Ask the Art Prof: How Do I Become an Undergraduate Art Professor?

RISD Freshman Drawing, Section 19, Spring 2010

“I want to be an art professor, preferably at the undergraduate level.  I’d like to teach classes like drawing and painting, color theory, and 2-D Design. I don’t particularly see myself teaching at a school like RISD, but rather a small community college.

Some of the most inspirational people in my life were professors at a tiny hole in the wall 2 year college. They aren’t “working artists”, but they were pretty skilled guys, who clearly loved to teach. And I guess that’s kind of where I see myself teaching in a kind of similar setting. I don’t really like the business of Illustration all that much, so I don’t see myself doing that kind of work.

I honestly don’t see myself doing anything but teaching with my life. I’m currently in my second semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying Illustration. I’ve already gotten a couple associates in photography, and Fine Arts at a community college before transferring. I also plan to get a masters in something art related. So what kind of advice can you give a kid like me? What should I expect from a teaching job?”

When you’re a teacher, you have know that you are shouldering a tremendous responsibility to your students. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I’ve heard too many times about people being emotionally traumatized by bad art teachers in the past as being the reason that they gave up making art. I think some teachers don’t realize that even the smallest gesture or the slightest comment is capable of so much damage. Students can be very vulnerable and impressionable and you have to ensure that you can create a learning environment for them that fosters growth in a positive manner.

Teaching has extreme highs and lows: I’ve experienced everything from being beyond furious and livid with my students to being completely touched and moved by them, and of course everything that is in between. I’ve been frustrated with difficult situations where there is no clear answer for what I should do, and I’ve had moments where classes practically taught themselves. You never know what’s going to happen when you teach, which is part of why I love it so much.   Every time I think I’ve seen it all, something happens that catches me completely off guard that I have to figure out on the spot how to deal with. To me that’s what is wonderful about teaching, you have to be alert, on your toes, ready for anything to happen. There’s never a dull day in teaching. Some people may not like that, but I happen to thrive on the creative stimulation that occurs because of the unpredictability.

Accordion Bookbinding Project

“Are there any downsides to teaching?” Like any profession, there are certainly aspects of teaching that can be challenging to deal with. I hate the politics that inevitably come with teaching in any department at any school; it can get pretty ugly and unpleasant.  The extent to which you have to deal with politics depends on your position at the school.  If you are a part-time professor, you can pretty much just teach your class and leave.  Part-time professors are usually are not mandated to attend faculty meetings, and do not have to do committee work, which allows them to stay outside of the politics of their department if they wish.  If you are a full-time professor, politics can be a huge part of the position.Your colleagues will be pivotal in whether you achieve tenure or not, so how you navigate the politics of your department is critical.

Would you recommend teaching along side doing professional work?”

If you teach at the undergraduate level, there are set expectations that you will be teaching and creating your independent professional work at the same time. (by contrast, this is not the case if you teach at the high school level) I personally cannot imagine one without the other.  Without my teaching I think I would go out of my mind sitting in my studio for hours by myself, while without my professional work I know that I would be starved of my own creative initiatives.  I’ll be honest and say that it is extremely challenging at times to maintain a healthy balance between the two.  I’ll admit to having moments when I’m working on my own artwork and I don’t want the distraction of teaching.  Ultimately though, I see the two practices as having a symbiotic relationship that support and inform each other. People ask me all the time whether I would give up teaching entirely if I could, and the answer is a resounding no. I crave the dialogues, the creative stimulation that I gain from teaching too much to give it up.

Final Crit

“Is there anything about your college career that you would have done differently to aid you as a professor now?”

To be completely honest, I would have waited to go to graduate school until I got accepted into one that was more prestigious. I applied to graduate school in 2002, when everyone was panicking after Sept. 11 happened and masses of people headed back to graduate school instead of getting jobs. I stupidly assumed at the time that I would have no problem getting into a strong program given my background and experience.  I was dead wrong. By the time the application season was over, I found myself on three wait lists, with three rejections, and only one acceptance at my “safety” school.  I had quit my job at the time and it didn’t even occur to me that I could wait another year and reapply the following year. So by default, I went to a small, relatively unknown graduate school.  Now that I’ve been in the field for several years, I am certain that my lack of association with a prestigious MFA program has been a hindrance in terms of getting a teaching position and has also hurt some professional networking opportunities that I could have had.

“Are there any extra classes/minors you would recommend I take along side my art classes that would be of use as an art professor?”

I think any other interests that you have outside of the visual arts can only enrich your background as a person, which in turn has the potential to greatly affect your depth as a teacher. I’m a classical musician as well, and I consistently performed with orchestras and chamber groups throughout college and the years afterward. My association and passion for music has certainly allowed me to connect with many different people in unique ways.  I like to think that my pursuits outside of the visual arts make me more dimensional as a person and teacher.

Final Crit

“How easy will finding a job be when I am through with college, and what should I expect when it comes time to finding a teaching job?  Do you know how easy or hard it is for someone to find a teaching job right after grad school?”

To be completely honest, but it’s brutal. If you want to teach at the undergraduate level, you’ll have to be ready to be an adjunct (part-time) professor for a while (maybe years) before you’re even on the radar for a full-time, tenure track position.  I have colleagues who have been teaching in the field with years of extensive experience who can’t get positions, and who are still applying every year.  The majority of people are not able to get a full-time teaching position immediately after graduate school. Almost everyone I know had to “pay their dues” for several years before they were hired full-time.

