Is it Time to Invest in Grad School?


By: Bill McCool

To Grad School or not to Grad School? That is the question.

Whether you’re fresh out of college, or you’ve been floundering in your design career by working a long, neverending string of freelance jobs— or worse, shudder, internships— you’ve probably considered whether it’s time to go off and get that graduate degree.

We spoke with Ilise Benun, Programming Partner for HOW Design Live and Founder of, and Sean Adams, Executive Director of the Graduate Program at Art Center College of Design and Partner at AdamsMorioka about making that all too difficult decision and whether or not it’s the right choice for you.

What are some of the valid reasons for a designer to attend grad school? What about some of the wrong reasons to do so?

Sean Adams: The primary reason to attend grad school is to further one’s education for professional advancement. A designer may hit the ceiling at one point, either creatively or professionally. Others want to go back to school to catch up on new concepts and technology. Another reason is to explore a specific idea or area of study.

Ilise Benun:  In this fast-changing landscape for designers who may not be progressing in their career the way they’d like to, it makes sense to go to grad school for a resetting of skills for career development. This is not about learning new software, but rather about new ways of thinking based on the changes afoot. For designers just finishing their undergrad and who may not feel prepared to get the caliber of job they want, another 2 years of higher level education should provide that, especially if you’re going for high-level jobs, like “global brand team at Coca-Cola.

And of course, if you want to teach one day, you will need the credentials.

What about some of the wrong reasons to go to grad school?

Ilise Benun: It’s not the right place for learning software and other things you can learn from Or to hide from getting out into the world and learning the things you can only learn from actual experience.

Sean Adams: The wrong reason would be the same as the wrong reasons to join a convent, to escape the real world. Grad school is about expanding a point of view and experience, not contracting.


What should a prospective student look for in a grad school program?

Sean Adams: The overall philosophy and curriculum should be aligned with your goals. Are you interested in theory, craft, experimental vs. pragmatic, technology vs. analog media? Next, look at the faculty. These are the people who have the most influence on the educational experience. Do you feel aligned with their approach? Do they have a broader reach in the profession? And finally, will the degree open new doors via contacts and reputation?

Ilise Benun: Jason Fox, Chair of the Graphic Design Dept. at SCAD, distinguishes between “going back to school” and “going forward to school” which is what grad school is especially. There’s so much crossover of disciplines that it’s important to look for a school that will allow you to build on your strengths (not your weaknesses) to build a truly dynamic toolkit that will show more or better value on your resume. Also, it’s crucial to find out what job opportunities the institution can facilitate for you. Take this very seriously. It’s an expensive decision. The stakes are high. So be sure they can help you get the work they are preparing you for. Talk to people who’ve been placed in jobs as a result of the school.

What are some of the unexpected benefits of attending grad school for design?

Ilise Benun: Depends on the institution but I live in Savannah so I am familiar with SCAD and I know one of the benefits here is that students get a very culturally diverse experience – so many international students. Asian, Indian, European. Beyond the social benefits, that diversity will inform your design decisions as well.

Sean Adams: I’ve been surprised by the tight community created. Maybe it's from being in the same space working intensely every day, or just the shared experience. It’s clear these are bonds and connections that will last for life.


What are some of the biggest struggles for grad school designers?

Ilise Benun: If you’re coming from industry, it’s hard to let go of the desire to do things the way you’ve always done them. If you’re coming from undergrad, you’ll notice that the caliber of education is higher. What was once good is no longer good enough. The teachers at that level are dedicated and it is no longer just about “making” things but rather about the influence and the power you can have as a designer.

Sean Adams: Writing, writing, and writing. It’s been hard to convince some students the importance of writing. Whether its an RFP, creative brief, case study description, or writing books and articles, it's a baseline skill necessary to succeed.

When deciding between more school versus experience in the workforce, are there any particular considerations to make or questions to ask yourself?

Sean Adams: I would suggest asking yourself a few questions. Am I feeling stuck? Do I want a change in direction and am I ready for new challenges? Can I achieve these goals on the job, or on my projects? Would a graduate degree open options for me professionally?

On the other end of the spectrum, are you willing to be open to new ideas and ways of working? Do you know everything about everything already? Do you have the time and energy to focus on the graduate work?  Are you passionate about design?

Deciding whether or not you should attend grad school is a huge decision and a massive commitment, one that can suck up lots of time and even more money. Whichever path you choose, do it for the right reasons and don't hesitate to rely on the network you've already built for advice.

You're gonna' need it.


Bill McCool

Bill McCool is a freelance writer based out of Los Angeles. Though new to the world of design, he has always been a storyteller by trade and he seeks to inspire and cultivate a sense of awe with the work and artists he profiles. When he's not winning over his daughters with the art of the Dad joke, he is usually working on a pilot, watching the Phillies, or cooking an elaborate meal for his wife.

Tips + AdviceBill McCool