When I decided to go to graduate school I was just coming up on my third year working at TV Land Nick@Nite. Fly was about a year old. My professional life was was going ok, but there were a lot of changes happening with the beginning of the great recession taking hold. My personal life was kind of all over the place. I was feeling like I needed some more creative challenges, and an opportunity to work on content that really spoke to my spirit. Basically, I was in need of a change.
The idea first came to mind after a brief discussion with a former professor. We talked about the benefits of graduate school like being able to teach full-time with an M.F.A., broadening my design skills, and applying what I learned as a professional to projects in a setting with total creative freedom. The creative freedom part really excited me. He also mentioned that if I considered returning to Tyler (my alma mater) I could possibly obtain a minority fellowship.
I thought about it long and hard for a few months. There was some hesitation because I thought not working professionally for two years might make an undesirable candidate when I graduated, in case I decided not to teach. With technology and the design industry moving so fast my thinking was that I would miss a lot by not being on the frontline of the industry.
Not having an income made me a little nervous, too. Granted, the fellowship covered tuition and offered a stipend, but would it be enough to cover all of my expenses? After a bit of calculation, I realized that my savings of $13,000 up until that point could supplement my income.
At the end of the day it felt like a win win. Those two years would be what I needed to push my design skills and interests into new realms (and later I'd realize it would push my lettering and illustration skills as well.)
So when I was accepted into the program and offered the fellowship I felt ready to say yes. I gave my supervisor my notice, packed up my Harlem apartment, and moved to Philly.
In hindsight I probably should have applied to another program, to experience a new city, new professors, new people, and a different way of thinking. But my time at Tyler as a graduate student was totally different from my undergraduate experience. Here is how it changed my life:
I got to focus on projects and topics that fueled my creative spirit. My work explored ideas about: getting more people of color involved in design; self-esteem and exercises for self-reflection for young women and girls; and the natural hair movement. It was in those projects that I Love My Hair was born (which started as a social campaign). I had no idea that project would become product I would sell, a Hallmark greeting card, and then a coloring book. Another project, Younique Magazine, laid the groundwork for my second book, although that was not the plan at all. The intention behind this hypothetical publication was to encourage teen girls to focus on developing who they were from the inside out through writing and art. Who knew that almost a decade later that would be the blueprint for Becoming Me. So grad school became a place of exploration and experimentation, and a place for planting seeds for the future.
Exposure to other artists. Although I had lived in New York City I was so busy and tired after my 10-6 that I didn't have a lot of time to connect with other artists. And honestly, I didn't really see myself as an artist back then so making those connections really didn't cross my mind. It wasn't until I moved back to Philly for grad school that I remembered how important it was to surround myself with like-minded folks. Not just the fellow artists in grad-school, but the creative community in the city. Yes grad school was busy, but I felt more motivated to go to art openings, have creative pow wows, and connect with other makers I had met through my blog. Also, even if it only meant being around other artists, designers, and art in passing it helped inspire me and ultimately my work. That environment really supported my creative endeavors and research.
Getting comfortable with public speaking. With my fellowship came the responsibility of being a TA (teaching assistant), which meant teaching a class. Even though my whole purpose for going back to school was to teach I was terrified of standing up in front of a class and delivering a lecture. But doing this almost everyday for an entire semester helped me feel more and more comfortable. That soon prepared me for five years of teaching, which then prepared me for presenting talks, teaching workshops, and other speaking engagements that would come with my freelance work and book signings.
More time to develop Fly. Again, grad school kept me busy, but that inspiring environment and summers off got me super motivated with working on Fly. It was during that time that I experimented with video, doing more interviews, and more original content. I also began to understand the blog as an extension of my online portfolio. By sharing process photos for my projects, my thoughts, and inspiration it showed potential clients how I worked. Fly was a labor of love that resulted in a library of ideas and a lot of opportunities for me as a freelance designer and illustrator.
Graduate school was a period of transformation and refocus. At times it was challenging and frustrating, but mostly inspiring and purposeful. In the midst of it all, when there was little sleep and little time for fun, I couldn't see what would come of my sacrifice, but looking at what I've been able to do with that time of self-work I would do it all again.
So ultimately, you have to decide what is best for your career path, your family, life, and your pockets. Dig deep and determine what makes sense for you.
(Oh and one more thing, I did end up taking out a small student loan and accumulating some credit card debt while in grad school, which I could have avoided with more budget planning. And I didn't get a teaching job right away. But that's a whole other post. You can read a little bit about that transition in this interview with Design*Sponge.)
Are you think about grad school? If so what are your concerns? Did you go to grad school? What was your experience?