Why Grad School?
by Niti Bahn
There is no right reason to choose graduate study as an option,
but some reasons are more positive than others.
I need it to pursue my chosen career path
This is an obvious positive reason for undertaking further study.
Some career paths do require a professional qualification, such
as teaching in a university as tenure track faculty. For design
practice, a graduate degree, although not essential, will provide
a distinct advantage to applicants, particularly when competition
for places is fierce. Research the area of work that interests you
to identify whether such a degree would be necessary or advantageous
It will make me stand out from the crowd and get me a better
This is probably the most common reason that students give for choosing
grad school as an option. Research the specific program or area
of study you wish to enter to identify how potential employers would
view applicants graduating from the school. In some cases an advanced
degree will enhance job prospects. In others, however, employers
may be interested in a strong portfolio, sketching skills and work
experience offered by applicants rather than additional paper qualifications.
I really enjoy design research
This is a highly motivating reason to do a higher degree. Its
worth considering the long-term implications of your choice though.
Does your choice of course fit in with your long-term career plans?
That does not mean that you should only consider graduate programs
related to your area of work interest. All further programs will
enable you to develop skills that you could market to an employer.
Design research can be either delving into user behaviour, cognitive
sciences, user research, or design methodology.
I want to retrain for a new career area
Many masters programs admit students without a prior degree
in design and so provide a way of changing careers. These may lead
to a Master of Design or MFA degree or diploma/certificate qualifications.
The MDes at IIT is one of the most well-known programs for career
changers. Their one year foundation program is aimed at non-design
graduates who wish to work within the field of industrial or communication
While it is also possible to change careers by professional experience
alone, the grounding given by the systematic teaching of basic design
skills is useful for an ambitious designer to be. Other options
are to consider another bachelors degree.
I dont know what to dothis will give me more time
This reason sounds warning bells in career counselors whenever they
hear it. Past experience suggests undertaking another two years
or more of study is unlikely to lead to inspiration! If you choose
a program for this reason, it is important to use the duration of
the course to research what options are open to you, what skills
you have to offer and what you want out of a job.
My professor/employer/friend suggested I take this course
Another reason that sounds warning bells. Students are sometimes
offered places in graduate programs by their professors, possibly
with a guarantee of funding attached. Understandably this can be
seen as a very tempting offer but it does not mean it is the right
option for you. Is the research program of real interest to you
and does it link with your long-term career goals? Graduate study
may be a very appropriate option, but is staying at the same university
the right option, or are there other institutions that are more
appropriate for the area you wish to study? Successful completion
of an advanced research degree requires a great deal of commitment
and motivation, and choosing a program because it is the easy option
can lead to problems if it has not been researched thoroughly.
I want to be a fulltime teacher
Many practicing professionals teach in design as adjunct faculty.
They bring valuable real world experience to their classrooms, and
in turn take back with them the creativity of the diverse class.
But if you are interested in becoming a fulltime faculty member,
a masters degree is a prerequisite. Historically, design has
not had doctoral programs and many tenured professors have a BA
and most have an MFA or MS in Design. Today, an MFA is an absolute
minimum requirement for a university position and many schools are
also advertising for PhD holders. In this case, select the best
schools for your area of interest, ideally those which allow you
to gain valuable teaching experience as a TA or tutor. MFA or equivalent
programs are usually two years in length and research- or thesis-based.
I want to explore my creativity further
Speciality schools have graduate programs with generous independent
study programs and workshops, individual studio space and one on
one advising that allow you to explore myriad facets of your chosen
design field in depth for two years. If you want to expand and enhance
your artistry, this is an excellent reason to consider advanced
study. Cranbrook is an excellent example of this type of program.
The economy is bad; this is a good time to be in school
If this is your sole reason to apply for graduate school, especially
if you are still completing your undergraduate degree, it may not
provide you with sufficient motivation for the rigor of advanced
study. But if you know you would have gone to school anyway, and
the economy is making you take the decision earlier than expected,
then graduate school is a workable option. Keep in mind your future
goals, as many programs are best appreciated after a few years of
work experience. On a practical note, consider the impact on your
finances as well. On the other hand if you have been working for
a significant number of years, and the economy forces you out of
a job, graduate school is one of the best ways to network with the
design community, build and enhance your portfolio and resume while
making friends and working with a diverse and interesting group
Niti Bhan is a global nomad, neither fully immersed in the West nor
entirely at home in the East. With background spanning engineering,
business and design, Niti is most adept doing what no one does best.
Her present incarnation is as Director of Admissions at the Institute
of Design, IIT.