By Scott Bakal
Higher education. I entered into a Master’s Program some years back and made education a significant part of the work I do in life which I maintain along side my full time illustration and art projects. It’s not easy but each feed off each other in a way that has become very fulfilling. I’m constantly inspired by the conversations about art and new ideas I encounter as a teacher through other professors and students. In turn, the work I do as an illustrator informs my teaching. It’s a good circle to be in.
Frequently from students and, occasionally, professionals I am asked questions about going into a Masters program. It’s a topic sometimes revolving around a bad job market and wondering if these sorts of degrees will help their chances getting work or help them improve as artists and illustrators. It’s a fair question.
My own story of how I got to decide to go into a Master’s and which one I decided to choose is complex. I spent years dismissing the thought of working toward anything higher beyond my BFA from School of Visual Arts. I finally made a decision when many variables lined up properly and it made sense to seek out a program and choose one that would work for me.
These are some of the various questions I’ve collected that I’ve been often asked. Hopefully, this will help give some light on different facets of the decision to move forward and how to choose a program.
Do I need a Master's Degree as an illustrator?
No, of course not. There are many that lack even Bachelor degrees who have done quite well as illustrators.
In teaching, I tell students that they will likely go through their entire life as an illustrator and not a single client will ask about their grades or their schooling. If they do, it’s probably more conversational than a test. Art buyers want to see your work and a history of doing good work.
I’m not suggesting undergraduate education is pointless. A new artist does have to learn their craft somewhere. In most cases, there just isn’t enough information to high school students or from their families to go out and find other educational angles to achieve the same goal outside the norm.
Do I need a Master's Degree as a new illustrator?
Many students are thinking about going right into Master's programs. I’m often surprised about this. My usual comment to them is ‘before you jump right into a Master's Program, are you sure you want to be or are even going to be an illustrator?’ I often get a laugh when I ask this at schools because the answer might seem obvious at that moment - but it is a very important question, especially when I and many others see the realities of how many illustration students do not remain illustrators.
I've recently spoke to someone I've known for a long while and she was a graduate from a top 10 art school. She got a full-time job in a related field in New York City while she got her act together to start illustrating. After a few years seeing first hand how the business works, she told me that she was going to end up in another field than illustration. She met too many illustrators that just couldn’t earn enough and she wanted to have ‘a normal life…and that requires money’.
My usual recommendation for any student just leaving an undergrad program is to wait a couple of years and make sure that it’s where you want to be before you incur additional student loans.
There are exceptions to the rule. Everyone has his or her own path. I know quite a few current illustrators that went right from BFA to MFA and are doing fine. But, I could count them on two hands compared to the thousands that graduate every year who end up not even being an illustrator.
Do I need a Master's Degree to be a teacher?
The simple answer is no. The complex one is ‘maybe’.
At many schools around the country like my alma mater, School of Visual Arts; most teachers don’t need Master’s degrees because they are all considered ‘adjuncts’ at the school. To be an adjunct, a terminal degree is generally not needed. Also, a school like SVA is a private school so that system can be more flexible. It gets tricky if you want to teach at a university or state school. In those cases, yes, there may be rules in place that require all teachers, full time or adjunct to have a Master’s. Some private schools are getting stricter about this rule as well.
If you want to teach full time, then most likely, yes, you’ll need a Master’s degree. At the very you may need to sign up for a program as part of the terms to getting hired. To reiterate, it’s largely dependent on the school and their policies.
In short: a Master’s degree is becoming more and more important for getting hired as a teacher. If you want to have a wide range of possibilities and choices in selecting where you work, then a Master’s is probably the best way to go.
But then you have to ask the question:
Do I even want to teach?
Teaching is not for everyone. Oddly, I’ve been asked about getting Master’s Degrees from illustrators for teaching purposes who’ve never taught a proper class in an institution. I know some artists who discovered they do not have the patience for teaching and/or academic environments. I strongly recommend teaching as an adjunct at one or two schools for a few years before making any decisions about an MFA for teaching purposes.
Which program should I sign up for?
Each program runs on its own logic and has their own strengths and weaknesses. There aren’t too many major MFA in Illustration programs so it should be fairly easy for anyone to research, visit and figure out what they want as artists and what the program can offer to fulfill those needs.
There were two schools I was considering and each offered what I wanted in different ways but for one of the programs, I would have had to be there consistently every week for the entire duration of the program. That was a problem. I’ve been away from the ‘student lifestyle’ for quite some time and working as an illustrator for 10 years. I had life expenses that would require me to continue working so cutting any income out just couldn’t happen.
I decided on a ‘Low Residency’ program after honing it down to two schools. I chose the University of Hartford run by Murray Tinkelman. To be clear, I started at Syracuse University and received a Master of Arts degree there but as that program was winding down and Murray was creating the Hartford version (a much more fulfilling program) I walked out one door into the next and got the terminal MFA degree.
The ‘Low Residency’ model is meant to be a program for working illustrators and considered a ‘professional’ program. This means applicants are preferred to have (but not a rule) 5-10 years experience working in the field. Coming into that program, it was usually under the assumption that you had a significant client base and understood the business of being an illustrator. It’s not necessarily a program of drawing and painting classes either. If you want to improve on that, you certainly can and there will be someone there to help you with that. Most wanted to expand themselves creatively in their own way and in their businesses as illustrators and artists.
Figuring out what you want for yourself is very important and will help dictate which program you enter and whether it fulfills those needs. Do you want to improve artistically? Improve your business? Expand your teaching role? Being honest about yourself and what you want to improve in yourself will not only help dictate a program that works for you, but define what you want to leave a program with.
When I started a program a little over 10 years being an illustrator, I was very keenly aware of what I needed and wanted to get out of a program which drove me to make sure that I got the education I wanted which made the costs and time commitment very worth it. Reflecting back 10 years later since I started the program, I can say that it was one of the best choices I’ve made and certainly changed my life.