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2,000 Words on Why You Shouldn’t Go to Grad School for Art

Graduate School

Okay, so the title of my post is a bit misleading. I’m not necessarily going to advise you, prospective graduate students in art, NOT to go to graduate school. Nor do I necessarily mean to impress upon any other post-grads (“post-ops” seems almost appropriate) a feeling of remorse for having dedicated so much time and money and life force into 2-3 years of serious self-doubt, creation, and hopefully some kind of eventual success, feeling of accomplishment, or body of work to be proud of.

Nor is this document technically “2,000 Words.” We’re more at like, say, 1,998. Or so the word count tells me. But I’m taking liberties! (see the ending-in-a-preposition in the previous paragraph for case-and-point.)

No: instead, I am merely commenting on the similarities between an article by Ron Rosenbaum I read on this morning entitled, “Should I go to grad school? My story.” and my experience as an art graduate student 2008-2011. As someone who enjoyed (perhaps a little too much) the torture of graduate school in Art, I find that many moments in this article cause me to laugh out loud, internally cringe and/or nod to myself–usually all at once, which makes me appear as if I’m having some kind of fit, I’m sure. (Sorry, neighbor across the way! You can take your fingers off the 9-1-1 auto-dial now!)

Me, back in undergrad, taking a nap in my sleeping bag in the gallery while installing my BFA exhibition. Photo by my partner in crime, Brian Glaser.

Rosenbaum writes about graduate school in literature. He is telling his own story of why he wanted to go to graduate school, what he thought it would be like, what it actually turned out to be like, why he dropped out, and the chain of various serendipitous events that led to his eventual success as a writer–a career he is much happier in than in the so-called “dusty lecture halls” of his unfinished master’s degree at Yale (smarty pants!).

It takes Rosenbaum a page to get to his point (the good stuff starts on page 2,) but I find his story fascinating and familiar. Please note ahead of time, however, his very own disclaimer on page 3:

“Again, I don’t necessarily suggest you try this at home; I was very often very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

I quite agree that this simple right-place-right time combined with who-you-know can make a big difference in one’s life. There is something to be said, however, for preparing yourself for these moments of happenstance-planets-aligning as thoroughly as possible (which for me meant graduate school.)

Also, put yourself in situations where good and unexpected things can happen! (Okay, this also might mean bad unexpected things could happen. But it’s a risk worth taking if you’ve got gumption.) At the end of his article, Rosenbaum writes about a right-place-right-time event that seriously changed his life, the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at a place he just happened to be while following a completely unrelated tangent of interest involving a “silly” Warner Brothers’ documentary.

This account reminds me of several events in my own life, not the least of which was my experience of the artist Paul Chan’s presentation of the play Waiting for Godot in the lower 9th ward in New Orleans after it was flattened by Hurricane Katrina.

Blake was in graduate school for Printmaking at Tulane University in New Orleans when Paul Chan came as a visiting artist shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Along with several other graduate students in Art from various disciplines, Blake took Chan on the often called Heart Break Tour of the city, displaying the various hard hit areas creamed by Hurricane Katrina. Due to this, and I’m sure other factors, Chan embarked on this Godot project.

Some people were touched by it. Other people feel he had no right to create this work as an outsider. I’ll leave the judgment of that up to you. However, what is important about this story is that as an undergraduate student at Tulane at the time (and secret girlfriend of Blake, to whom I am now married, of course,) we went to see this play. And it has since become, in my mind, one of those “pivotal life moments” when I realized new things art could do.

Grandma Jane
My Grandma Jane.

I’ve long been fond of Waiting for Godot, ever since I was introduced to it by a Mr. Chris Kirby of Central High School, Macon, GA. It was the emptiness and the sense of loss–of what, no one exactly knows–that touched me. I was always reminded of a story my grandmother Jane tells in which I was very young, sleeping in bed between grandma and grandaddy, and I awoke crying out, “I WANT GRANDMAMA! I WANT GRANDMAMA!”

