine did not get on well with their tutor and as a result the whole year for them was a bit 'meh'. I, however, got on great with mine and he opened my eyes to a wide range of subjects. Unfortunately, with so much resting on this relationship, it can be a bit of rolling dice.

My postgraduate experience was brilliant, and in general I feel we need to encourage and welcome postgraduate culture in the design profession. However, students need to fully understand that a Master's degree is not a Golden Ticket; we've got to prove ourselves in the work place just like everyone else — if not more-so! I've received no special treatment and have been presented with no more opportunities than anyone else. As you say, it's expensive, and so far hasn't had any immediate impact on my pay grade. Still, it was a tremendous growing experience and I know that it will shape my career in ways I can't even calculate.

To all the senior professionals out there — interview more MAs, if only to pick their brains. You might be pleasantly surprised. And you can boast to your clients about the collective brainpower of your firm.

On Jan.31.2008 at 04:49 PM
ps’s comment is:

"Will you have to pull a lot of all nighters? Yes, yes you will."

Eh, forget it, then. That was doable when I was 20. Not so much anymore. ;o)

no need for all nighters if you manage your time...

On Jan.31.2008 at 07:56 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> To all the senior professionals out there — interview more MAs, if only to pick their brains. You might be pleasantly surprised. And you can boast to your clients about the collective brainpower of your firm.

Knowing that this may be offend someone or in danger of making a generalization, I'll speak from personal experience.

I've interviewed a few MAs, and the majority are somewhat unhireable, specially those that went went from undergrad to grad school right away. Their portfolios reflect the lack of experience. The flip side is that they are able to talk about their work very well and can justify every decision. But sometimes to a pulp.

I feel that design MAs are more poised to start their own firm than join one as junior designers taking orders. Nothing makes a designer question their investment like wire-binding five sets of 50-page decks for a presentation at 9:00 am the next day when the thing is still printing at 10:00 pm.

On Jan.31.2008 at 09:35 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Nothing makes a designer question their [educational] investment like wire-binding five sets of 50-page decks for a presentation...

Funny, sounds like a job I did while working in high school. And in all seriousness, the one thing I omitted from this piece is the lag between undergrad and graduate school, which has entered the comments. From my own experience, taking a break between the two to build up your portfolio and experience life, like so many of you have suggested, is very valuable. I worked for three years between undergrad and grad school, and feel all the better for it. However, I've met just as many designers that leap right to grad school immediately after their undergrad. There's no formula for success.

To the question of what is an MA designer good for: starting their own studio, working at a studio taking orders, or teaching full-time? So many things will dictate the above: the person's demeanor, the program they went through, and how far in debt they are. Starting your own agency / studio is a large investment of time and money. I've met few folks out of grad school that have the capital to do this, but... they're out there. I've met the few, and they do pretty damn good for themselves.

On Jan.31.2008 at 10:02 PM
ps’s comment is:

I've interviewed a few MAs, and the majority are somewhat unhireable, specially those that went went from undergrad to grad school right away. Their portfolios reflect the lack of experience. The flip side is that they are able to talk about their work very well and can justify every decision. But sometimes to a pulp.

couldn't agree more. and what's the rush anyway... working a few years will help to get the experience, help to make some money, have freelance set-up in place... plus it'll help you to get organized. if one thinks school is tough, a few month in a busy design studio will be an eye-opener...

On Jan.31.2008 at 10:07 PM
Prescott Perez-Fox’s comment is:

I feel that design MAs are more poised to start their own firm than join one as junior designers taking orders.

I agree, and I feel that most MAs (myself included) have a certain sense of entrepreneurship — we have ideals and ambitions and plan to run our own gig ... someday. In the meantime, hire us as Lieutenants, not simply as soldiers, if I may continue the 'taking orders' metaphor. A young officer is a terrible thing to waste.

On Feb.01.2008 at 12:17 AM
Katherine.’s comment is:

I'm in my middle year of a three year MFA, and I am always curious about the perception of this kind of pursuit outside the little world of my institution.

It is an exhilerating, challenging, and mind-altering experience, to be sure. And yes, even the most disciplined and skilled time-managers pull all-nighters here. The true culprit is the ability to design your own assignments as carefully as your responses to them. You wind up with three or four concurrent projects that are tailor-made (by you) to be the most fascinating and engaging projects you've ever had. Its an escalating cycle of self-induced mania and sleep-deprivation that somehow manages to repeat itself every semester, despite my best intentions!

