Ask the Art Prof: Is Graduate School for Visual Artists Worth it?

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

“Graduate school. Is it worth the extra chunk of loans? Is it possible to make it as a “professional” fine artist without it? How do I go about getting letters of recommendation if I wait for a longer time after undergrad?”

People go to graduate school for many different reasons. Many go to graduate school so that they are able to teach at the college level.  Others will attend because their undergraduate degree was not in art, and therefore they want the opportunity to study in a more concentrated manner. For many art school students, graduate school provides a way for them to gain a more personal focus and sense of professionalism in their work.

Under the best circumstances, graduate school will allow you to make the transition from making student work to making professional work. For most people, their undergraduate degree is about experimenting with different media, subject matter, and contrasting approaches.  However, after four years of this, many students have complained to me that they can feel scattered and lost. They’re working with so many methods and subjects that there’s no way they can gain any sense of focus. Many students at this point start to feel that they are barely skimming the surface of their subject matter due to the time constraints of their undergraduate schedules.

Looking back at my own undergraduate student work, so much of it lacked content.  What I had accomplished by the time I was a senior was essentially all visual exercises:  life drawings, portrait studies, and unfinished paintings of a bored model sitting on the model stand. None of it was remotely professional, conceptual, or distinctive in any way.

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Figure painting study from my undergraduate years at RISD.

What graduate school should provide is an opportunity to focus on creating a body of work that is personally driven, coherent, and in depth. Basically, variations on a theme. What many undergraduate students never have the opportunity to do is to work with one subject over a sustained period of time. In graduate school, the time for haphazard experimentation should be over, instead it should be a time to concentrate intensively on a specific interest. By the time you finish graduate school, you should be armed with a cohesive body of work that will carry you right into the professional world.

My MFA thesis was a project called “Digging” where I explored the concept of digging through a series of prints and a large scale sculpture installation. My experience working with this one subject laid the groundwork for all of my following projects, and taught me how to engage with my work conceptually. I doubt that my work would have matured the way it did had I not attended graduate school.

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A monotype from my MFA Thesis project, “Digging

While it is possible to “make it” as a professional artist without a graduate school degree, it is tougher.  Not only are you missing out on the opportunity to make a new body of work in a rigorous artistic community, but you won’t be able to foster the kind of professional connections with faculty and other students that are necessary to launching your career. Who you know in the art world is everything in terms of having a professional career, and graduate school is one very effective way to get to know people in the field.

For letters of recommendation, you’ll have to contact your former professors from your undergraduate program.  For most people, email is the most effective way to get back in touch.  Try to make sure that you’re asking a former professor with whom you had a good relationship with, one who would remember you.  I’ve been forced to turn down students in the past because I simply couldn’t remember who they were. Always make sure that you ask first, don’t assume that they will automatically write you the letter. (for example, I have a personal policy that I only write letters for students who received an A- or an A in my class)  Be sure to give your professor enough notice, (about 1-2 months) so they have plenty of time to take care of it for you. This article I wrote  lays out the specific nuts and bolts of requesting a letter from a former professor, and goes into much greater depth about the process.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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Ask the Art Prof Live: Graduate MFA Programs
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“How do I find the right graduate school for fine arts?”

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7 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: Is Graduate School for Visual Artists Worth it?

  1. Love this post!

    Do you have suggestions on which grad schools are worthwhile? I’m planning on applying but worry that I’ll aim too high and get no financial aid or too low and end up with a worse education. In your opinion is it better to graduate without debt from a low-profile school, or with debt from a highly-ranked school?

    • It really depends on what area you want to concentrate on, some schools are better for some areas than others. Personally, I would opt for a highly ranked school with debt, you will certainly reap many more benefits.

      • I’m considering schools for painting, especially those in the Chicago area (For example, I’ve been looking at the Chicago Art Institute which is my dream school, but also the University of Chicago which I’ve heard mixed things about). I’ve been thinking of applying to smaller schools that might offer me better financial aid, but reading your columns have definitely made me lean towards a more highly ranked institution.

        Thank you for the help!

  2. Thank you for the post! It helps me a lot! But still though, as you said, I am a junior art major, and I cannot really tell what I would like to focus on if I continue going to grad school. It makes it even harder for me to choose schools because well I don’t know what field of art I want to pursue. I just love everything about art to be honest. For such people like me, feeling lost in what we’ve been doing, yet longing for higher education in grad school, what advice do you have? Thank you again!

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