To this, my grandmother replied, “I’m right here! I’m right here!” But I still kept crying out for her. It is this very feeling, which for me was highlighted by Waiting for Godot. The play itself also had a strange kinship to the flattened lower 9th ward. Though I myself did not live in the lower 9th, sometimes the most extreme example of a terrible event does become a symbol even for those who experienced it in a less severe way. My apartment was flooded, and I and my boyfriend at the time lost many belongings and lost a place to live, but we escaped with our lives. And, to be honest, I didn’t own that much anyway. All of my artworks made in undergrad up to that point were destroyed, but they weren’t that good yet, anyway. It was probably good to have my slate wiped clean, so to speak.

Images from my flooded Apartment in New Orleans

I could say much more, but I’m seriously deviating from my original point here. Basically, I was not an insider nor was I an outsider. I was in some weird, in-between space–which is what Waiting for Godot is all about.


In any case, to get back to Rosenbaum’s article, I will share with you one of my favorite snippets from page 2. Feel free to snicker/insert-laugh-out-loud/blank stare here.

“I was in grad school because I loved reading literature, but literature does not, cumulatively, make the case for spending your life in classrooms studying and teaching literature. And abjuring graduate school does not mean you must end your romance with literature—in fact the opposite could be true. There’s this thing called ‘reading’ which could be done, according to my understanding, outside dusty seminar rooms.”

The same, surely, goes for graduate school in art! If you love looking at art, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should get a degree in Art History. Similarly, if you love making art, as I certainly do, that doesn’t necessarily mean graduate school in Studio Art is for you, either!

T. Cole
Professor Teresa Cole: my undergrad Boss and Blake’s grad-school Boss. Photo by Brian Glaser.

A lot of factors went into my decision to go to graduate school. Firstly, there is my mother. She is a fantastic ceramic artist who always wanted to go to graduate school, but she never got the chance. She received 2 undergraduate degrees, one in Studio Art: Ceramics and one in English. And then life happened (not to mention my birth,) and she never got to graduate school.

It was always discussed that I would go to graduate school. That somehow, I wouldn’t let too much “life” happen too soon or I would go in spite of the happening-life, and that was that.

A fantastic piece of work by my Drawing I student at Louisiana State University, M. “Joy” Zhou

I also thought I might like to teach studio art one day. As you know, graduate school is certainly a pre-requisite for that career. In addition, my own artwork is very research based. I read a lot for my work, collect thousands of images, document with photography and take many other steps to compile information before and during the creation of works of art. My process was very conducive to a graduate school environment. I wanted to research, I wanted to present my ideas and works to other people (professors, fellow students, etc) for their judgment/advice/hatred/love/indifference, and I wanted a concentrated period of time devoted to making a body of artwork (Plus, as a printmaker, I needed access to the kind of equipment I may never be able to afford to purchase on my own.)

One of my former fellow-grads at Louisiana State University, the infamous Ms. Babcock, getting ready for critique with our Intro Lithography Students

I wanted teaching experience to flesh out my desires to be a studio art educator at the college level. There are other reasons, as well, not the least of which is my love of the “school” environment in general. I’ll bitch about assignments and so on with the rest of them, but truth-be-told, I love the shit out of school.

Final Lithography Critique
Students hang their work on the wall for critique at the hands of us-grads

Rosenbaum’s article goes on to call into question my very motives for wanting to teach. He pretty much calls folks like myself with designs on teaching pussies who want to hide behind tenure:

“But it is a sad fact that it is the people too timid to taste life without the prospect of tenure who stay behind and ruin literature for the students in graduate school who have any life left in them.”

He admits, of course, that there are exceptions to this. But seriously, what a BURN! Commence, once again, fit of simultaneous LOL-internally-cringing-and/or-nodding-self.

Besides, as Rosenbaum confirms, this life path is not as dependable as it might sound at first.

“And, in fact, as many have noted, the choice to go to graduate school may only offer the illusion of comfort and security—these days it’s an arduous path that only rarely leads to tenure; for the unwary it’s a wild and expensive gamble with no guarantee of security.”

Blake and I are, of course, in the very midst of this path to our own (hopeful) future employment with a living wage and some semblance of job security. Blake’s recent acquisition of a year and half position at Bowling Green State University is certainly a step in the right direction!

I am still on the job market for something more permanent. In the meantime, I am teaching Art Appreciation as an online course, which is a new adventure. And I pick up part time jobs here and there to fill in the blanks in my wallet.