To the question of what is an MA designer good for: starting their own studio, working at a studio taking orders, or teaching full-time?

Coming to my program with modest work experience in another field, my 5 years was about average for the class. I have never really fit into one category career-wise, and so find it interesting that most assume MFA candidates will be headed primarily into graphic design, in general, and studios, in particular. This happens in my own school, too, even though it might not necessarily apply to me.

Is there a model out there for the non-traditional, industry-spanning graphic designer? If anything, our little stint in mind-bending academia makes MA and and MFA candidates uniquely suited to answer D) None of the Above.

On Feb.01.2008 at 08:55 AM
Mike D.’s comment is:

I've been out of school for almost 2 years. Grad school has been at the top of my mind ever since, but I keep going back and forth on when is the right time.

In the end, I feel I have so much more to learn and more experience to gain in the professional world before I go (if I ever go) to grad school.

On Feb.01.2008 at 11:28 AM
Chris Risdon’s comment is:

I went back to school to get my MFA when I was in my late 20s. Not something everyone can do, but I was definitely glad I was older when I went to graduate school. And my experience was that the students in my classes that were 25-30 got a lot more out of it than the students that were 21, 22, 23 - pretty fresh from undergrad. Basically, to reinforce what you wrote, these older grad students could answer the question of what they wanted out of grad school. They did undergrad, they worked, and they were able to determine what it was they thought they lacked or desired in their career and how an MA or MFA could benefit them, personally or professionally. Not that younger students should automatically rule it out - as Armin alluded to - they may know they want to b-line to opening their own shop, not start with the unpaid internship. But many just made an automatic choice to do it, not fully thinking through whether it would be of benefit to them.

And this is a personal opinion, but I don't think a young person should go to grad school thinking it will help them leapfrog necessary experience (again, what Armin alluded to - they may know a lot, but they haven't done a lot). Other careers, that are more knowledge based, you can exchange real-world experience for graduate experience. But designers need experience in practical execution more often than not. I know for me, going to graduate school was not about getting more money or a higher-level job right out of school that I wouldn't have otherwise gotten without graduate school. I expected graduate school to pay off more in the long term, for my personal goals, it helped me define the direction I wanted to take my career over the next 10+ years.

- Chris

On Feb.01.2008 at 05:01 PM
Zach’s comment is:

As an undergrad who is looking at grad school this article was wonderful/insightful. I can't wait to unlearn everything I think I know.

On Feb.01.2008 at 10:16 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

MBA-lessness has its advantages:

You do logos for pals for free and don't really mind. The first hundred always suck anyway, at least you learn that way later. (A few are OK, of course, but none are competition to any by Saul Bass or Paul Rand.)

You get to work real gritty design jobs without complaint in agency hellholes. You learn to be immune to psychodrama.

You get to watch the pressman drink coffee at a 3:00 AM press proofing for some ridiculously expensive brochure that'll be trash in a week. You learn time is money, just like the saying goes.

You watch editors curse their way through your new layouts, only to praise it all as THEIR best issue ever - when its printed: You learn big egos don't equal big ideas.

You sweat over a complex design file and make drastic mistakes and learn not to do THAT again.

You sometimes are lucky enough to have mentors kind enough to show you real world solutions. And learn that there are some people in this business who aren't rats and backstabbers.

On Feb.01.2008 at 10:19 PM
Marcus Evans’s comment is:

It can be either or all three of those.

You can be unlucky or just perhaps uninformed and end up at a horrible university but where I am there is a wide range of opinions about our course (Graphic Design BA). I have come to the conclusion however that it's more the student that makes the course than the course it's self. Some people suit courses well and some don't. We see too many students who take what the course is made for the wrong way. They expect too much of the course while not looking at themselves. I attended the eye (magazine) burning issues debate on design education recently. It reinforced some aspects of how I think and changed others.

On Feb.02.2008 at 12:20 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

I received an MFA Design degree from the School of Visual Art.

I had what seems a slightly abnormal set of circumstances: I was working professionally at a design firm throughout my undergrad eduction. I'd helped build a business (for about 3 years) and then left and launched my current business.

