Questions and Answers:
Choosing a Graduate School

by Judy Adamson


College graduates who want to continue their education in Costume Design or Production at the graduate level can choose from many excellent schools in the United States. There is no single program that is best; all schools have something to offer. The burden of finding the perfect program falls on the student.

The Survey of Costume Programs was compiled for the Costume Commission as a resource for students as they begin the process of evaluating graduate schools. The questions and answers that follow are by no means inclusive, but should provide the student with a starting point.

DO I NEED TO GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL?

While the MA and PhD degrees are generally reserved for dramaturgy and history, the MFA is a widely accepted terminal degree for the theatre artist. It is a national trend in the conservatory schools to hire theatre professionals in the design and production areas. The graduate degree opens the door to teaching on the university level.

It is true that you may be fortunate enough to get an entry-level position or an internship in a professional theatre right out of undergraduate school, but it takes time for an employer to develop confidence in you. A student with a graduate degree will probably be given a higher level job at higher pay.

During the three years of graduate school, you will gain experience and have time to hone your skills in a protected environment while you develop a network of contacts that will help further your career. Good graduate training should help you move faster to your ultimate goal.

AM I READY FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL?

If you have excelled in undergraduate activities and enriched your knowledge with summer experiences, you should have a good idea of the career you wish to pursue. You will be devoting a lot of money and time on your education in the next three years. You must have a goal in mind. You might be New York-bound or want to free-lance in regional theatre. There are opportunities with theme parks and community theatre. You may want a career in film and television. You may choose to stay in education. If you don't have a goal in mind, a year away from school may help you find a direction for your talents.

There is a huge commitment of time and effort required at the graduate level. The combination of course work and production responsibility might come as an unwelcome surprise to all but the most fully dedicated. Graduate schools are impatient with students who are shopping for a career.

HOW DO I PREPARE FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL?

As an undergraduate you should have a broad education including a well-rounded knowledge of theatre. Your transcript reflects the courses you have taken to prepare for advanced work. Graduate schools also look for work experience outside the university base. Acceptance into graduate school assumes a certain amount of experience both in the classroom and the workplace. Discover the level of competition you will face when you apply to graduate school. Take advantage of events like the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) or United States Institute of Theatre Technology ( USITT) to see what other students are doing.

Find out the university's requirements for admission. You must meet the school's minimum Grade Point Average (GPA) and some institutions weigh the final semesters or major course work more heavily. Some universities require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Letters of recommendation, a resume and portfolio will be required by all schools. Your undergraduate advisor should be able to help you develop a portfolio and resume. As an undergraduate, consider every project as portfolio material. Begin the habit of keeping good visual records of your work. Your portfolio should demonstrate your versatility and yet focus on your strengths.

WHAT DO I WANT TO LEARN IN GRADUATE SCHOOL?

You may want to focus on design and will look for a graduate school with that emphasis. If you are interested in pattern making and constructionor want training in the costume crafts or management, you will lookfor a program in technology. If you don't have a clear idea of your goals when you start to evaluate the programs, it will be hard to sift through the options. The more you know what you want, the easier it will be to focus on the opportunities offered by the various schools. If you are absolutely sure of what you want to do, pick the most specialized program you can find.

If you do not know exactly what you want, you might choose a combined design/technology program. This is a safe approach and perhaps the best for those considering a career in education. If you choose to concentrate on only one aspect, you might be at a disadvantage in the employment market. There are more designers than design opportunities in today's theatre so many designers find themselves working in production. However, if a program spreads itself too thin, there is a danger that your training will be superficial and you won't be prepared to do anything well when you graduate.

HOW DO I FIND A SCHOOL THAT MEETS MY NEEDS?

Your advisor will know the reputation of the schools and should have an established network with other professionals. You also should have contacts that you have made through summer work. Jill Charles's Directory of Theatre Training Programs, 11th Edition is a good source of information. Some departments advertise in the theatre magazines such as American Theatre, Theatre Crafts International, or TD&T (Theatre Design and Technology). This Survey of Costume Programs is the newest source.

Begin the evaluation process by writing to schools. Ask for general information about the institution, the requirements for admission, the curriculum, and sources of financial assistance. This is enough information to begin the selection process. You should compare your goals with the options offered by the graduate schools and determine a list that you want to investigate more thoroughly. The Internet is a major source of information.

As you examine the information from the schools, you will have many questions. Set up a phone interview with the person in charge of the costume program at the most promising schools. Make a list of your questions and organize your thoughts. Remember that the impression you give during the interview may affect how they evaluate you for admission.

HOW DO I EVALUATE THE COSTUME PROGRAMS?

Costume faculty. Many people can influence your training including principle instructors, guest artists, and the full or part-time staff of the costume shop. You should try to determine how much contact you would have with these individuals. Guest artists may come and go without learning your name. Working professionals listed as faculty may be off campus more than they are on and your education will be left to the costume staff. Find out where the faculty received their training and if they have the professional ties to help you get a job.

Curriculum. Look at the courses required for graduation. A future teacher will choose a well-balanced curriculum. A production student will eliminate a program that requires too much theory or design. Costume design students are sometimes uncomfortable with programs that require courses in lighting and scenery design. Many schools will access your weaknesses when you are admitted and direct you to courses that will strengthen your background. Ask how flexible the program is in allowing you to focus your studies. Beware of schools that will "tailor-make" a program for you. Production students should be particularly aware of programs that emphasize "hands-on" experience rather than course content. If you don't need the information provided through course work, you should look for the entry-level position and get paid for the work you do. Remember that you are paying for an education.

