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Grad School Ruminations

BY HENRY HORENSTEIN

Henry Horenstein

Henry Horenstein

It’s that time of year again when students are applying to graduate school. For those considering a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in photography, there are a lot of programs, but so many more perspective students. The figures are staggering. At Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where I teach, we have almost 200 applicants for 7-8 spots this year. Professor Gary Minnix at University of Illinois/Chicago reports also around 200 applicants for 15 spots in their interdisciplinary graduate program—with about 3-4 photography concentrators.

Other than “will I get in?” the next question most asked by perspective graduate students is probably, “why go at all?”

One of my graduate professors at RISD, back in the day, was Harry Callahan. He liked to say that 2 years of graduate school was like a 2-year grant to do your work. Nice grant if you can afford it. Today, rather than the $1,750 annually that I paid for tuition, private schools charge $30,000-40,000 or more per year, putting that “grant,” for a 3-year MFA program, at upwards of $100,000—$150,000—and that’s not taking into account the cost of materials, living expenses, and 2-3 years of lost income.

Of course, not all graduate schools are that expensive. Public universities have much lower tuition fees, and many times offer programs that are just as good, if not better than private school programs. Many public programs also offer more fellowships, work-study, and low-cost loans to help ease the way.

Still, the question resonates: “Why do it?” Here are a few thoughts on some of the most common reasons I hear.

Reason #1: For an unfettered chance to “move my own work along,” 
as one of my students recently put it

That’s a good reason, for sure, but it’s an expensive proposition. For the well heeled, that may be enough, but the un-heeled may need more of a motive.

Reason #2: To teach at a university

This one is a little more clear-cut. To be considered for a college teaching position, you need an MFA degree. There are a few exceptions, for sure. You might be able to get an adjunct position without an MFA—especially if you fit an otherwise hard-to-fill niche, perhaps in computer imaging. But still, if college teaching is your career goal, you will have to go to graduate school at some point.

Reason #3: To connect with a community of photographers 
and artists with shared interests

This is a worthy reason. It’s lonely out there for a photographer or artist on his or her own. Many people function most productively and creatively in a community. Of course, grad school won’t last forever. Still, it provides a community for a while, one that will hopefully last, at least in some capacity, for a lifetime.

Reason #4: Connections

Many people go to graduate school, in part, because they think they can make connections along the way that will help them in their careers. (See Reason #3.) This may or may not be the case. It all depends on the school, and on your experience there. Usually, students figure that their teachers and visiting artists they meet will be their future contacts, when it is often fellow students who ultimately make up that network. Surely, some MFA graduates go on to become photographers, artists, and professors, but many others go on to related careers as curators, critics, art directors, and they may the ones who end up helping you most down the line.

A few words about teaching as a career (see Reason #2): Teaching college-level photography is a good gig, but there are some caveats. One seems obvious; not all photographers love teaching. Some are drawn to it for the long vacations and seemingly short hours. Good reasons, maybe, but those things alone are not enough. Standing in front of a class can be scary, and will only ever be fun if you truly love teaching.

Another serious consideration for those banking on a teaching position is job availability. College teaching jobs are highly sought after and difficult to obtain—even with an MFA, a love of teaching, and a real talent as a photographer. And the numbers of good, permanent faculty positions, particularly in photography, are hardly improving—certainly not enough to meet the high numbers of MFAs graduating into the job market.

Chances are, too, that even if you do land a college teaching job, it won’t be where you currently live, so be prepared to move. And unless you’re particularly lucky, you can initially expect a short-term contract or a low-paying adjunct position.

For those who really want to teach, high school can be a great alternative to the insecurity and competitive nature of universities. There are excellent photography programs at many high schools, both public and private. Though the hours are longer than college teaching, and you may have to teach other art classes or possibly get involved with other school activities, good high schools often pay well and provide more stable employment than some colleges.

Another plus of teaching high school is that you probably won’t need an MFA. Instead, an undergraduate degree with teaching certification or an MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching)—a 1-year graduate school investment rather than a 2- to 3-year programwill—do the trick. Of course, an MAT is not about developing your personal work as much as learning how to develop your students.

There is much to consider … Ultimately, the decision to go back to school is a very complicated and personal one. But it’s definitely worth asking these questions, and carefully examining the costs and benefits of the degree, before signing on. In our next issue, teachingphoto.com will discuss graduate school choices and how best to make them, as well as alternatives to graduate school. In future issues, graduate schools in different parts of the country and the world will be profiled. Stay tuned.

Henry Horenstein, founding publisher of www.teachingphoto.com, is author of several books, including widely adopted texts: Black & White Photography, Photography (with Russell Hart), Beyond Basic Photography, and Color Photography. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design for 25 years. You can see his work at www.horenstein.com.

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