No Master But My Own: The Role of the Postgraduate Degree in the Life of an Artist
by Sarah Rose Sharp

Silver Lining by Sarah Rose Sharp

For the past five years, AICA-USA has conducted an Art Writing Workshop in partnership with the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. The workshop gives practicing writers the opportunity to strengthen their work through one-on-one consultation with leading art critics. Sarah Rose Sharp was mentored by Susan Snodgrass. We have invited  Art Writing Workshop participants to post a piece which was developed in program, and for the first time this year we are able to present the results here for your reading pleasure. Go to the Arts Writers Grant Program for information about how to apply for the workshop. - Amei Wallach, Founding Program Director, Art Writing Workshop


This article is an examination of the conflicts surrounding professionalization as an artist, particularly the impacts, positive and negative, of attaining a postgraduate degree in the current economic climate. The author analyzes reports and writing on wider trends with respect to postgraduate education and careers in the arts, as well as performing personal interviews with six individuals regarding their personal grad school experiences and the impact higher education has had on their artistic careers and practices. This is a work of living research, to establish conclusions that are ideally both personally useful for those questioning the suitability of a postgraduate education for themselves (including this author), and for those more generally interested in the subject of professionalization within the art ecosystem. All views not directly attributed to an interviewee or other sources are the author’s own. Full article to be published at a later date.


Let’s begin with a common conceit: in an era of increasing professionalization within the arts, it is necessary to get a postgraduate degree (typically an MFA) if you hope to succeed as an artist. The “terminal” degree is touted as the single pathway to career actualization—but if you examine the fine print, you’ll notice it is not an explicit guarantee of it. In reality, a hard look at the numbers surrounding the advantages of pursuing a postgraduate degree call very much into question who, in the end, are the true beneficiaries of this system. As a working artist and writer, I find myself at the precipice of professionalization, wondering what moves I should make to better support myself in a calling that feels meaningful. Too often, artists accept financial insecurity, precariousness of long-term goals, and compromises to lifestyle decisions like retirement savings or starting a family; postgraduate degrees are promoted as a smart move in setting one’s art career on solid footing. A host of hard data tracking the careers of artists following graduate school tells a slightly different tale.

In general, I see people struggling with debt, forced into the often-diminishing returns of adjunct teaching, and attempting to eke out time and space for a creative practice amidst a score of other professional obligations that are necessary to meet the lowest tier in their basic hierarchy of needs. In fact, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Needs [1] might be a good jumping-off point to illustrate the fundamental paradox within the psyche of the artist, and what makes this calling a particular challenge. If we assume that this model is correct, the average human is motivated to pursue life objectives in the following order:

  1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.
  2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
  3. Love and belongingness needs - friendship, intimacy, affection and love, - from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
  4. Esteem needs - achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

Speaking generally, art and artistic pursuits would fall within this final category, the self-actualization and expression positioned at the very tip of the pyramid. In reality, there is a wide cross section of artists that prioritize the needs in this category above almost all other needs, foregoing the stability and freedom from fear (Stage 2), compromising all kinds of interpersonal relationships (Stage 3), and sustaining major blows to their esteem through lack of recognition (Stage 4)—all to make room in their lives for the fruits of Stage 5 self-actualization. In extreme cases, there is the highly romanticized “starving artist,” who literally forgoes even some of the basic needs, like food and sleep (Stage 1), to make way for art. When we look at other professions, it is rare to consider that the predominant trend among practitioners is to regularly forgo basic, underlying life-support structures and amenities in order to do their job. Among artists, it is de rigueur.

Here I will attempt to make a tricky argument: art-making as a calling is exactly like other professions, and it is also unlike most other professions. Like any other job, art requires practice, concrete skills, knowledge, supporting infrastructure, interaction with other professional occupations, and—crucially—labor and attendant remuneration for said labor. In this way, it might be likened to a very rigid and conventionally non-creative field. On the other hand, art is exceptional as a profession in the sense that it cannot be entirely regulated; it relies a great deal on inspiration (which cannot, to the great dismay of placemakers and advertisers, be dictated). Also, the rules manifest differently for each practicing artist and change all the time within the field as a whole, and art represents a function of our animal nature. There are examples of art-making at the dawn of human existence, before society was sufficiently developed to ensure the basic needs of all of its participants (one would argue that this continues to be the case, when human society is taken on a global scale). And there are examples of art-making in non-human creatures (largely domesticated mammals, such as gorillas, dolphins, and elephants, but also in untrained, non-mammalian populations, such as bowerbirds). [2]

In this respect, it is perhaps useful to consider artists to be like nurses—there are a series of qualifying conditions that one may employ to become a materially better and more effective professional nurse and healer, however, even a completely untrained human being can and will take steps to care for an ailing loved one, and that care can potentially improve the health of their patient. But here, again, there is a basic difference in the outcome of professionalization—there are dire (and understandable) consequences to practicing professional nursing without training or a license, and there are, likewise, highly reliable career prospects and material benefits for those who graduate with a nursing degree (and a commensurate increase in benefits with further degrees—for example, a PhD). I am not attempting to debate the value of nursing versus art-making within society, or whether nursing is adequately recognized and compensated with respect to the hierarchy of professional healthcare (spoiler alert: it isn’t). Instead, I am suggesting that, like most professional pursuits, nurses are not expected to do their job merely because they care about it. When they work, they are paid. When they professionalize, the degrees they earn typically correlate with greater prospects, greater job security, and greater earnings. Can the same be said about artists?

