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Thursday, 04 October 2007


Their loss. Our gain!

Although Im tempted to say, "Don't quit the night job", it's likely you would have enjoyed more teaching at that college and subsequent jobs developing from that than what you did afterward or what you're doing now.


"Institutions have their standards. An MFA is now just a basic foot-in-the-door requirement. It's not anything to complain about—it's just the way it is."

Wrong. It *IS* something to complain about. It's a bunch of academics setting up an artificial guild to protect their own kind, and make their own degrees more valuable -- and in the case of public institutions, at the taxpayer's expense. It's understandable, but it's not right, and it's one of the core problems of our higher-education system.

Universities are stuffed with grinders who go from high school to B.A. to M.A. to Ph.D to teaching without ever having experienced the world. I got a BA in American Studies and the Army sent me the military journalism school (quite a good one.) When I got out, I had decided I wanted to continue in journalism, but needed some kind of "credential." I got a master's degree on the GI bill. It was waste of time. One of my teachers was a guy who'd been an MA student while I was an undergrad, and when I came back from the Army, he had a Ph.D and was teaching. He'd never set foot off campus -- and I knew even with the limited experience of running a military newspaper that his ideas about reporting were full of sh*t.

IMHO, any really good school in any of the fine arts or professions should require that their lead teachers have worked professionally in their field, *not* in academia (and not part-time while *really* working in academia) and have been at least modestly successsful in it, before they are hired.


Hi Mike,

I've explored the idea of getting an MFA as a hurdle required to teach photography. I've had 3 close friends who got an MFA in photography, and ironically none are working in the field of photography anymore at all. Of course everyone's experience is different, but I'll never forget what one of these folks said to me upon graduating: "Can I have my $40,000 back now, please?"

You can teach as an adjunct at many schools without an MFA. I'm presently teaching as an adjunct college photography instructor, and the experience has given me second thoughts about whether the financial and time requirements of an MFA would be worth it for me.

If you want to teach, I'm sure there's a college somewhere that would be glad to have you, Mike -- and wouldn't care one way or the other about you not having an MFA.



I got my sheepskin in Education- and nothing was more liberating than telling my supervisor what I thought of his own severely lacking expertise on said subject. It cost me the job- and cut the stress on a few extra years of living...

Mike, you're not that old and your experience would catapult you through an MFA degree in no time. GO DO IT. It's the perfect thing to do while blogging and most schools provide funding for promising students. I for one would love to see your graduating portfolio. I don't claim to know your particular circumstances, but if it's at all possible I hope you are seriously considering applications right now.

This exact thing occurred to me while I was an assistant in New York. I had assisted for a lot of the big names, and my friend was the 1st for one of them. We agreed that we had achieved the practical goal of graduate eduacation, a PhD. in photography, but not the political one, the sheepskin.

We were fine with this as our goal was to use the knowledge in our pursuit of a photography career, but more than obvious was the inability to document that education.

I wouldn't look back.

Shows that it's a universal phenomenon:

Paper beats scissors.

It's just a piece of paper – what do you want to be academic or photographer. You can't be both!

Why don't you just do it right now? With your experience, you'd be done in no time. It would be almost like a hobby.

MFA, PHD, BFA, etc, etc.
The silly labels imposed by society.

Mike, despite never meeting you, you are certainly the best photography teacher I have ever had, and I am glad you did not get swallowed up by an institution.

Their loss and our gain indeed!

Bracciano, Italy

No time to regret. As you say, we are the sum of our choices. And I am sure you like yourself? Not all people like themselves, unfortunately.

I made a similar choice: I took a 1-year Postgraduate Diploma in communication instead of a 2-year Master. Bad choice in the state of Denmark. Here nobody knows what a PD is. But I had other priorities: To write some more books instead of studying. And my choice even forces more further into that direction now. Which is a good thing :) I am sure I will get a good job soon. But no teaching jobs, and I can live with that. I want to produce something instead.