Production. It will be important to assess the number and types of productions done during the year. These are opportunities for experience, but they are also obligations. Some schools are performance driven, others support a professional acting company and do relatively few productions, and still others work in venues such as opera and dance. Design students want to know how many opportunities they will have to realize their work. It is important to know who makes the production assignments and who will supervise your projects. There must be a balance between course work and production. You should have a clear understanding of how many hours you will be required to work on productions.

Students. The number of students in the program may affect your educational experience. You need to ask yourself if you are self-motivated enough to work without competition or if you would get lost in a crowd. Costumes are not created in a vacuum. Designers often form relationships with directors in graduate school. Collaboration between costume, scenery and lighting designers begins at this level. There needs to be an intellectual exchange with students working in other degree programs.

Requirements for a degree. Many of the professional training schools use a production thesis as the final requirement for graduation. Other programs require a written thesis. Production programs may require a professional internship. You should receive evaluations on your course work and production assignments each semester. The faculty should also evaluate the development of your portfolio. It is common for schools to invite you to continue your degree in the second and third year or dismiss you based on these evaluations.

Reputation. If you graduate from a nationally known school, you can expect employers to recognize the type of training you have received. Departments change and the facts sometimes belie the reputation. Look for a stable environment; you want the program to continue it's good reputation five years after you graduate. Ask where the most recent graduates are working because they are establishing the current reputation of the school.

WHAT SHOULD I LEARN DURING THE ON-SITE VISIT?

Facilities. Of course the facilities and equipment are important, but excellent work can come from inadequate facilities if there is creative energy. If the program is operating on a shoestring, it may be an indication of the level of support that is received from the department or the university. There should be computer technology available for all areas. At the very least, you have a right to a clean, well-lit, safe place in which to work.

Organization of the costume shop. The larger programs will have a well-run support system in place. Generally there will be a costume shop manager in charge of the day-to-day activities. The shop should look well cared for and there should be a pleasant, but business-like atmosphere. Ask how many students work on a show, including undergraduates, workstudy personnel and volunteers.

Current graduate students. The students will tell you what a normal day is like. Ask about the balance between course work and production. Ask what they think are the strengths of the program and what they feel are the problems. You can also ask them about the cost of living in the area. They can probably give you the best information on financial assistance and how to live on the stipend. Ask them where they work in the summer. These students will precede you in the workplace and can be a help to you when you are ready for employment.

Production values. Evaluate the work of the faculty and students. Ideally you will get a chance to see a performance. You should be proud to have a similar production as part of your portfolio. If you feel that you could already do the work as well as the production team, the school can't challenge you. You shouldn't attend a school that won't raise your level of accomplishment.

Community. You should be close to museums, libraries, orchestras, ballet, art galleries. You need to be exposed to professional work. It is important that you feel comfortable with the atmosphere of the community.

CAN I AFFORD TO GO TO SCHOOL? WHAT HELP CAN I EXPECT?

There is a great disparity between graduate schools. Some offer a stipend as well as paying tuition and fees while others require you to pay tuition and fees from your stipend. If you live out-of-state, you may be eligible for out-of-state tuition remission. Be sure to find out what the stipend covers and what you are required to do in return.

If you have a high grade point average, you may be eligible for other university scholarships or awards. Contact the financial aid office of the individual university for information. Departments may have scholarships to give in the second or third year that honor excellence.

Assistantships may require research, teaching or production work. If you are relying on an assistantship, be sure to ask how many hours per week you will be expected to work. The time required, combined with your class schedule and homework assignments, may mean that you could not seek outside employment and in fact some programs prohibit you from doing so.

Regardless of your choice, you should submit a Federal Aid Form (FAF) before March 1st. These are forms for federal assistance and can be obtained at any financial aid office. You will need to file each year, but once you have received aid, the forms will automatically be sent to you for renewal.

WHAT TIME TABLE SHOULD I BE FOLLOWING FOR ACCEPTANCE INTO THE PROGRAM I WANT?

You should request information during your junior year. Begin to eliminate schools and talk to other students and contacts you made during the summer. By the beginning of your senior year, you should have narrowed your choices and begun to make on-site visits to your first choices. Some schools require applications before they request a portfolio. Other schools will view your portfolio and then encourage you to apply.

Schools often ignore their university deadlines for applications and interview at the large spring conferences like USITT and auditions such as United Resident Theatre Association (URTA). Attending these events will let you talk to representatives of many schools without traveling to each one, but should not eliminate the necessity of visiting the schools before you make a final decision. Many schools wait to decide on admission until after these spring conferences. Unfortunately, university scholarship deadlines are frequently tied to early admission. If you wait to apply until after the conferences, you may miss the opportunity to be considered.

Don't rush into a choice. It would be better to work for a year than to make a quick decision. The student who has been out of school for a time may be a more serious candidate for graduate training than the student fresh out of undergraduate school. Students with experience are sure of what they want from the graduate training and their dedication is in some instances, less in question.

I wish you well in your search for a graduate school!

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Other articles that might be of interest are: "A Graduate School Checklist" by Ron Naversen and Stephen Gilliam for TD & T ( Theatre Design and Technology), Spring 1990 and "Choosing a Design Program" by Sarah Nash Gates for TCI, ( Theatre Crafts International ) February 1993.