Shortly before that, I had applied to graduate school which had been a long-standing dream. I hadn't a clue if I'd be accepted, and it seemed a reasonable risk to launch the business and possibly have to juggle the two. About 9 months thereafter I moved and began graduate studies. I kept the business open, but it played a quiet second fiddle to school during the 2 years spent in graduate studies.

My professional experience certainly influenced and informed me as a designer, and for that reason I believe it benefitted my graduate education. That having been said, I was surrounded with peers of great variety, some with no professional experience and some with a good amount. There were students from both camps that I would say were "successful" in their graduate experience. I'd shy away from a blanket statement that working professionally first is better.

I would give this advice about looking at programs. Really, really get to know the nature of the programs you're applying to. One school's focus, curriculum and approach will vary drastically from the next. The program I graduated from, for example, makes no explicit attempt to prepare anyone to teach design. That is not their intention and the program's curriculum does not accommodate that.

On Feb.02.2008 at 12:46 AM
erica’s comment is:

After being out of college for many, many moons, I will probably soon return to school for an MBA. It's not worth the investment to me to get a design masters, but an MBA will get me further up the consulting track I'm on. There's a really interesting new program at California College of the Arts, a Design Strategy MBA that sounds like the best of both worlds for me -- a business degree in an art school environment.

I second the recommendation to take a couple years to work between degrees. I think working in the "real" world (god, that term sounds condescending) helps you understand what you really do and don't like, and how your skills/desires can be best served. It helps many people get more out of the grad school experience, both in understanding what program will suit them best, and in better tailoring it to suit their future.

In that vein, the recommendations to be clear about why you want to go back is one of the most important considerations, if only because that's what admissions officers want to know.

On Feb.02.2008 at 02:04 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Randy got it right about checking out a program and making sure it's right for you. Find out when the classes are and especially when crits are. (Be suspicious if they don't want you to visit.) Sit in the crit or class and think "Would this be good for me?

Mark-- only to praise it all as THEIR best issue

And if you really learn, you realize that the whole point of what we do is other people and if they see our work as theirs, we have done our jobs well.

On Feb.02.2008 at 07:16 PM
agrayspace’s comment is:

Grad school was life changing for me. It changed how I think about design, about myself as a designer, and how I think in general. I was challenged and pushed to question everything. It brought me to a new city and new people. It was enlightening and invigorating. It was scary and painful. I found purpose in grad school and I highly recommend it.

Does a graduate degree in design offer more job prospects?
I wouldn't be an assistant professor without it. If you want a full-time tenure track position most schools require an MFA. I went to North Carolina State University, renown for design education, which certainly helped get me here.

Will you get paid more when you have a graduate degree?
Not necessarily. I am getting paid less than I did at my first entry level design job 8 years ago. But I'm happier.

Graduate school means different things for different people.
Every grad school, faculty, philosophy is unique. NCSU suited me, but I know of other grad programs that would not. Nor is NCSU right for every student. The faculty and fellow peers will really formulate your entire experience - for good or for bad.

So do your research, know what you want and select accordingly. I recommend working for a bit after undergrad to determine what this is.

How much research do you have to do?
Tons, if you pick a good grad program. But also tons of making. It's not all about talking, writing, reading. It's what you do with that research that counts.

You have to live between...
For me, grad school was an all encompassing two year bootcamp. An understanding spouse or partner are paramount to success. Just as you have to mentally prepare yourself for a huge change of life/person, so will they. I am lucky because my spouse is very supportive (and also a designer), so we got to talk endlessly about what I was learning. He feels he grew as a designer as much as I did, just through osmosis. BUT it can be tough on a relationship and I saw a few break up.

If you decide to teach, the first thing you learn is that it’s a lot of work
Grad school prepared me for this. My 75+ hour work weeks in grad school make my 60 hour work weeks as a first year teacher seem easy.

On Feb.03.2008 at 05:45 PM
Andrea’s comment is:

Thank you for this article. I happened to just finish my second Statement of Purpose for graduate school about an hour ago and reading this helped reassure my decision to apply. I have been working professionally for two years with two internships while in undergrad and I was originally going to go to graduate school immediately, however I am glad I waited. I feel like I have learned more in the last two years about business and being a professional than undergrad ever taught me. I know that going back now will be more satisfying now knowing how the real world works.


On Feb.03.2008 at 09:11 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Gunnar: Isn't that what I said. You have me confused. THEIR? Where did I find disfavor in your all knowing eye?

Lacking a degree, I am now contemplating a career stealing handbags from old ladies at supermarkets....