Mike, I don't think anyone would disagree that you need a degree to land a decent conventional job (with exceptions), but the arts aren't conventional. Theoretically, and in hindsight, would you advise Ansel Adams to enroll at Brooks?

So what's stopping you from going for the MFA now or in near future?

Albert Schweitzer returned to medical school in his mid thirties to become a surgeon to allow him to help the medically deprived of Africa,so don't give up Mike if you've got the drive and ambition most things are attainable.

No MFA = No Job

So, does this mean that someone like Winogrand wouldn't stand a chance of getting a teaching position these days? I pity the students.


I work as a staff photographer at a university. The job requires a college degree. It doesn't matter what that degree is -- mine's in economics, for Pete's sake -- but you have to have the degree. It's not rational, but it's the system.

Your photos wouldn't cut it in any MFA program. Sorry, Mike.

Your photos are well composed, properly exposed and are appealing. All qualities that are not found in photographs made by MFA candidates.

Start your own school Mike.

Mike, with your blog and its readership you're probably more influential in the world of photography than any MFA teaching at a college. For what it's worth.

Well Mike, teaching is not all that you think and in my opinion many programs are more detrimental than beneficial. I taught for 15 years and while still in academia, I am no longer teaching (per se).

Also an MFA is NOT essential, a NAME and connections have more weight than most realize. A certain person you know from the Corcoran now teaches here with a BFA from CSA.

I say throw your hat in the ring if you see something of interest!


i can just join in with most of the comments above: the system sucks, so be glad not having got too much involved in it. in fact, it is bad as it is, it is not just so... the status quo has to be challenged!

Though not being an expert, i agree with Joe Lipka. Your work - so far as i've seen - is very appealing and encouraging for everyone who is just having fun making photos (captures , images, shots - to please anyone on any philosophical level ;-)) it needs not to be weird in order to be good, or art.

Further, i am not sure that most of the work diplayed on LL would make it in art schools. That's not to say that art schools are right.

But then again, i am no expert. The only thing i can say for sure, is that it's good havin TOP and such resources.

If you care, get your MFA. But i think it wouldn't change that much. It would have changed a lot in the past, but not to your goods. That is what i think, because you seem to be that literal "did it my way"-guy.

On last point: don't try to pursuade anyone to submit themselfes anlong with their creative potential to the prevailing paradigm of conformism.

And don't forget to have fun!

Oh well...as the saying goes, your gain, our gain.

Wow, such an interesting topic. And a frustrating one too. I agree with John Camp, this is just a matter of economics, keeping the greener patches for those who belong to certain guilds, and which will obviously support them when their turn comes.
And about energy economy, requiring some sort of degree reduces the need for employers to really get to know employee prospects. Especially in front of the establishement, if your new employee burns down your company building but you hired him according to ISO 90000 safety rules your ass is covered.
In short, I think all this reduces entropy to a minimum. But creativity is entropy, in my opinion. And making the top priority in an artistic environment to reduce entropy to near zero levels is a very conflictive policy. In the long run this might not even be economically healthy.
In the meantime, we have to play by the rules in our best interest, put on the sheepskin of our choice, and manage not to feel too guilty about previous decisions or present disguises (guilt for some of us can be a strong energy-draining factor).

"Then again, if I had an MFA, The Online Photographer wouldn't exist and you would never have heard of me. So consider this website you're reading to be something of a silver lining!"

And I, for one, am most grateful for that. I think it was Mark Twain that said, "I never let my schooling get in the way of my education."

Personally, had I the option of an MFA or reaching the number of people that TOP does every day, I'd opt for the latter every time. You've shown that true knowledge of a subject doesn't need paper proof, despite what the "educated" crowd says.

I appreciate this discussion. I might have missed it, but I don't remember seeing anyone mention what I think is a major reason for MFA studies, which is not only working with insightful and concerned professors but also getting to hang out and engage in discourse considering practical and theoretical issues, nuts and bolts stuff as well as worries and dreams, with talented and/or passionate photographers. My experience is the MA in Creative Writing at Syracuse. Decades later, eight books and hundreds of journals pubs later, I am deeply grateful for the friends I met there who have gone on to establish themselves as some of most interesting poets writing today. Finally, one of my former students, just beginning her own MFA program, recently wrote to tell me she feels similarly inspired by the "frightfully good" writers she is now counting as colleagues. We should all be so blessed to be among such company.

