This interview features Robert Hamilton, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Robert has two Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees – one from the Jan Van Eyck Akademia, in The Netherlands, and the other from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Robert is a prolific artist and researcher, teacher, and mentor. He provides academic advising and career counseling to undergraduate students. His background and experience make Robert (RH) a great source of advice for students in Fine Arts, as well as in the Humanities. We asked him some questions from the point of view of a student who is wondering about an MFA. We (MGS) were also able to ask a few questions about graduate studies in Communication Studies and Multimedia, which would involve pursuing a Master of Arts degree.
This interview took place between a member of the MyGraduateSchool team (MGS) and Dr. Robert Hamilton (RH)
MGS: Some students may be uncertain about the advantages of having a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA). Can you comment on how a MFA can broaden someone’s career options, beyond the opportunities that are available to those with just an undergraduate degree or diploma? Is a MFA just for someone who wants to remain in academia and teach?
RH: An MFA is recognized as a “terminal degree” (the highest degree in a field of study). It is possible to teach at a Canadian University with an MFA. An MFA is also accepted as a terminal degree in Commonwealth countries and the US. This may change in the near future.
An MFA gives a student the opportunity to travel and live in a new community and to further refine and develop their art practice within a nurturing environment. If a student is not entirely sure what to do after undergraduate studies, an MFA will permit the time and opportunity to explore ideas and continue their work. The value of an MFA outside of academia is also significant and is valued by the cultural industries, NGOs and both the Provincial and Federal Governments.
MGS: How is studying and working toward an MFA different than undergraduate studies in the fine arts? Does it tend to be more of the same, but just more focused? Or are the main activities and preoccupations of a graduate student substantially different from those of an undergraduate?
RH: An MFA differs from an undergraduate study in that it is much more focused. Students have the opportunity to create a cohesive body of artwork. In a sense, an MFA helps students to find their own voice, to articulate their own interests. MFA students typically have their own studio, access to a wide range of facilities and most importantly, time. Undergraduate studies are intense and involve a wide range of occasionally disparate courses. MFA studies are much more oriented to developing a thesis, spending time in the studio and participating in critiques.
MGS: Do MFA programs normally involve a thesis, or is there usually the option of doing either a thesis or non-thesis based program?
RH: While MFA programs usually require both a body of artwork and a written thesis, the emphasis is usually on developing a strong body of work.
MGS: What are the main things that selection committees look for in an applicant? What role do undergraduate grades play in the selection process?
RH: Reviewing committees tend to put a strong emphasis on evaluating the documentation that is sent in. The portfolio is the single most important aspect of any application. The written statement is also important as it reveals the intent and sophistication of the applicant. Grades play somewhat of a role but when committees are reviewing transcripts they tend to look specifically to the classes directly related to the proposed study. In the US, grades seem to play even less of a role. Recommendations can influence a committee so Reviewers should be carefully chosen. Finally, scholarships are typically awarded based on merit, so in a sense, the graduate application procedure itself is competitive and not to be taken lightly. A well-written Statement of Intent can make the difference between receiving a scholarship or having to take up a job during one’s studies.
MGS: When choosing which MFA programs to apply to, do you advise students to focus on the particular schools and their strengths, or should they instead focus on finding an appropriate mentor, based on their specific interests, then apply to the school where this person is located?
RH: Choosing an MFA program requires a bit of research and forethought. Which discipline does the student wish to continue and which University best matches that type of work? Generally I encourage students to discuss their interests with faculty members to get a sense of the broad range of programs out there. Occasionally students apply with hopes to study with a specific Professor/mentor, but more often it’s the reputation of the institution that is seen as most important. MFA programs can vary in a number of ways. Discipline for example; some programs are known for printmaking, others for their painting or possibly digital media.
A major yet often overlooked consideration for doing an MFA: it is a terrific means to live and participate in another city’s cultural scene in such a way that one couldn’t by simply moving there. An MFA student is privileged in the sense that they have a strong purpose and identity that connects them to the larger art scene of the city they choose. This is particularly important for making future professional connections.
