On returning to Graduate school

The Story so far

Having completed 2 quarters of my MFA in Motion Media Design at Savannah College of Art & Design, I can now share my experience. Most of you are thinking:

“Is Graduate School worth my time since I already completed an undergraduate in the same major, at the same school, and have substantial working experience, and a portfolio?”

I would say that’s a silly question. Since when were there absolute parameters to determine if something is worth our time or how meaningful our actions are? I intentionally made a plan to complete Graduate Studies because I want to become a teacher in the future, and it is much better to get a degree before settling down with a partner or raising a family since my priorities might change by then. However, to answer the question, Graduate School has been sooooooo awesome. I cannot emphasize it enough!! Even though classes have been virtual, I am still learning a lot.

This winter quarter, I was able to take a Visual Effects class in Python Programming for Autodesk Maya and Pixar Renderman, and even though it is not something highly relevant in my portfolio or to things I put online, I find the knowledge has deepened my comprehension in Javascript expression and scripting for After Effects. Besides, learning Python for Maya means I can easily translate the knowledge to Cinema 4D or Houdini. Next quarter, I will be taking Procedural Shader Programming using C++. How exciting! Part of my goal at SCAD is also to deepen my expertise in coding and programming to become a technical director or be savvy in any computer language!

The professors and curriculum at SCAD are great but what really enhances my learning is the environment and room to grow. Each term, we students take 10 weeks to focus on a subject. I believe there are many online tutorials that can easily squeeze what we learned in a 10-week SCAD course into a 6-hour video, but the experience would be different. In school, I get to see other people’s works, learn, and be motivated by them. The course workload is not too difficult and is manageable if you do your work consistently. In school, you feel that there is this “permission” to fail which we might not give ourselves when we graduate. Personally, I believe that education is not just about the classes or the content I receive but the environment and lifestyle we have when we are schooling. What makes my education experience at SCAD an amazing and fruitful one are my peers and professors that make up the academic ecosystem.

Styleframes from CoMotion 2021 Title Sequence

Also, I got the opportunity to work on an amazing Motion Design project for the school: the CoMotion title sequence. It was about 15 weeks long collaboration, and I was enlisted as the Animation Lead to lead a team of about 10 to produce a 2-minute animation video. It was a great chance to exercise my leadership skills and also rise up to the challenge of full virtual collaboration. You can read more about my full experience here.

Personal growth as an artist

This quarter, I learned that my effectiveness as a team member was primarily in art and creative direction. I have reached a point where I have high technical skills but one person can only do so much. I realized that to maximize the quality of the projects I am working on, what I can do give the team as much clarity and coherence towards the end product, instead of living in the abstract and designing without a target. That means that I need to develop stronger storyboarding skills and prepare mood boards that allow team members to inquire deeper into the concept. This is a skill I would like to sharpen during the rest of my studies at SCAD.

Side story & personal thoughts

Going back to Graduate School took some courage for me. I was concerned about relocating and running out of funds before I graduate. I had planned to work a year more at WarnerMedia Studios before enrolling. I hesitated a bit about going back when I received my full-ride because part of me felt I was not ready. One day, I was thinking deeply about it on my way to lunch, and a random man walking towards me yelled at me:

“YOU HAVE THE MIGHTY DAMN RIGHT IDEA!”

I was pleasantly surprised and amused; it seemed as if the man was sent by the Universe to encourage me to move forward (he was possibly referring to how prepared I was on a hot day with an umbrella and sunglasses, ha ha ha).

As I write this, I am only 27 years old. Many times I find myself thinking about how young I am. I think the biggest risk we can take in our 20s is to “be comfortable.” Personally, being comfortable means “going through the motions” and not really advancing towards a goal of any sort. There is nothing wrong with being comfortable. It is just that there is still so much we can do and explore in our 20s. When we are in our 20s, we have this window of about 10 years to get ahead in our life. Something I have realized about adulthood is that you will progressively gain more responsibilities and obligations, such as having a partner, having a family, or a higher position at your job. Essentially, you do not want to catch yourself saying: “I wish I did this when I was younger.”

To the students and recent graduates reading this, just keep this quote and question in mind:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Instead of seeing where life takes you, ask instead: where do YOU want to take your life to?

To dig deeper into how to live your best life, I highly recommend the book Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter And How To Make The Most Of Them Now by Meg Jay and her TED Talk Why 30 is not the new 20.

FAQs

And now for the part you came for! Here are the summaries of my answers to questions that people frequently ask regarding Graduate School at SCAD.

How is it like being back?