John Blakemore, (England's greatest living landscape photographer?), once laughingly told me that he did not qualify to get into the college where he was in charge of their photography program.

"your experience would catapult you through an MFA degree in no time."

Au contraire...
No doubt the school would want you to take nearly a year of undergrad art history stuff that you already took way back when you were an undergrad. It's a business and the goal is to keep you in the school paying tuition and fees as long as possible. Experience doesn't mean squat to academics.
I'm an adjunct college photo instructor and it's clear that the trend is toward part-time and adjunct employment.
Academia is outsourcing, just like every other business.
BTW, the department chair asked if I'd consider getting a masters degree. It didn't matter if it was an MFA. A masters in anything would suffice. Oh, and they wouldn't pay any more, it just helps the school in its accreditation score.

For better or worse, one has to deal with this as with many other things. That's just the way they are, but not necessarily fun, or right, or the way they will remain. What you have commented on is the result of a culture of scarcity.

In the case of positions in various institutions dealing with art, there is necessarily an elite, who get ensconced and then brick up the doorway into a narrow slit, partly because they need to (not enough demand and therefore very few opportunities on the inside) and because they want to (if it was hell for me to get here, then by damn I won't let just anyone in -- they have to suffer too, just like I did, and should be just like me, because I am obviously a superior being or I wouldn't have gotten here).

Much in the software world used to be like this, and still is in stuffy backwaters, but things are changing there, and in many other aspects of life. With new technologies and global markets we have new opportunities, and this, as we can see by the presence of "The Online Photographer", various forums and online magazines, image publication sites and online galleries, is being felt in the photography world as well.

If one wants to work in a museum with terrazzo floors, marble columns and hushed silences, then there will always be the prerequisite of acceptance by the priesthood. Too bad. Humans are like that. I decided long ago that anyone who didn't have the good sense to hire me was someone I wouldn't want to work with anyway.

Paul Graham, the web startup funder, has a good essay on similar topics in his world. Here are some of his thoughts on degrees and opportunities:

"In a big, straight pipe...the force of being measured by one's performance will propagate back through the whole system. Performance is always the ultimate test, but there are so many kinks in the plumbing now that most people are insulated from it most of the time.

"So you end up with a world in which high school students think they need to get good grades to get into elite colleges, and college students think they need to get good grades to impress employers, within which the employees waste most of their time in political battles....

"Imagine if that sequence became a big, straight pipe. Then the effects of being measured by performance would propagate all the way back to high school, flushing out all the arbitrary stuff people are measured by now. That is the future....

"What students do in their classes will change too. Instead of trying to get good grades to impress future employers, students will try to learn things. We're talking about some pretty dramatic changes here."

Mike Johnston and his readers perform. That's OK by me. We can wave politely at the faces behind the glass in the fortresses as we pass by.

(See Paul Graham's essay "The Future of Web Startups" http://www.paulgraham.com/webstartups.html)


I'm sorry to hear of your angst over that missing degree. I have some empathy, though I know, from experience, that I lack both the patience and the skills needed to teach. The MFA as well.

The course you have followed seems harder, probably less rewarding in money and time off, but... you also haven't had the stress from the life in a university, the infamous politics, and have possibly been more creative, and relevent to the world.

Germane to the conversation, here is an interview with the author, Jim Harrison addressing MFAs. He is addressing writing, but it is pertinent to all creative fields.



Your photos wouldn't cut it on an MFA because they don't come attached to lengthy essays filled to the margins with metaphysical abstraction about the nature of self, the environment and urban decay.