On Feb.03.2008 at 09:29 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

To follow Gunnar's thoughts:

When I was researching schools, SVA (where I ultimately went) and MICA were both extremely open and welcoming.

Ellen Lupton at MICA was extremely personable and genuinely interested in my questions, goals, background and desires. I was encouraged to spend time with current students, was invited to meet one-on-one with Ellen, and had the opportunity to sit-in on a guest lecturer's presentation.

While I ultimately choose another school, I left the experience with nothing but the highest regards for the MICA program and its warmth.

On Feb.04.2008 at 01:25 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Gunnar: Isn't that what I said. You have me confused
Yes. It is what you said. I seem to have myself confused. Sorry.

Lacking a degree, I am now contemplating a career stealing handbags from old ladies at supermarkets....
A degree is useful if you want to teach. Otherwise, the degree itself is just a byproduct of what's important (or maybe what's important is a byproduct of getting the degree.) You would be much worse of professionally with an MFA and a lesser portfolio than yours.

On Feb.04.2008 at 09:31 AM
Tony’s comment is:

I am in a rather interesting position right now that has made deciding whether to go back to grad school rather hard. Up until this year I was definitely going to go back, however I landed an entry level job with a start-up only to have the creative director jump ship. I have always been a bit more advanced and business savvy than my peers, and I have found myself in the role of creative director for the last 6 months. I am also currently help build the company from the ground up which has been really great experience. I am worried that it will be really hard to walk away from the situation for 2 reasons:

1. I have made some huge pay jumps in the last 6 months that I feel basically no other firm would pay someone only a year out of school.

2. In another 2 years, if I don't go back to school then I may never be able justify the higher wages I am earning to a new employer. But is this a good reason to go back to school?

Originally I had wanted to go back to school to study and develop my own aesthetic style without client pressures. Now I feel my motivations have changed...

Any advice from the community?

On Feb.05.2008 at 12:38 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:


Why don't you go back to school and put me in touch with the startup partners. I will happily fly in and take over the Creative Director role----and I know many other designers who would do this. Now that my mercenary sarcasm is out of the way, consider the experience you've outlined an education in and of itself. Having worked for startups myself, you can learn so much in a short amount of time; conversely, you can learn a lot about 'what not to do.' Each experience will benefit your maturation as a designer and entrepreneur.

On Feb.05.2008 at 10:14 AM
Tony’s comment is:


Thanks for the reply, and the email. Other than the the humorous sarcasm you have helped to reassure me. This is exactly how I have been approaching the situation. I have been trying to make the most out of the experience, without making too many mistakes along the way. Even though I probably learn more when I do make them :)

On Feb.05.2008 at 10:56 AM
Peter McRae’s comment is:

Are there graduate schools that offer Design Masters programs part time? Jason - Does UNCC offer that?

Peter McRae
McRae Creative

On Feb.05.2008 at 12:27 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Peter, welcome to the discussion. Unfortunately, UNCC does not have a part-time masters program. I have no knowledge of any such program, and it's my opinion that graduate design work should be full-time. However, there are plenty of masters programs that are oriented to part-time, virtual (online), or evening scheduling. In the very near future, we may see more part-time graduate programs in design because so many designers like Tony want to do graduate research as well as their own professional projects. If I could get a couple of million dollars, I could make it happen. Seriously.

On Feb.05.2008 at 01:57 PM
Tony’s comment is:

If you got one started in the Chicago area I would be your first applicant. It would be amazing if I could go part time and still continue my entrepreneurial efforts. Maybe this is discussion will catch the attention of some senior faculty, wouldn't that be great :)

On Feb.05.2008 at 03:42 PM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

I have my degree...from HIGH SCHOOL...and in spite of no secondary degree have 22 years of professional creative experience.

I was paid (er, $3.60 an hour) to learn from a venerable sign-painter who would take a jigger of scotch before pulling out the mahl stick. I made money while the thinly veiled affair between the silkscreen shop owner and his twenty-something apprentice crumbled...and I dutifully inked my acetate solutions for intramural basketball leagues. I learned how to use a t-square when the dunning letter's waxed headline seemed "a little off." Everything was (and continues to be) the result of application.

For someone who is impossibly non-academic, this was the ONLY way to go.

