don't go to grad school: a cautionary tale from exit343design.

New year, new goals! Is one of them to attend a graduate program? This blog post looks like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s actually something I’m weirdly passionate about and want to put out in to the world. So here goes: the story of one of my biggest regrets, earning a graduate degree.

my BFA thesis exhibition, circa 2008

I was in undergrad at Rowan University, majoring in studio art. Being an artist had always been the goal; I entered college with no qualms about my major. Back then, there was no class to prepare you to be a working artist, to prepare you to actually USE the degree you earned after school. I had heard about this thing called graduate school; all of my professors had been (a prerequisite to teach) and it was a chance to stay in the studio longer. I applied to two local schools that had printmaking programs, got accepted to one of them, and my next step was decided: grad school!

Two years and approximately $45,000 in loan debt later, I passed my thesis and earned my MFA from Penn State University. In addition to learning more about printmaking and art theory, I learned that graduate school may not have been the best investment of my time and money. In hindsight, here’s some questions I should have had clear answers to before attending:

 Why do you want to go to grad school?

At the time, I recall my answer being that I got more studio time and would be able to teach college afterwards. Teaching was never a goal of mine pre-grad school, it was just a bonus from earning an MFA degree. It just seemed like the cool and fancy thing to do- no one else in my graduating class went to grad school right after Rowan. I would prove to be the person who kept making art and used their degree, right? THIS WAS THE WRONG ANSWER.

You should go to graduate school to further your career. But is it really going to help? Do the research! See what difference a graduate degree makes- you could be pricing yourself out of your industry too early or simply wasting your time in school when you could be gaining work experience learning similar lessons. Think about how much money that MBA is going to cost you- could you take that money and start your own business and learn about business IN the business? I looked at my MFA as bonus studio time when I should have taken ¼ of my student loan and sunk it into my own studio!

Are you looking at the right schools?

This is an obvious one that my young self did not give enough weight to. I applied to an art school that would have had better long-term connections in my local art community (aka potential jobs). I didn’t get in. I got in to Penn State, which if I had done my due diligence, had a print program, but didn’t have much support for the type of printmaking I do. For real, the silkscreen studio was in a basement infested with cockroaches my first semester!!! How did I ignore that? The excitement of being accepted anywhere caused me to have a lot of blind spots and choose a school that ultimately, was probably not the right fit.

Who is going to pay for your degree?

Another lesson I learned the hard way: assistantships are not guaranteed. Perhaps this was poor communication from the school or perhaps I missed an email somewhere, but I started my first year assuming that all grad students received an assistantship in some form. I had already rented an apartment, moved to the area, and attended a class by the time I learned that I did not get accepted for an assistantship for my first year. Gulp. That meant my only choice were student loans (this time with no cosigning from my parents) with very high interest rates that I did not fully comprehend the weight of yet because I hadn’t been out of undergrad long enough to pay any of my loans back. Woof. By the end of my first year, I had wracked up tens of thousands in loan debt- I could not afford to attend a second year if I didn’t get an assistantship. Fortunately, the stars aligned (i.e. some classmates graduated) and T.A. positions opened up.

Ten years later, I finally paid down my loans and never was able to get a job in the career I had hoped for after receiving my MFA. Ten years of the ugly storm cloud of debt hanging over me and unanswered job applications. GET SOMEONE ELSE TO PAY FOR YOUR DEGREE. Ensure you 100% have that assistantship, see if your job reimburses for Master’s credits, apply for scholarships!

Grad school wasn’t all doom and gloom- I did learn some important things about myself: I do actually love to teach art, I am terrible at art theory, and being a gallery artist will never be a goal of mine. Certainly, my experience isn’t the rule of thumb, but I do hope it serves as a cautionary tale to do your due diligence and run your numbers before making the choice to attend a graduate program!