When I was doing my bit through the credential mill (MBA), I recall listening to one of my microeconomics professors explain to us the idea that most degrees are actually a form of economic 'signalling'. That is to say, most people looking for a job with a new degree in hand are not actually advertising that they know anything useful to the employer in any direct, immediate way. What they are doing is signalling to a potential employer that they have the ability to take on a large, cumbersome, and bureaucratically hobbled task and not succumb to apathy and distractions, and are able to successfully complete their course of study.

IOW, a degree proves that you have what it takes to stubbornly slog through the new bureaucracy, since you have done it already at the university. The actual tasks an employser expects you to perform will be taught on the job.

Mike, Mike, Mike...

Surely you understand that it's all about money and marketing. Would you send your son to an expensive school whose instructors carried no greater certification or credentials than "Hey, they're pretty good"?

Question: College presidents are paid several hundred thousand dollars each year (many earn many multiples of that) to do what? Answer: Raise revenue! These folks are principally high-brow salespeople and lobbyists, not academics. Salespeople must believe that they truly have a competitive (nay, superior) product, the baseline of which is making sure that every egg in the carton bears some form of "legitimate" certification. It can be an MFA. It can be having a world-renowned reputation. (Sorry, but having a popular, thought-provoking photography blog doesn't yet qualify.) But these guys have to be able to sell something for tens of thousands of dollars per student per year.

Is there any true value to an MFA? As Ted noted so eloquently there certainly can be. But even he immediately qualified his position by writing, "A good MFA program means...". So what does a "bad" MFA program mean? As more vo-tech schools offer "degrees" we're beginning to see more flimsy "real" academic credentials. For example, is an MFA from (Chicago's) Columbia College equivalent to having and MFA from (New York's) Columbia University? They're both "Master of Fine Arts" degrees.

But I am wandering.

I agree that academic credential requirements for soft stuff (like the arts) can seem (and actually is) terribly arbitrary. But it makes much more sense when you simply pull the string to learn who stands to profit from your credentials.

Personally, I spent many years (and dollars) earning requisite hard academic credentials to practice a profession that I ultimately never entered. But I do not regret a moment of the experience, as it provided me with a truly wonderful education and, more importantly, a lifelong state of curiosity.

Funny that John Camp and Max Hertelendy mention that academics create these "guilds" to protect themselves. Although far from wrong, it is a very similar situation to the cries of photographers about how microstock is ruining the profession, because any Joe with a camera can now sell pictures.

The truth is that the academic process, besides the obvious purpose of training, serves as a testimony of proficiency in the designed field. Would you fly with a guy that said "Don't worry, I've never been to a pilot's school, but I can do it"? Or have surgery with a "self-taught surgeon"?

Besides, at least in my field (natural sciences), a PhD alone won't get you anywhere, if you don't have a good record of scientific publications, which are peer reviewed and subjected to very hard scrutiny. And a record of approved research projects and success in scoring research grants. I'm sure that for a M.A. it would be similar, as pointed out by Ted Fisher.

That said, I do agree with them in a sense. I am a "grinder", who went straight from High School to Undergrad to Master's to PhD (not finished yet), and sometimes I wish I had taken some time off. Because of this "grinding", sometimes I do consider myself lacking enough experience to take over a faculty position. But I know that without the training I had during graduate school, I wouldn't be qualified for it at all.

As they say "Those that can't do Teach"

Some of the comments supporting the advanced degree approach point out the environment of talented colleagues and teachers; that this environment was only available in school. I think those folks need to get out more. Talented colleagues and teachers exist out in the real world, also. Successful folks in all fields have much to teach about success; bosses and clients have much to teach about critiques. I was in engineering school, studying structural engineering, a very challenging and creative - if you paid attention - field. The enrollment in that discipline was small until they brought in a guy with 20+ years in the practice, and who, after gaining an MS going to night school for 6 yrs, regaled the students with examples of real projects and real solutions. The department grew, the students were excited ... and the university moved him to an outlying jr. college because he didn't have a PhD. Later, while a senior engineer, I was given a trainee from my alma mata. He had taken some advanced classes and bragged that he could analyze a design problem to within .1% of perfection. That was impressive since we can't even estimate the load conditions that create that design problem to within any better than 10-15%. If I'm pinning my reputation on someone I'm hiring, I would want proof of performance more than "credentials." I think that in the creative world, where there are no statutory rules, deeds are more important than words.

