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mfa or no mfa? opinions please (long)

updated mon 26 aug 02


Stephani Stephenson on sat 24 aug 02

My advice to you would be to find an MFA program that really excites
you. Visit the studios, find out what studio accommodations are
available to the grad students. Look at the facility, the equipment, the
kilns, the glaze room. Talk with the faculty, the students, the other
grad students as well as the undergrads. is the facility cared for? Do
they have an active program for visiting artists or visiting artist
workshops ? I took part in many workshops, given by extraordinary
visiting artists, while at grad school. And all those workshops were
just part of the curriculum.

Look at the work on the shelves, try to get a sense of the spirit in the
studio, as the 'personality' of departments can vary widely from school
to school. Look at the level of organization, the relationship between
faculty and students, the way the students feel about the program. Look
at the you see the type of work (sculptural, wheel thrown,
etc.) that stimulates you, challenges you? Are the professors hands -on
in their teaching or largely absent. Do first year grad students have
the ability to receive Graduate Assistantships? A graduate
assistantship, teaching or otherwise, is usually the best economic boost
you will find, as it usually involves not only a cash stipend, but it
also reduces your tuition by a good deal. Can really be beneficial. I
borrowed very little money to attend Grad school due to assistantships.
In return the grad student is usually asked to contribute something
like 8-12 hours per week.
assistantships can involve teaching a class or they can involve jobs
such as overseeing firings, ordering and stocking dry materials, etc.
Departments differ widely on how many assistantships they grant and how
they select students. Usually selection is determined by the department
and faculty, not by the school.

Of course an MFA is required for many teaching positions, but there are
far more holders of MFAs than positions available, so if this is not
your main goal, it is not really an issue. I don't think it is ever
really a prerequisite for gallery shows. But there is nothing wrong with
an MFA. If you have worked for it, be proud of it.

Also , I would advise, is that if you ARE hoping that your grad school
connections will work to your benefit after graduation (helping you to
establish gallery or professional teaching connections, etc), consider
this when choosing a program. Some programs are very active in
'placing' , or 'opening doors' to graduates. Others tend to forget you
the minute you graduate. I do believe, if you are career minded in this
way, degrees from some institutions 'work' harder for you , are 'worth'
more than others. I think this relates not only to the reputation of
the institution or department but to the involvement , interest and
activity of the individual professors. If this is your goal, YOU must
also work to foster relationships with faculty while in grad school .
Ask questions and seek departments and individuals who take an active
role in providing professional opportunities and connections for their
grads.This is entirely a personal decision.

All in all, I think the best reward of the MFA is the actual time you
spend getting it. It is one way to finance and set aside some time
where you say, "this work comes first ". To me , MFA means STRETCH
You can dive deeply into your work. You can ask questions of yourself,
Be nearly obsessive about your craft and you pursuit of your goals. You
can put yourself in an atmosphere where you are also exposed to the
work and the perspectives of others. Whether it is firing methods
,glazes, development of forms, new ideas, developing and mastering
skills, the time you devote to getting an MFA is a gift you give to
yourself. Generally you come out of it differently than when you go in.
I think OWLS (older wiser students), i.e. students who are returning to
school after some time away from school, are generally very motivated
students who gain a great deal from their grad school experience, They
are generally more focused, more determined and have a sense of how
valuable and precious their time in school is.
Also you will usually have access to a greater array of equipment than
you do in your own studio. So you can try it out. Fire every kiln, test
glazes, test clay bodies, work large, all those things! You will have
access to Art History and other classes which may be of interest. It is
a good time to pick up a few other other classes such as computer
classes, etc., You will have access to visiting artists, and exchanging
the combined knowledge and experiences of others in the program. One of
the benefits is that often you will meet exchange students, potters from
other countries who are studying in the US and who can give marvelous
insight into the art and pottery traditions of their countries.

Now there are programs which are not so great. Confusing places,
absentee or tired, jaded professors , studios where people are careless,
pretentious, steal each others tools. Programs which are a mess , or
which are excessively chaotic and disorganized(beyond the typical chaos
of a school studio) or ridiculously self absorbed. And likely there will
be a period of adjustmant for you , even in a good program, especially
if you are accustomed to working alone, and feel self conscious in a
group. But if the thirst for knowledge and skill and experience is
great, you will get over it !

So take time to assess what it is you want from an MFA program, and take
some time to find a good one, one that suits you.

If you look at it simply a badge or a pedigree , grad school is an
expensive one . We all know , by itself, a degree does not a good
artist make. But if you get in there and delve into it and wring
everything you can out of it , you may find it a worthwhile experience.
There are so many ways to learn and grow, and this is one , but one of

. Sincerely
Stephani Stephenson
Carlsbad /Encinitas