One of the leading examinations on the hard numbers of the disparity between the ostensible value of graduate and postgraduate education and its real-world impact is ongoing work by BFA/MFA/PhD, a think tank that accrues information about the impact of debt on artists and connects people to organizations fighting the rising costs of rent and education. In 2014, they released “Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists.” [3] The results, which draw from the 2012 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau (that collects information from roughly 1 out of every 100 persons in the nation), are sobering. The first topline finding is that only 10% of arts graduates are working artists, following graduation, and only 16% of working artists are arts graduates. These are outrageously bad numbers, when one considers nursing—our corollary for the purposes of this argument. In a survey of 2011 graduates from BSN and MSN programs, conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the study found that 88% of BSN graduates and 92% of MSN graduates had job offers within 4-6 months of graduation. [4] The survey additionally found little variation for prospects based on school type and institutional characteristics—inarguably different from MFA programs, wherein a strong systemic preference is shown for just a few highly competitive and incredibly expensive masters programs. [5]

And yet, among the initiated and the uninitiated, there is a prevailing sense that the path to career success in the arts requires a post-graduate degree. I have personal reason for skepticism surrounding the American collegiate system, and I find this tough to swallow, but the only real way to know if an MFA (or arts-related masters of some kind) is the right choice for me is to do some research on the ground. To this end, I opened up a series of dialogues with different artists and cultural workers (see below), examining a cross-section of about postgraduate experiences, and asking them reflect upon the impact postgraduate education has had on their careers and to make a case for their educational choices. Going into the conversations, I identified these as the most concrete fears and concerns I have around pursuing a postgraduate degree in the arts:

  1. Debt – This is the biggest problem. My own tenuous and lovely little arts-based existence is only made possible by my strategic leveraging of a few assets within a zero-debt existence. I can afford to make nothing (which is, conveniently, what arts writing pays!) because I have a live/workspace that supports itself. A regular expense like student loan repayment would threaten the fabric of my existence and my ability to devote time to the things I love – writing about and making art.
  2. It is a Ponzi Scheme – Let’s allow for a moment that the MFA is a necessity for a successful art career. That still does not make it a guarantee of one. Institutions benefit, sure, and so do a few art stars in a few programs, but even the most competitive programs turn out graduates that fall at different points along a continuum for success. The risk I assume in pursuing a masters might actually be far more beneficial to others than it is to me.
  3. Process Interference/Practice Disruption – While obviously the point of pursuing an MFA is to expand and alter one’s practice, much of the work I make is process-intensive and involves a library of found objects built up over years of having a stable workspace. How much of my personal practice can I carry over to the MFA studio environment? How important is that? Will the deadlines, reading, and research attached to a MA program disrupt the writing career I’ve already begun? How valuable (and how rare) is the stake I’ve already made on my own?
  4. Mismatch with Thought Leadership – You can do your research, you can imagine you’ll align well with a program, but at the end of the day, your academic future and the career connections offered by a program are going to come down to how well you get along with your cohort and your instructors. I do not consider myself unique among artists in having problems with authority and legendary social awkwardness. What if the people tasked with helping me succeed just straight up don’t like me?

My interviewees, introduced below, put a lot of thought and energy into their decisions to pursue postgraduate degrees, and were generous in sharing their experiences with me. Within my many conversations, the topline advantages of getting an MFA within the context of a professional art career fell broadly into these categories:

  1. Practice Time/Space
  2. Exposure to Thought Leadership/Cohort/We <3 to Learn
  3. Necessary Credential for Academic Career/Blue Chip Gallery Representation
  4. Network/Connections/Alumni Cohort
  5. Graduate Show/Exposure/Access

Here is a more detailed look at the anecdotal experiences of six postgraduate-degree-holders that work in varying capacities within the art world, and some analysis of our conversation.


Ben Hall [6] (BH): Artist/Gallerist, Young World/CEO & Chef, Russell Street Deli
BA: Bennington College; MFA: Columbia University

Alison Jean [7] (AJ): Interpretive Planner, Detroit Institute of Arts
BA: Davidson College; MA (English): Bread Loaf School of English; MA (Education): Columbia Teacher’s College; MA (Education): Bank Street College of Education

Laurenn McCubbin [8]  (LMcC): Artist/Associate Professor of Foundations, Columbus College of Art & Design
BFA: School of the Art Institute of Chicago; MFA: University of Nevada at Las Vegas; MFA: Duke University

William Powhida [9] (WP): Artist/Arts Writer/Program Coordinator, AICAD Schools NYC Studio Exchange
BFA: Syracuse University; MFA: Hunter College

Jackie Rines [10] (JR): Artist
BFA: Alfred University; MFA: UCLA (expected completion: 2017)

Lan Tuazon [11] (LT): Artist/Assistant Professor of Sculpture, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
BA: Cooper Union College; MFA: Yale University

This article aims to examine the role of postgraduate education for creative professionals, dealing with aggregate data and individualized experience to offer both the micro- and macro-view of the challenges to and benefits of professionalization within the art ecosystem through higher education.



Headquartered in New York, AICA-USA's membership comprises over 400 critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States.