If you are tempted to find a way to obtain a MFA, only undertake the effort if you can find a way to bite your tongue :) for the required number of years. BTW, did Bill Jay have advanced degrees?

"Would you fly with a guy that said 'Don't worry, I've never been to a pilot's school, but I can do it'? Or have surgery with a 'self-taught' surgeon?"

No, although I read once that some of the best bush pilots in Alaska have never taken a flying lesson. But your examples certainly point up the dichotomy between things that really require certification and those that don't. I think that with my basis of experience and hard knocks I could add something to a photography MFA program that a pure academic wouldn't be able to provide. But I not only want my surgeons and pilots to be certified, I want them to have gone through a process that will flunk out the people who aren't actually good at what they're doing. I watched one of the electricians working on my old loft in Chicago and he was just a terrible craftsman, really, really bad. I'm sure he knew which wire went where, but he had no sense of how to do the mechanical aspects. He put in a ceiling fan that I honestly thought was in danger of coming down on our heads one day. He was so bad I hired another electrician to come in and re-do some of his work, in cases where I thought it might be a risk to me to leave it the way it was. And presumably he had earned whatever credentials electricians have to have. A "good" accrediting program would have flunked his ass and kept him out of that particular profession.

My parents had a friend who was a top executive at Coca-Cola. He had a corporate jet but no MBA. When I asked him about this issue, he said he wouldn't hire someone with his own qualifications even as a floor manager at a bottling plant. And he was like the #3 or #4 guy at Coke at the time.

In some ways I'm sure today's hiring practices are just a fashion. Human beings are intensely pack-oriented. We do so many things based on what's in fashion now, many times without realizing why we're doing it or even what we're doing. When that family friend was hired at Coke, it was the fashion for companies to find bright, competent people and hire them regardless of their qualifications, assuming they would pick it up and learn on the job. And some of them did. Now it's the fashion to specify every last little qualification the applicant has to come in with, and I'm sure some of those people do very well in the positions they're hired for, too. But neither one is entirely "right." Both can still have limitations and both have cases of failure. I'm sure there is such a thing as a bad surgeon. It's possible that the pendulum will swing back again, and it will become fashionable to hire people who are "differently accredited." Of course that still won't have any effect on surgeons and pilots, one would hope.

Mike J.

"What they are doing is signaling to a potential employer that they have the ability to take on a large, cumbersome, and bureaucratically hobbled task and not succumb to apathy and distractions, and are able to successfully complete their course of study. IOW, a degree proves that you have what it takes to stubbornly slog through the new bureaucracy, since you have done it already at the university."

Excellent point, and they're probably on to something there. If I recall correctly, car salesmen (maybe not anymore, but at one point in history) were much more willing to write car loan applications for college grads than for non-grads. Apparently research showed that people who graduated were much more likely to repay their loans and not default. I would guess that that's a characterological issue, not a direct consequence of anything learned in college but simply an indication of the kind you're talking about.

Mike J.

To answer Thiago, I'll say I've drawn my conclusions from the bussiness world, in which I have experience, not so much in the arts world. I've worked in big corporations and seen how a lot of high ranking executives choose who's going to get a job just because the applicants come from the same business school as they do. Just because that brings them more prestige, and some support when they themselves jump to other enterprises. Ridiculous in terms of efficiency in big consumer business, a lot more in the arts world, I believe.
I just don't think you get the jobs for the right reasons these days. I'm qualified and still I can get more jobs because of who I know and the way I'm labeled than what I'm really capable of. And that's a fact.

The "the dichotomy between things that really require certification and those that don't" isn't even that clear, except after the fact. My field, law, won its monopoly a long time ago and is so powerful that it's actually a crime to practice law (i.e., "do the law craft") without the proper licensing (or the proper degree -- it gets a bit complicated). My wife's field, secondary school guidance counseling, is beginning to achieve its monopoly. 10 years ago, I believe, one could be a school guidance counselor without a paricular kind of degree or certification. No longer.

