Is graduate school a good idea?
October 15, 2011 1:30 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone gone to a graduate program in graphic design? What was the experience like? And were you able to get a job that would pay off the cost of going into one?

I have been working in graphic design for over 7 years, and have been extremely blessed in that I have been doing a fairly specialized track in design (motion graphics), despite the low demand for it in my town and not really having a degree in graphic design (I studied video art and animation). But all of this is about to change, as my job (and department) is about to close in about eight months, and I am having a hard time deciding what to do.

I know that I want to move out of motion design, and I would love to work for a company like IDEO. I am not sure if a place like IDEO would pick up someone with little training in their field--while I have strong computer literacy skills, my actual design skills are kind of weak. And while that hasn't stopped me from teaching myself the basics of typography, color theory, design thinking, etc etc, I wonder whether I could benefit from a nice mentor.

I keep thinking that I should go into graduate school. However, I've looked at all the programs at the schools I want to go to, and the cost is the biggest reason to reconsider the whole idea. Is it worth it? Are there any alternatives to consider? Should I just drop the idea and look for any job with unemployment and a wintry economic climate looming ahead? I was told that going into a graduate program for graphic design is for people who want to go into the academic side of the field, but it also seems like companies like IDEO seek out people with advanced degrees.
posted by mando to Work & Money (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Generally speaking, if you're setting your sights on landing an in-house job with big-hitters like IDEO, you need either have a very impressive portfolio of varied, high-visibility, inter-discipline work, or be a top-of-their-class student coming out of one of the name-brand design programs.

An advanced degree in strictly graphic design isn't going to help, really. If you look at what IDEO does, you'll note that it's more in the direction of industrial design, though that's far too simplistic, too. They practice an integrated, inter-discipline level of design that requires a leer of training that most schools just don't provide.

...while I have strong computer literacy skills, my actual design skills are kind of weak.

This, alone, will keep the doors of places like IDEO closed to you. They are looking for skilled design talent, not computer whizzes. The computer skills are required, of course, but they are more of a given at that level.

I know where you're coming from, though. I once shared the dream of working in a place like IDEO. It's informed design on a level far above the every-day graphic design practiced by those of us down here on mainstreet. But, the path to a place like IDEO was always a mystery to me. I'd look at the work they do and wonder "How in the hell do you get the skills for a job like that?" That level of design was something I had never even been aware existed until I was too far along to be able to afford to jump paths.

I don't know, of course, where you are in your life. Maybe you can afford (both financially and in terms of family commitments) to chase the sort of design training that would make you attractive to a place like IDEO. It's intensive and time-consuming. If you decide to make that leap, I wish all the best fortune possible.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:07 AM on October 15, 2011

Graduate degrees aren't just for teaching. I think a grad program could be a great way to jumpstart your career. Besides honing your portfolio, you get to take advantage of the school's and professors' contacts and professional resources. At my particular school, we have both an M.A. and an M.F.A. in graphic design - the M.A. would only take one year to complete, and doesn't require the field experience and internships that the M.F.A. includes.

You still may not (probably won't) get a job at IDEO straight out of the program, but you'd definitely be a step closer to that dream.

I think you should just apply to some grad programs and see what happens. There are scholarships available at the graduate level, too. Most people are able to work part-time jobs to pay for or at least offset their living costs - I'd imagine that with your skills, you could probably do some freelance and make a better hourly wage than most of the students I know. Since your job is going away in eight months, you don't have to decide whether or not to leave, only whether or not to try to get a different job immediately or spend a year working on your portfolio first and then move into a better career track.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 5:16 AM on October 15, 2011

I'm only two months into an interdisciplinary design MFA, so it's too early to tell whether or not it'll pay off. It is one of the programs IDEO likes to recruit from, though, and I came in with no formal design training whatsoever. I wouldn't have done it otherwise. Ask me again in May; I'll know by then if I've landed an internship there or not. :)

It has absolutely been intensive and time-consuming from day one.
posted by kiripin at 5:22 AM on October 15, 2011

I did a master's in design, and for me it was a very worthwhile investment. But it isn't for everyone, and I think it's important to go to a good school so that the time and money you are investing result in a diploma that has professional credibility. It's a tough job market out there, and there are a lot of schools that churn out design grads in alarming numbers. Most don't ever get their dream jobs, and many struggle for years to pay off their loans. Of the people I know who work or did work for IDEO at some point, all had at least a master's degree, if not more than one post grad or professional degree. They graduated from design programs at schools like Carnegie Mellon, the Institute of Design, or Stanford, if they studied design at all. Many come from other fields, like engineering, psychology and anthropology. Thorzdad is exactly right that interdisciplinary experience is crucial, which is why focusing on graphic design alone will probably not be enough to propel you into IDEO-type opportunities.

But it's a starting point. When I started my masters, my goal was to become an information designer. Then I got exposed to design research (ethnography), interaction design, and design planning and strategy and realised that there was a whole lot more going on in the design field than I had imagined. There were jobs out there I never even knew existed across a really broad spectrum of design-related work. My two-year masters ended up broadening my thinking and my goals tremendously. Since graduating I've worked primarily in business and strategy, working with clients who want to bring design thinking and approaches to their organisations. It's not at all what I imagined I'd be doing, but I love it.

If you are shopping around for schools, be sure to visit and talk to current students, and also ask to talk to some of their grads who are working. There's no denying it's a risky financial proposition. It's a serious commitment of time and money-- likely close to $30K per year in tuition alone. In my program at CMU, the courseload made it nearly impossible to do much of any outside work (though I got a good paid internship over the summer), and very few students attempted to work a part time job, unless it was teaching at the undergrad level in exchange for a grant or stipend. My view is that if you are spending that kind of money on a professional program, then you do yourself a disservice to take time and energy away from learning just so you can earn a few part-time dollars. You're better off focusing 100% on getting the most you can out of the educational experience, so that you can get the best possible job when you leave. If you are highly motivated, you will get a lot out of a grad program, and it can significantly shift the kinds of opportunities that open up to you in the future. But you should do your homework first, and make sure the program(s) you are looking at are a good fit for your goals and interests.
posted by amusebuche at 6:12 AM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

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