Who knows if I have actually offered you any insight on this-whole-graduate-school-in-art thing. Perhaps you agree with Rosenbaum. Or, perhaps, you are just going to do it just ’cause. Or maybe you want a reason to take out some good old student loans and just make art for a while.

Graduate student David West in his thesis show with fellow grad Katrina Andy and one of our fabulous professors, Kimberly Arp.

Just be aware that graduate school comes with a lot of baggage. Make sure you beef up so you can carry it and then eschew it when the time is right. Free yourself to make good work. Be greedy with your resources–get as much as you can out of your program, your fellow students and your professors. Milk them for all of the knowledge and advice you can. And be grateful to them and thank them so they understand that you appreciate it. (Thanks Kimberly, Leslie, Denyce, Justin, et. al!)

As I said before, I’ll kvetch with the rest of them about assignments, deadlines, critiques and even fellow students and professors at times. But I make sure that, at the end of the day (or at least week or semester or year…), that I come out with a positive charge and attempt to give credit where credit is due and realize all of the good effects graduate school had on myself and my artwork.

Testing Tension
A long-haired Blake testing tension on the back one of his framed works for his MFA thesis exhibition at Tulane. Word to the Wise: Be prepared to eschew basic human rights/routines such as shaving, eating, sleeping and so on during graduate school, especially when preparing for one’s thesis!

I don’t think my drawings or prints ever really came together until graduate school. My work was never cohesive. It didn’t always fit and make sense before graduate school. I needed the grad school environment where you design, to some extent, your own “course plan” and manage your own time in order to begin to bud and blossom.

Tulane ceramics graduate student John Oles setting up work for his MFA thesis exhibition.

I found ways of working in graduate school that I use today. And I found people to inspire me, but I did have to take an active role in my education. It isn’t going to just fall into your lap, even if you do make it into the grad school of your dreams. Seek out professors who you want to learn from, environments you want to live in, colleagues you want to work with, and experiences that you think might make your life/artwork better.

I’ll end this with a final quote, all too true, from page 2:

“And there were the grad school sherry parties, the faces flushed with alcohol, the musty smell of damp tweed, the jockeying for position around such rising stars of sophistry as Harold Bloom. And the grad school culture, beery, sneery sessions with fellow students who seemed to evince no love of literature, just a lack of imagination. Was this what I wanted from life?”

Thankfully, I’m living proof that there is life after graduate school. I can’t see anywhere near the end of my journey, so who knows how this whole grad-school-thing will have worked out for me, but I can still tell you with great assurance that I’m glad I went.

Studio Desk
My first studio space during graduate school at L.S.U.

8 thoughts on “2,000 Words on Why You Shouldn’t Go to Grad School for Art”

  1. On a side-side note, when I hear the term “graduate school,” I always think of this quote from the movie THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, which may or may not be in the book of the same title by John Irving (I can’t remember):

    Walt: Daddy what’s gradual school?
    T. S. Garp: What?
    Walt: Gradual school. Mommy say’s she teaches at gradual school.
    T. S. Garp: Oh Gradual school is where you go to school and you gradually find out you don’t want to go to school anymore.

  2. Hear hear!

    The myriad “grad school is an enormous sham” articles are getting a little out of hand. A surprising number of them are written by academics who most certainly include them in tenure portfolios (?!). Thanks for such a human response to what many silly people would have you believe is a huge problem.

    I’m still old fashioned and think that education is worth it for it’s own sake, not to be measured against what kind of capital it swings your way. I went to school first and foremost to become a better artist, and thank God I did, because I did!

  3. Hello Hannah. Good to see how things are progressing for you. I just wanted to add my two cents, what I tell students who tell me they want to go to grad school in art history or archaeology, which are similar to studio in the lack of jobs, and even worse when you think that you can’t even go independent and produce your own work for sale. My advice is simple: if you can think of anything else in your life that will make you happy, do that instead. If, however, doing this is the only thing you can think of that will make you happy, go with my blessing. The academic lifestyle requires too many sacrifices, both on the person who takes it on, and on their partners/family, with results that are not secure, to offer any other advice.

  4. Pingback: Part II of 939 Drawings: My Facebook Friends’ Profile Pictures in Watercolor & Ink | Orange Barrel Industries

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