Grad School and you? (pt. one of many)

September 2, 2008

Well, I’m still effectively one of the slowest bloggers ever. To be quite honest, I don’t foresee Trade Secrets continuing with me at the helm for a long while– honestly, as someone who is still slowly learning about how to be a good illustrator I think I have a lot to figure out myself! (I still have a few more posts in me yet, have no fear though.) But due to that, the idea of attaining a MFA is often something my mind works back to. We’ve touched upon that a few times here, but recently I decided to be a little more proactive and learn beyond what the college websites and guidebooks have shared. So I wrote a couple dozen MFA recipients from the School of Visual Arts and asked more than a dozen questions trying to learn just what they thought of their alma mater’s program. I’ve received several responses, and will be posting them throughout the next week or two. Hopefully they’ll be as useful to you as they have been to me!

First up is from Elisabeth Alba, an illustrator focusing on the children’s market who just graduated this spring. You can check out her portfolio at!


1. How many people were in your program?

EA: There are around 20 people per class, give or take a few. Since there are two years in the program, that totals around 40 students all around.

2. Did you live in a dorm or off-campus?

EA: I lived off campus. A few people in my class lived in dorms for a bit, but eventually moved out. I don’t hear great things about the dorms. They’re mostly for undergrads too so you’ll feel a little out of place.

3. Did you apply to other programs?

EA: There aren’t many graduate schools for illustration in the US, sadly. I applied to SCAD and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. SCAD offered me money, and I went to tour the school, but I didn’t get a good vibe. First of all, I’m from FL but before that PA, so I was absolutely sick of the south and wanted to move North. The tour was very impersonal, I was with a bunch of undergrads and didn’t meet any other grad students or faculty. You also don’t get a studio space. They offered me money but…. no. I didn’t even visit AAU because I went to tour SVA 2nd and liked it so much I didn’t even bother. I also got the feeling that AAU was similar to SCAD in that it was very impersonal and I heard icky things about them just wanting money, also similar to SCAD. I loved how close-knit SVA seemed. I got that impression from the start. And I met Marshall Arisman and he was just amazing and everyone was super nice. And it’s New York. It wasn’t a hard decision once I visited.

4. Did SVA give grad students a space/studio to work in?

EA: Yes you do, but being New York City, it’s not the largest space. It’s adequate though. It also depends on what kind of artwork you do. I was fine because I work small anyway. Some people did a lot of big things too though. Also, I saw some of the new spaces and they’re a little bigger.

5. I hear a lot of the times grad school can be very competitive due to students competing for fellowships and financial assistance. Did you find that occurring with your classmates, or was it a more enjoyable sort of environment?

EA: Actually… there wasn’t much competition at all. I think it all depends on your class though. Some classes are more competitive, and some aren’t. My class was very easy going and friendly and we all got along great. We just encouraged each other, even when we were applying to the same competitions.

6. Were you working while you were in school, either through SVA, or at a different job, or actually freelancing? If so, was that difficult for you?

EA: I didn’t really work much. Had a few part time jobs here and there, but I kept the majority of my week free for artwork. Did some freelance too, but not much. A few people in my class had part time jobs that required many hours. A few did fine with it, some had to quit.

7. SVA gives a suggested syllabus to follow in their grad student book–is this what most people take course-wise? Or is there some flexibility to take different classes?

EA: Most people take the same classes. It’s a small program so there isn’t much to choose from, unless you take extra audit classes. You pretty much follow the syllabus because… there’s nothing else 😛 You get to choose whether you take painting or drawing first year or second year though.

8. Did you ever have classes/interact with people outside your program? Undergrads, or people in a different MFA program?

EA:Not really. Some of us thought we should have hung out more with other students, but others didn’t. I didn’t really care. I didn’t have time to interact with otherpeople! 😛 Like I said, it’s a very close-knit group and you get to know everyone like family. There’s not much room to meet other people, unless you audit undergrad or continuing ed courses.

