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So You’re Thinking About Going Back To School” – Part 1
Reality 9 years ago No Comments

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contributed by Maike C., RID, LEED AP BD+C [design consultant / twenty-something / blogger]

grad_school-1.gifIt’s almost the start of 2011 and the economy is still looking drab. Projects and sales are definitely not where they were in 2008, or even 2007. So you’re thinking, “Maybe this is a good time to go back to school.” Whether you’re thinking about pursuing a Masters degree to further your education or switching tracks altogether – DON’T. Well, at least not until you hear my story and consider what you want to get out of your education. Because, at the end of the day, your education is one of the most important investments you will ever make in your lifetime.

It’s The End of School As We Know It

Or so some of us had thought. I, for one, had always planned on going back to school. After graduating with a BFA, I planned on getting my Interior Design license and going back to get my Master of Architecture. I had a master plan of owning my own design firm someday… and that someday may still be out there, I hope. So it was the end of 2008 and the economy was starting to tank and I had thought, “This is the perfect opportunity to go back to school.” Well, little did I know, there was much more to grad school than I had anticipated. And I urge you not to make the mistakes that I did.

Slow Down and Give Yourself Time

2008 was a busy year for my firm, and I had several deadlines prior to the year-end holidays. My first mistake was that I didn’t set aside enough time to focus on my school search, applications, and portfolio.

Now I know the dilemma for those of you who are currently employed. You’re thinking about going back to school but afraid to let your boss know, paranoid that [s]he’ll fire you if [s]he finds out you’re even thinking of leaving. Well, this is ridiculous. First of all, your education is about bettering yourself. If your boss can’t appreciate and understand that, it may be time to look for a new job anyway. If anything, your boss should be thrilled that you’re seeking to further your education and support you so that you will think about coming back to work after you’re done with school.

But getting back to the point, make sure that you set aside PLENTY of time to research and find a fitting and [NAAB] accredited institution, work on your applications (and everything that it entails), and make, produce, and send out your portfolios.

As a general rule of thumb, legitimate architecture schools only accept incoming students for the Fall Semester and applications are generally due in either December or January prior to the starting semester. This means that you need to pick out your schools nearly a year before starting school.

Keep in mind that some schools do accept students in the Spring, but only on a case-by-case scenario and not on a typical basis. If you stumble across a school that has an open-acceptance policy and enrolls students year round, RUN!! This school is probably “too good to be true” and you need to find another school.

Remember that picking schools is something that you will hopefully only do once (three times in my case), so don’t shortcut this time or process.

Due Your Do Diligence

I cannot stress enough the importance of doing your research. Like I said, graduate school is one of your most important investments. Unlike undergrad, which for me wasn’t an option, graduate school is something that I chose to do. And remember that once you are in school. Graduate school isn’t a second chance to relive your college party life.

When deciding on schools, I recommend three things:

1| First, get out of your comfort zone. I grew up in Texas and attended UNT [University of North Texas] directly after graduating from TAMS [Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science]. For me, graduate school was about getting out of Texas to experience what’s out there and how different parts of the country are in their approach to design. It was about enriching my knowledge while giving me newfound appreciation for where I came from.

2| Second, find a school that has money to give its students – a.k.a. scholarships. Graduate school is an expensive investment and there are no federal grants for graduate students. You will either be burning through your savings (like I did), taking out a huge loan (like I did), or working through school (which I didn’t and highly do not recommend). Most schools will review their applicants for a scholarship along with admissions, but some have a separate application. Be sure to find out about the tuition and financial support program at each school. Some schools offer teaching assistant positions, others offer travel grants, and others offer stipends. Every program is different.

3| Third, apply to a minimum of four schools. Yes, I know it’s expensive. But if you do it right, you should only have to do it once.

While doing your research, take a long weekend to actually go visit the school in person. Trust me, browsing through their website, googling the school, and checking out grad school forums – no matter how many times – just won’t cut it. And this is a good chance to use some of those vacation hours for those of you who are employed.

Before visiting the school, give them a call and set up an appointment. Get the name of the graduate advisor for the department so you have somebody who can answer your questions. Most design programs welcome prospective students to visit their school and sit in on a day of studio. Don’t be afraid to ask to sit in on studio if it wasn’t offered.

Also, ask for the schedule of mid-term and final critiques and see if you can sit in during those if your timing is right. There’s no better way to experience the classroom culture and environment than to experience it first hand. Plus, it is during critiques that you will see the most end products.

When visiting the school, take a couple hours and tour the campus (if there is one). See what the campus life is like (if there is one), or if there are any university-wide activities. Understand that graduate school will more than likely mean endless hours working in studio and being locked up in your department, but check to see if there are any organizations or unique places on campus you can hide out in for those days that you just can’t stand your studio mates.

Finally, explore the city. If you’re taking my advice and spending a long weekend there, find out what there is to see or do… for the off chance that you finish your projects early and actually have some free time, GET OUT OF THE STUDIO. You should not spend a minute more than you absolutely have to in that building!

Stay Tuned
Next month Maike will give us the scoop on the graduate school application process, optimal portfolio preparation, and some (very disappointing) scholarly smoke and mirrors. The good news is that there is a silver lining to this story, which is always a good way to kick off the New Year.