Same with doctors and architects -- though each erected its gate at a different time. Private detectives, however, haven't succeeded in erecting a monopoly of their own -- I'm pretty sure anyone can hang up a shingle and call himself / herself a "private investigator".

I don't know enough about the history of photography to say for certain, but surely the "requirement" of having an MFA to be taken seriously as a photographer, or as a a person capable of serious photography instruction, is a very recent phenomenon. My guess, though, is that the MFA-wielding photographers will (if they have not already) succeed in establishing their monopoly. It's hard to stop the movement that direction once the gatekeepers are also the beneficiaries of the system.

Mike, I hope I'm not being too "Zen" here, but I believe:

1. There's more than one way up a mountain.
2. There's more than one mountain.

One more observation: If you knock on someone's else's door, you have to meet their standards before they'll let you in. The alternative is to persuade them to knock on _your_ door. This may require activities such as tireless networking, marketing, and self-promotion, but there's no free pass either way.

A friend of mine has a MFA majoring in photography from what would have to be an excellent school considering the credentials of the instructors he had. He sometimes considers his degree the worst mistake he ever made as when he graduated he was incapable of taking pictures anymore, he could only talk about them. He says almost everyone he studied with felt the same way and other grads from the university I have talked with often have extended bouts of being unable to make pictures.

Regards, John

I agree with most comments above, what goes on in certain fields of academia is somewhat (or completely) ridiculous but look on the bright side... at least you're not going after a teaching position around here. I need a PhD to be a professor as masters will only make me a teaching assistant.
In special circumstances there are unofficial ways around those requirements (as in grads/undergrads can be TAs & masters only to teach) if you're willing to put up with the fact your name won't be mentioned anywhere. They'll find someone with necessary titles to sign off on everything but never actually appear in front of the class while you do the work.

I'm still trying to find the quickest way to jump through all the hoops...

I think part of the problem with the credentialism versus education dichotomy that seems to apply these days (in some fields at least) comes from the perverse incentives built into "the system". If, for whatever reason, the credential is perceived to have value while the education it supposedly certifies is not, then I think all kinds of problems can arise.

Institutions that provide both education and certification have every incentive to charge high amounts for the certificate (because of its economic value once certified) while cutting costs (things like quality of instruction and other components of actual education). That, I think, is one of the reasons the traditional professions separate education from certification. What's the value in a law degree from a school that that doesn't teach you enough to pass the bar exam or a medical degree when you haven't learned enough to get a license to practice? Lower, I expect, than an equivalent degree from a school that does teach you enough.

And if, as some have suggested here, the real value of academic degrees is that they demonstrate your ability to tolerate the mind-numbing bureaucracy, newspeak and double-think needed to survive in the modern acadamic and corporate worlds, rather than the acquisition of actually-useful knowledge, then we're much closer to the world of "The Glass Bead Game" by Herman Hesse than we really should be.


My comment is directed at both John Denniston and Puplet's comments: I have often wondered where the all the incomprehensible verbosity comes from that surrounds much of today's art photography. Photographers like Jeff Wall for example, and he's just one example (no offense, Jeff!)..how do they learn to talk like that about their photography? I can't make it through one paragraph without having to go back to the beginning to start again...and more than once, i have to admit..well, thanks for finally filling me in..they learn it in their MFA programs! Ahhhhh...so..seems that not only can you not teach without an MFA, neither will you ever get Chelsea gallery representation and haha, forget MOMA! So that leaves the rest of us with, um, what, Flickr? Crap..guess i'm off to Ebay to sell my cameras :(

Don't pet the sweaty stuff.
Those who can — do.
Those who can't — teach.
Those who can't teach — manage.

In 40-50 years you won't care. Or maybe 20-30 years. Or 10-15 years. Maybe less. Maybe more. All I know is that we're all fertilizer sooner or later — pigskin or not.

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