  1. I am loving my MFA program, probably 3 times more than my BFA studies, because I have the freedom to do whatever I want. By that I mean I get to substitute about 3 or 4 MOME classes since they are similar to the BFA courses with other classes that I am interested in. And in the classes I am taking, I get to investigate what I am curious about, such as getting better at 3D design and storyboarding.
  2. I have become more aware of how I spend my time and listen to how I feel. In my undergraduate days, I recalled just working non-stop even though I had a proper time management system. I saw every waking hour as a slot to fill up on my Google Calendar. That burned me out and cost me greatly in my last term. Coming back, I told myself many times I do not want the same thing to happen again. It was not time or tasks that needed better management, it was my well-being that I needed to pay attention to. That means getting enough rest, not staying up too late, forgiving myself if I do not perform as well as I had hoped for, and managing my expectations.

How have virtual classes been like?

I have actually enjoyed them more than I probably should because I have such a comfortable workstation at home, and I am able to take a nap after a class since there is no need to commute. When it was time to register for Spring classes, I was in a dilemma about whether I should take on-ground classes or not because I really love being at home, but I also want to interact with people, too! I have still learned a lot despite being virtual, and it has been nice to have class recordings to refer back to especially for complex programming concepts in my Visual Effects class.

Is it Graduate School worth it (rehash)?

Anything is worth your time if you make it out to be. Ask yourself instead: “How can I make this worth my time or how can I make the best of out of this?” I have used the time in my MFA to research and develop what I am curious about, e.g., procedural methods, programming and scripting, developing my YouTube channel, and exercising my leadership and direction skills in CoMotion. You can still achieve whatever you set yourself up for after you graduate and have a job, but when you graduate, time dwindles, and priorities shift, so you may never get to what you want because of “comfort.” So instead of thinking of how the MA/MFA program will work for you, think about how you can make the best out of the MA/MFA program, and what are your intentions and desired takeaways if you do enroll?

Should I take an M.A. or an MFA?

Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”

The cat asked, “Where do you want to go? ”

“I don’t know, ”Alice answered.

“Then, ”said the Cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it? ”

I think you should look into why you want to do a MA or an MFA because each of them has a different purpose for your career. This is not the same as buying products A or B. I recommend not being concerned too much about the coursework but rather ask yourself what each decision will mean for your education, career, and life. Any course will make you a better designer or artist or get you a good portfolio if you do the work, you do not even have to do art school in the first place. Your skills will naturally and progressively get better as you continue to put in the effort.

Here are some questions to help you think about your decision:

  • Do you want to take more time for your education? Perhaps an MFA would be suitable if you like to pace yourself and be exposed to more disciplines.
  • Do you intend to teach in the future? If so, research whether a MA or MFA will give you a better chance of securing a job in education.
  • For internationals, do you just want to work in the U.S because it has better job prospects and opportunities? Then take the MA if you just want to reduce the cost and time in school, and dive straight into employment.

Should I do my Graduate Studies right after my BFA?

The decision is entirely up to you; there is no right or wrong answer. However, I do recommend working a year or two after your undergraduate studies. This is because when you are in employment or hold a job, you gained a better understanding of how you fit into the industry, what your true strengths and interests lie. When you returned to school, you are able to orient your curriculum to your needs because you know what you are looking for. In my case, I realized I was good at coding and scripting when I was working at WarnerMedia Studios, and coming back to Graduate school, I had planned to take all programming classes as I can to deepen my technical expertise and direction skills.

I did ask my professor the same question before I graduated with my BFA. He urged me to do it right after I graduate because he was warning me that I may never get to it after employment. I did not have the funds to do that, and doing a BFA was already enough for me. I do need a master’s degree to teach one day but I felt that it was not the time yet. So I got a job and focus on my personal development and portfolio, which later helped me land a full-tuition scholarship. Funny how life works!

Life is but shipwrecks of our plans. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning.

Any decision you make will be the “right one”; just make one that makes the most sense to you.

Is it possible to balance both a full-time job and do the coursework?

Yes, it is definitely possible. Coming back to school, the workload has felt lighter, possibly because I have more experience and skills after a year of employment. Also, I think you “level up” after your B.F.A., so things are easier, especially when you only need to take 2 classes per quarter as a Graduate student. But at the same time, in the Graduate program, you decide your workload. Do you want it to be light or heavy? It’s up to you to decide how much time and effort you want to put in. The BFA program was more of professors and the school guiding us throughout the 4 years. As for Graduate school, you want to be strategic about how you go about it, e.g., selecting classes that align with your future goals, independent studies, collaborating with your peers, etc.

