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how to pick a graduate program

updated tue 17 dec 02


vince pitelka on mon 16 dec 02

Brian wrote:
"What is more difficult, but even more important, is to suss out the
reputations of
the faculty in general, as teachers, not as artists, and, specifically,
whether they and the environment that they create will be conducive to
one's own educational needs. "

Brian -
You're right, it's very important. When you are researching work that the
faculty is doing, you might be attracted to the people who make work like
you WANT to make, but this can be a mistake. Good teachers in grad programs
generally are not the least bit interested in protégés. They are much more
interested in enthusiastic, hard working students who show real potential.
It is their role to help you find the strongest, most honest direction for
your own work, regardless of whether it is anything like what they do.

With each academic program you research, be sure to talk to the graduate
students, and get in touch with alumni of the program. Ask to see the
department copies of the MFA thesis books. They are public record, and the
department should WANT to show them to you. From there, you should be able
to track down some of the alumni. In all cases, ask the hard questions.
Ask the current and former grad students if the faculty were good critics,
pushing and encouraging the student, being tough when it is appropriate.
You don't want a teacher who puts the stamp of approval on everything you
do, because it becomes meaningless. You want a teacher with a broad,
flexible outlook, open-minded to new directions.

When you talk to faculty, be confident of your work and what you have
accomplished, and show them that you have a sense of direction. But at the
same time, be sure to remain respectful of the faculty and the program, and
show your willingness to explore and evolve as an artist. In other words,
don't act lost or unsure, but also don't be cocky and overly confident. You
are researching grad programs because you want to grow and learn as a
student. You have nothing to loose by just being your self, because you do
not ever want to be admitted to a graduate program under false pretenses.

When you are interviewed by faculty, be ready when they ask YOU if you have
questions. Ask them what kind of students they are looking for. Ask them
if they feel there is some sort of prevalent aesthetic "direction" in their
program. Do they have a mix of potters and sculptors? How do they feel
about issues of utility in functional fine art? Ask them what they feel are
the most exciting directions in contemporary clay. Some of these questions
might not be appropriate for you, and some might not be appropriate for
particular programs. But this shouldn't be an issue. There is no set group
of questions to ask the faculty, because you should come up with your own,
based on what you are looking for in a program.

Be sure to spend some time with current students in the program. They are
often your very best resource. They can give you a good idea of the
"personality" of the program. Are the grad students productive in the
studio and do they feel challenged? Is the atmosphere charged with positive
energy? Is there a constructive competitiveness in the program, or does it
feel cutthroat? Avoid the latter at all costs, because there is absolutely
no excuse for it, and it is very bad training for survival in the real

Above all else, be confident of your decision to go to graduate school, and
make the most of the opportunity once you commit. No program is perfect,
and undoubtedly there will be unanticipated problems. That is always the
reality. But it is up to you to take responsibility for your own future
(which you are already doing by asking these questions of us), and to get as
much as possible out of the experience. It is amazing how much living and
growing you can cram into a few years in graduate school.
Good luck -
- Vince

Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Crafts
Tennessee Technological University
1560 Craft Center Drive, Smithville TN 37166
Home -
Work -
615/597-6801 ext. 111, fax 615/597-6803