As an adjunct, be prepared to have no job security whatsoever, to make peanuts in terms of pay, and to live in anxiety semester to semester about whether you have work or not.  I’ve gotten calls two weeks before the semester started about whether I could teach a class.  I’ve also had classes cancelled three days before the first day of class due to low enrollment.  I’ve had semesters when I taught at five courses at three different schools. I’ve had days when I used to teach at one school in the morning, and then ate lunch in my car as I drove to another school to teach in the afternoon.   A colleague of mine had to move back in with her parents because she was having such a hard time getting work. Another colleague joked that looking for a job was his “hobby.” I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, but it’s true.

“Is it easier for someone who has actually worked in the field?”

I think it depends on the field that you choose to teach in.  For example, if you are in animation it really counts that you’ve worked in the industry before you start teaching. That professional experience is critical to establishing your credibility in the field as a professor, and enriches your background in a dramatic way.


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15 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Do I Become an Undergraduate Art Professor?

  1. I am a public school art teacher with a masters. My next step is to begin working on my plus 30 credit hours. I would like these hrs to go toward becoming an art professor at a collegiate level. Being that I have a bachelors in studio art with a painting concentration, and a masters in art education, would I still need a MFA to move on toward teaching at a collegiate level, or is there an other route that can take me there?

  2. I have been highly considering becoming an art educator myself for k-12. I graduated last year with a Bachelors in Graphic Design. Is this considered an acceptable degree to become an art teacher and if so what is the next step I would need to take- teaching certificate or education programs, etc.? I am living in NY with thoughts of moving out of state in the next few years. Does this also have an effect on any decisions that need to be made?

    • You’ll need to get a Master’s in Education if you want to teach K-12 in public school. I am fairly certain that each state has their own rules for certification, so that’s definitely worth checking out if you are considering a move out of state.

    • I realize this is a few months old now and you may have your answer, but I found a high school teaching job pretty easily with a BFA and a two-week teaching certification course. I’m in Texas, which has better art education in a lot of school districts than you might suspect.

  3. Hi there! Brief history: I have a BA degree in both Art and English (graduated in ’13) and I am currently working full time at my alma mater in the communications and marketing office. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good job with benefits, a decent salary (for the area) and it’s just a beautiful place to work (It’s a small 4-year liberal arts college nestled in the mountains of North Georgia). The only problem is, I just don’t like my job. It does not bring me any personal fulfillment. I accepted it because recent grad+recently married+no money=say yes to anything, but I have always dreamed of teaching. That is where my passion lies. Am I crazy for trying to get into grad school to get my masters in Art when I already have this job? I know it will be hard as hell for me to get a teaching job (and naturally, I would love to teach where I am currently working) but I have been where I am for over a year now and try as might to adjust my attitude, I just can’t get myself to care about what I’m doing here. With my academic background and work experience, what do you think my chances are of success? Also, would you consider FSU’s art program to be a good one, in terms of job placement? Do you have any recommendations? Thanks for your time!
    -Kyle

    • In terms of job placement, it really depends on what kind of college level teaching job you want. Some people want to teach at a community college, others want to teach at a large university, a small liberal arts college, or an art school. Every school is looking for something different in their teaching candidates, so it’s hard to predict exactly what they want to see when you apply. Before you even think about the job application process, I think you should focus all of your energy on getting into graduate school for an MFA, which is hugely complicated for most people. Grad school is terribly competitive these days, so I would recommend really doing your research and giving yourself at least a few years to get in; many people who apply the first time aren’t able to get in, not because they’re bad candidates, but because the number of openings is so scarce compared to the number of applicants. When I applied back in 2002, one school accepted 25 students out of 800 applications. Try these articles I wrote about graduate school:

      “Is graduate school worth it?”
      “How do I choose a field for graduate school?”
      “How do I find the right graduate school for fine arts?”

  4. Hi! I’m considering to apply application to either MFA or Master in Art program, concentrating on Ceramics. Because of the location of the school, my priority choice was to apply to MA. I thought the degree title didn’t matter as long as I could have environment to make my own pieces at master’s level. However, I notice that most of higher education job required to possess MFA, but not MA. I’m wondering if MA choose narrow down my future’s possibility, if I consider to be an educator at college or university level?

    • The degree title does matter when it comes to teaching at the college level. Pretty much all of the higher education teaching positions now require you to have an MFA. An MA will not qualify you to teach at the college level, it will only qualify you to teach K-12 in a public school system.

      • Thank you so much for your prompt response. I really appreciate you answer the question and I’m glad to know about this before I make my decision. MFA seems to be required more units to complete the program, but this make sense more now. Thank you, again!!

  5. Thanks for this helpful article! I have a BA in Studio Art and have been a fine artist for 15 years. I am considering whether to get my MFA in Painting or in Children’s Book Illustration (I work in traditional media, but I would dearly love to illustrate picture books). The skills I want are in Illustration, but I also want to be able to get teaching jobs! Do you think universities would consider hiring someone with an illustration masters to teach fine art classes?
    Thanks!

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