I was able to manage all the below without stressing about anything, and still have time for weekly long breaks or days off:

  • Be ahead of my assignments for my two classes.
  • Managed my YouTube channel and published a tutorial every two weeks.
  • Participated as an Animation Lead in the most intensive project collaboration, CoMotion.

I think it also comes down to how you manage your life and lifestyle such as by waking up early, working consistently, and taking enough breaks. I get bored easily so I just do more work even if I have fulfilled my daily quota. So do consider how your life and task management skills will factor into balancing school, work, and life.

My Scrum Board inspired by Silicon Valley

How is your routine like?

In July 2020, I accidentally developed a habit of waking up at 4 am and getting to work almost immediately after breakfast. It lasted till mid-Winter and magically resumed when 2021 began, which was perfect because the school term had also started. I think the weather being cold was a factor in helping me wake up because I did not like the cold at all. Below is a documentation of how I operate my life this quarter at SCAD.

General rules

  • I never put an all-nighter or work past 8 pm.
  • I take 2 naps a day; one before and after my 2 pm classes.
  • I get to bed by 10 pm.
  • I take one-weekend day-off
  • I publish a YouTube tutorial every 2 weeks so I can focus on school work and life.

Daily routine

I used Toggl to track the hours I worked each day, below is a breakdown of my average routine.

  • 05:00 am — 07.30am — Work
  • 07.30 am — 09:00 am — Nap 1
  • 09:00 am — 11:30 am — Work
  • 02:00 pm — 04.30 pm — Class
  • 04.30 pm — 05:00 pm — Workout
  • 05:00 pm — 06.00 pm — Nap 2
  • 06.00 pm — 10:00 pm — Dinner, free activities, bed

10 weeks work hours breakdown

Here is a weekly breakdown of my hours worked.

  • Week 1: 22:41
  • Week 2: 29:59
  • Week 3: 34:14
  • Week 4: 30:17
  • Week 5: 24:39
  • Week 6: About 20 hours
  • Week 7 to 10: unrecorded

* Hours are not that accurate since sometimes I may not record them.

Reflections on the 10 weeks

  • Week 3 was rather stressful because there were so many things to do for each class as well as for CoMotion. But from then on, things became easier.
  • In week 5, I noticed that even though I still maintained my 4 am routine, my body told me that it did not feel like working and I listened. I progressively grew weary from then on, and I rested more by taking more breaks or not doing too many things in a day.
  • Around week 6, I started having problems waking at 4 am and woke up at 5.30 am instead (shameful I know).
  • At week 7 and beyond, I did not felt the need to logged my hours worked because I decided to take it easy, just spend the rest of the quarter in a leisurely and unconcerned manner.
  • Around week 8, I developed a bad cough and slept tremendously for 12 hours straight one day.
  • In week 9, I’m waking up at 7–9 am, and I could sleep more if I wanted to. This was strange even though most of the school have wind down.
  • In week 10, I felt restored as the quarter slowly come to an end. I have a hypothesis that it takes 10 or 14 days of low-intensity work schedule for fatigue to go away.

The reason I listed all these is that I want to document the experience of fatigue that builds up throughout 10 weeks of school even with a consistent schedule. A question that I have been asking myself all this while is how does one recover from such fatigue? That is something which I still do not have an answer to. I discussed this problem with a dear friend, and she brought up the analogy of how we are like a computer machine, even though a system can be idle; it is still running background tasks and processes that drain energy. The only way to recharge is to shut down and recharge. That said, being a student comes with the challenge of maintaining our energy in a term, and I think we need a long break to do nothing every once in a while.

How do I plan my day?

A spread from my notebook on how I plan my weeks

I would write the list of things I needed to do for each day in my notebook. It is the first thing I looked at when I sit down at my desk and also the last thing before I sleep. I like to go through the plan for the next day before I sleep. This is the most reliable method I have tried, I am able to stay more committed to the things I need to do rather than scheduling things on Google Calendar or organization or to-do list apps.

I think there is a sense of achievement that comes from physically cross something off a to-do list. It really empowers and helps me stay motivated instead of seeing all the tasks as drudgeries to get to. I don’t always cross everything off my list each day, and I think that’s fine too. Sometimes I rearrange the things I need to do accordingly to my energy level, motivation, or interest level, and basically how I feel. I highly recommend everyone to do this to plan their life!

Conclusion

Thank you for reading this article. If you are interested to see what I am working on or get connected, you can use the links below

Motion Designer based in Savannah, Georgia // Duitbetter.com // nosleepcreative.com

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