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choice of whether to get an mfa - long!

updated mon 18 oct 04


Vince Pitelka on sun 17 oct 04

This is a long message, but I have a lot ot say about this subject. =
Grad school was a life-changing experience for me - it was the best =
choice I have ever made. I started grad school when I was 37. =20

I appreciate Tony Clennell's message about his own experience, because I =
appreciate his work and his spirit and the gift he brings to his =
students. For his situation, and for many other equally motivated =
learners, his approach works very well. But from my own experience, I =
would not have accomplished a fraction of what I have done over the past =
20 years without having gone to grad school. I guess it all depends on =
who you are, where you live, what opportunities you have, what you want =
out of life, and certainly many other considerations. No generalization =
works for everyone. =20

After finishing my BA in art at Humboldt State in Northern California, =
my wife and I settled down there and we loved it. Arcata is one of the =
great little towns in America. But as a studio potter in the 1970s and =
early 80s, I felt so far removed from the major population centers, and =
the sources of stimulus I needed. Linda and I had both always wanted to =
teach, and we decided that the time was right to pursue that objective. =
But we didn't think we had the resources for it - were plugging along, =
me being a studio potter, Linda working part-time at a job in Arcata, =
and we didn't have much in the way of savings. =20

We started out with a lot of research into grad schools, and a chunk of =
our savings into grad school applications. Our research revealed the =
schools that had what we needed, and the schools most likely to give =
assistantships and tuition waivers. There aren't as many of those =
today, but you can still find plenty of them. Many schools rely heavily =
on teaching assistants to cover the intro and foundation classes. As a =
teacher, I do not really approve of that practice (putting the intro and =
foundation classes on novice teachers), but it's a great opportunity for =
anyone wanting to get through grad school without being saddled with =
debt. =20

Linda and I were very fortunate - we were both offered tuition waviers =
and teaching assistantships at UMass, Amherst. It was an especially =
good choice for me. Through my research, I had a good feeling about the =
program, the current grad students, and the faculty. And in retrospect, =
I cannot really imagine a better mentor than Frank Ozereko. Frank has =
never made a big splash on the national scene, which shows you how =
fickle the art/craft world is. Frank is one of the most talented =
artists I know, and a superb teacher. He pushed me, and he was always =
informative and resourceful. He took pleasure in tackling every =
question and challenge. =20

At the time I was in grad school there (85 to 88), the UMass-Amherst Art =
Department was just alive, with great energy in almost every program. I =
shared the grad studios with a group of highly motivated students who =
remain among my dearest friends. We all pushed each other. It wasn't =
competetition as much as it was the mutual expectation of high =
productivity and accomplishment. =20

One key issue that has come up in this conversation - the issue of age. =
I was 37 when I started grad school. I was terrified. I thought I was =
going to be the old guy among masses of young, energetic, edgy, =
angst-ridden artists who would be intolerant of my more mature and =
practical approach. I couldn't have been more wrong. I was so ready =
for the experience, and after fumbling around for a month or so I really =
got down to business. I was alive. I soaked up everything like a =
sponge. It was the most exciting concentrated period of learning and =
experience in my life, and it so far exceeded any expectation I had. It =
really is hard to describe the experience, but I remember it so clearly. =
It is so firmly implanted in me and in everything I do. It is exciting =
to know that Lori Leary is going through the exact same thing right now. =

So, instead of being the old guy (and incidentally there were quite a =
few grad students older than me, and many who had been out of undergrad =
school quite a few years before going to grad school), it turned out =
that I was one of the more motivated and productive student, and most of =
the younger students respected that and looked up to me. I am still in =
touch with quite a few of those younger students. =20

The choice to go to graduate school is such a big decision. I would =
hesitate to recommend it to anyone who must bear the entire expense =
through student loans. It would be difficult to come out of grad school =
with a $200K debt, no matter what your objective. But for anyone who =
has other significant earning resources, or is willing to seek out a =
department that grants assistantships, it need not be expensive at all. =
Linda and I both took out student loans to supplement our =
assistantships, and we will be paying on those for a long time yet, but =
it is a small payment and we don't even notice it. What a bargain it =
was! =20

When it comes down to it, and pardon me if this sounds immodest, three =
years of graduate school helped me transition from a capable but =
conservative potter with lots of studio experience in a very limited =
small range of possibility in the medium, to a confident =
artist-craftsperson and teacher ready to tackle any teaching challenge. =
It did exactly what I wanted it to do, and it did so much more than I =
ever dreamed it would.

Regarding finding teaching jobs in universities for someone in their =
late 40s or older, it is a tremendous challenge. Age discrimination is =
rampant, and there is an abundance of young graduates who are extremely =
talented. But there are plenty of other opportunities for someone in =
that situation that make use of all of life's experience. =20

Regarding finding teaching jobs for any other graduates, if you really =
want a tenure-track college teaching job, and if you relentlessly pursue =
that objective you WILL get one. It really is as simple as that. I =
know so many people who went through grad school and were determined to =
get a college teaching job. They did all the right things - they =
continued to exhibit their work, they pursued residencies and other =
professional opportunities, they moved to locations where there are good =
part-time teaching opportunities and they took every position they could =
find, proving their commitment to the teaching profession, building the =
resume and experience. Almost all of those people moved into =
tenure-track teaching positions. =20

It has been a long time since someone coming right out of an MFA program =
could step right into a tenure-track teaching position. It just doesn't =
work that way any more. The market now demands the accumulation of =
experience beyond grad school, but for anyone willing to follow that =
route, the jobs are there. =20

For anyone of any age who decides that an MFA is what they want and/or =
need and can figure out a practical way to finance grad school, I'd say =
go for it. You will never regret it. Anyone who has questions about =
any of this or is contemplating grad school and needs some good hints, =
please contact me. There is a lot to consider here, and you don't want =
to end up in the wrong program. Grad school is an opportunity to be =
savored, and advance research and careful decisionmaking are essential.
Best wishes -=20
- Vince

Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Craft, Tennessee Technological University
Smithville TN 37166, 615/597-6801 x111,