9. What sort of professional assistance did SVA provide for you, both while in the program and now as an alum (if any?)?

EA: Well there’s the SVA job board. I’ve never really needed to use it, but I’ve looked through it and it seemed like there were some good opportunities on there. In classes we met a lot of potential employers who we are able to contact outside of class to show our portfolios to. A lot of people get illustration jobs just from the people we meet in our classes. I got a few jobs from those connections. Getting illustration work IS all about connections so just…meet people, take notes, and don’t be afraid to contact anyone that comes in or is suggested to you. Also, sometimes Kim, the assistant chair, emails alum with job opportunities. I got my current bill-paying job from her, and it’s a nice one too!

10. Do you feel that this program helped you to grow as an illustrator?

EA: Yes, definitely! I came straight from undergrad at the University of Florida, where I pretty much learned nothing about illustration, so I really needed to just learn the business and understand everything about the career choice and what clients want.

11. What sort of projects did you work on in the program? What was the most challenging one you worked on?

EA: In the first semester you do a lot of smaller projects just to loosen yourself up and experience with various media. 2nd semester everyone works on a book project. Also, there’s a creative writing class and you learn to write better and be more creative with that. There’s also a computer class, so you do a few small projects for that to learn how to use various programs and make websites. 2nd year you work both semesters on your thesis project. The most challenging? They are all challenging at times. The little projects are because you just want to work on your big projects, so you get frustrated that you have to finish those too. The big projects just because.. they’re so huge and you wanna do your best and you have to work on all aspects -layout, artwork, design, print, whatever final stage you pick. You learn a lot.

12. What do you think were the most positive aspects of the program?

EA: The people. They become your best friends, and it was just a fabulous experience and I love everyone I came out of that program with! Also the teachers are amazing, and they look out for you. It’s just so… nice. I’m really bummed now that I’m done ): And since it’s new york you DO meet a lot of important people and fellow illustrators who are doing well, so you make a lot of sweet connections.

13. What were the downsides?

EA: MONEY. That’s pretty much it really. It’s extremely expensive to go through the program, and extremely expensive to live with. Unless you’re in it with savings or the backing of rich parents… you’re going to have a big loan. I have one! Ugh. There isn’t much money for scholarships either. You can get one based on how well you’re doing… but… it’s not nearly enough. There’s also a competitive one through the school, but again, not nearly enough. It definitely helps though.

14. What is your advice to someone approaching a grad school program like this one, in order to get the most of it?

EA: Be hardworking, listen to the professors and the professionals they bring in because they know what’s best since theyre in it and it’s new york, and MAKE CONNECTIONS. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, don’t tell yourself you’ll do it later or after you graduate. Start early, first semester, and don’t give up. The way to get the most of a program like this is to take care of things yourself. Don’t wait for others to make it happen.

15. What do you specialize in now? Do you think SVA helped prepare you to tackle that field, be it advertising or children’s books or editorial or something else?

EA: Right now I’m slowly creeping into children’s books and a little bit of other kinds of books. SVA definitely helped me. I had no idea what I was doing or how to get work before I came. Now I’ve made tons of connections and I’ve met with people who have started to find me work or who are sincerely interested in what I do. Your final year you pick a thesis advisor to help you with your thesis. If you do children’s books, find someone who is published who will help you! I managed to get an amazing published illustrator as my advisor and he’s given me tons of tips, connections, and he’s even hired me to do some work to help him finish a book. Again, it’s all about connections, I can’t stress that enough!


Thanks again Elisabeth for all your answers!

More results to come!


4 Responses to “Grad School and you? (pt. one of many)”

  1. […] Meg over at the Trade Secrets blog interviewed me about my experiences at the School of Visual Arts. You can read it here: Grad School and You: Part 1 […]

  2. Kath said

    Thanks for posting these interviews! Partly because I know Elisabeth Alba’s work from elsewhere on the net so it was great to see her here, and because I’m finishing up my visual arts courses this april for my BFA hon visual arts at UBC (heh don’t hate me) and I am also contemplating grad school of some variety eventually.

  3. “Grad School and you? (pt. one of many) TRADE SECRETS” ended
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