Many Canadian students consider applying to American schools and there are many excellent MFA programs in the States. But note that American MFA programs can be incredibly expensive and they rarely offer scholarships to foreign students.
Finally, I encourage students to “throw their net wide,” to apply to as many programs as they can. Four or five is fairly typical. It’s often the case where a student is accepted to the program they thought most unlikely.
MGS: Do MFA students normally have to be enrolled on a full-time basis, or do most programs also allow part-time studies?
RH: Generally, MFA programs are full-time and do not offer part-time.
MGS: How long is the typical MFA program, and how much flexibility is there in terms of time required for completion?
RH: The typical MFA program is two years. Usually the programs are fairly rigid in that they expect students will complete the program in two years, however exceptions are occasionally made.
MGS: How do MFA students finance their studies? Are there usually teaching-assistantships available? What are the scholarship opportunities like? Do MFA students tend to have to work at regular jobs in order to make financial ends meet?
RH: Many programs offer competitive scholarships and nearly all offer teaching assistantships. Scholarships rarely cover more than tuition so a student should assume they will need to find additional funds. Teaching assistantships involve working approximately 120 hours a semester, (one day a week or so) and pay fairly well – nearly enough to live on during school. Students also work outside of school and take out student loans. In some instances, once accepted, students occasionally defer their studies for a year in order to work and save money. Students are well advised to investigate institutional procedures before they apply as some institutions do not offer deferrals.
MGS: There must be a huge range of potential career opportunities available to people with an MA or Ph.D in Communication Studies and Multimedia. What are some of the more common industry or work settings in which people with such degrees tend to work?
RH: A degree in Communications Studies and Multimedia is very practical in the sense that there is a very wide range of employment opportunities for graduates. Graduates find employment in Public Relations, Broadcast, Digital Media Design, Advertising, Government Relations, Policy Analysis, Education, IT, Lobbyist, Animation, Technical Writing, Journalism, Multicultural and Corporate Communications, cultural and critical writing and academia.
MGS: Other than good grades, persuasive letters of recommendation, and a convincing personal statement, are there any other things in particular that students need in order to be accepted into a graduate program in Communication Studies?
RH: Good grades, a personal statement and references are all important when applying. However I would recommend a thoughtful and relevant research objective rather than a “convincing personal statement.” Applicants should be sure to submit all materials on time, in a neat and orderly fashion. Before application, it can be very helpful to meet with a member of the Graduate Committee. A student can both make a personal connection and learn more about the program that together can greatly improve the likelihood of being accepted. A meeting can, among other things, demonstrate the student’s sincerity, passion, and determination; think of it as a job interview and you want to make the best impression.
MGS: To be eligible for admission to an MA program in Communication Studies, is it normally necessary to have completed an undergraduate Honors program? What are a student’s chances of getting in if he or she was not in an Honors program?
RH: Generally yes, it is necessary to have completed an undergraduate Honors program to be considered for a Communication Studies MA degree. If a student does not meet this criteria, they can meet with an Academic Advisor from the Humanities Faculty office to discuss possibilities. Consideration may be made if specific requirements are met: their undergraduate degree is relevant and reasonably recent, their GPA is B+ or higher in the last ten related courses and their degree is from a recognized accredited University. Requirements differ between institutions.
MGS: What, if any, standardized entrance exams should students be taking if they want to pursue an MA in Communication Studies?
RH: There is no standardized entrance exam for a Communication Studies MA.
MGS: Aside from good academic credentials and the other things mentioned previously, are there any kinds of experience students might pursue that would boost their chances of being accepted into a graduate program in Communication Studies?
RH: Relevant work experience can be highly relevant in a student’s application. For example, perhaps a student has worked in television broadcast for two years prior to applying to graduate studies. This would be seen as pertinent by the Graduate Committee and should be referenced in their Statement of Intent. Professional experience can have a significant impact on the determination process.
MGS: Thank-you, Robert, for sharing your time and your thoughts.
RH: Thank you for this opportunity, and I would like to encourage students considering an MA or MFA to directly contact the Director of the program they are interested in for further information.
Special thanks to Bryan James for his time and insight in helping us prepare for this interview.
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