And I've learned...after years of struggling...that if it requires an explanation, it's probably not working; that the basic principles of design require mastery, not just familiarity; that form really should follow function; that good design is the result of an iterative process (that took a long time to learn); and that design should always be collaborative.

What I don't know could fill a municipal dump. I still don't know how to talk about design. I still am skeptical of celebrity designers. I still don't see a path to "greatness" in my design. Those are things I think school would help with.

Whoa! How time flies...bong-thirty already!

On Feb.06.2008 at 02:55 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Peter, what a poignant way to put it. Seriously, I have the utmost respect for any designer that learns by doing, and makes it on their own, without academic experience. You are proof positive, that one can learn by doing.

On Feb.06.2008 at 07:18 PM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

Thank you, Jason. It is mandatory, (I believe), to encourage an insatiable appetite for understanding in any fledgling designer. Anyone who has picked up Crochet Weekly just to see what makes crochet hobbyists tick is already afflicted. I love the research portion of any project...that's where budgets and schedules and "the realities of the situation" haven't reared up and a person can meander through the environment taking snapshots and smelling things.

I believe that I would do well in school today. The years between then and now have taught me the very real benefits of discipline. (I'd long considered "discipline" a parental myth to extract more work out of me under the flimsy guise of "self improvement.")

On Feb.07.2008 at 02:02 PM
Emily’s comment is:

This conversation has been really interesting for me, as it has been something that I've been thinking about for a while now. I started a MA in GD program this past fall- but I am doing it very part-time, only one class a semester. This way, I can work full time while I get the degree. I did it initially as an experiment to see if I would like grad school (I have a BA from a liberal arts school- and no formal design training), but now I realize that it is really an ideal situation for me. I don't have to go into debt, I can apply what I'm learning immediately to my projects at work, and I can keep my job, which I happen to like. Most of all though, I have a lot of energy for my school projects because I only have to do essentially one at a time. Other students in my class that are taking four classes seem mentally exhausted by the time our 6 pm class rolls around, and they have to spread out their creativity over four projects at a time. Maybe this extreme environment is good for some people, but for me I think I would just get over-stressed and be unhappy.

Anyway, I'm just suggesting this as one other option in the work/school spectrum.

On Feb.07.2008 at 04:27 PM
Manuel’s comment is:

In answer to the title of this thread, Grad School for me was a financial beast (but a tameable one), a burden of nostalgia for really good times and great people, and a blessing personally and professionally. It requires a lot of personal investment, and the right mindset, and if you go to the right program for you, I think you'll get a lot out of it.

In response to Armin's comment about MA's being unhireable, I do find it a generalization. One could also generalize that many designers with a bfa (or less) lack an ability to think critically and independently, something that is very important when one moves on to more directorial roles. Of course, it is all subjective, and depends on what a program emphasizes. But one question grad school asks you every day is "why am I even doing this?". I think if you come out of grad school able to articulate that, you've got years of built-in longevity.

On Feb.10.2008 at 02:53 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

In response to Armin's comment about MA's being unhireable, I do find it a generalization.

Yes, Armin may have that comment based on his own experience. What does matter most, degree or not, is if you can withstand the storms. You articulated that well in your closing statement, Manuel.

On Feb.11.2008 at 11:18 AM
Chris Great’s comment is:

A person that decides to put themselves through the agony of Grad School and actually receiving that valuable degree in the end should never be understimated. I went right after my BA but understood already at the time that a Masters alone would not be enought to succeed in the professional world. So I decided to freelance for various studios in Brooklyn/NYC area and managed to finish my degree at Pratt within two years. One of the many jobs I held was working the graveyard shift (11pm-7am)at Wace Networking doing pre-press work...the crew was awesome!

Soon after graduating and landing my first real gig doing CD covers I became a father. Now I needed more cash and a .com lined up pay for birth etc. Things were still tight so I started my own company. 9/11 forced me to leave the state of NY and move down south. Pay is lousy down south so I did what eveybody with drive seems to do there and work 2 jobs at the same time. A multimedia company that forced me to bounce back and forth between South and North Carolina and teaching at a local college seemed to be the thing to do. Well, four years down the raod that kind of rat race had me talking to myself in the shower so I moved back up north (with the fam) and decided to slow things down by investing in a 3 family building and doing some art direction for am up and coming search engine that already plays a dominent role in China.

So, this is what a grad student can put together when he/she has to.

On Feb.13.2008 at 03:39 PM