Back to School: From Career to Calling

by Ann-Marie Conrado, IDSA, Associate Professor, Industrial Design at the University of Notre Dame

May 19 2021 - 12:47pm


At the 2020 International Design Conference, a panel moderated by Carly Hagins, IDSA, Notre Dame MFA ‘20, asked the question, “Is graduate school worth it?” For those considering a return to school, it’s instructive to consider the two dominant approaches to graduate education today.

The first is primarily geared toward industrial design instruction and skill acquisition for students seeking linear pathways to mastery, closely aligned with advanced undergraduate education in its structured pathway. The second is focused on independent research projects, investigating substantive and timely design topics to contribute knowledge to the design discipline. These programs offer recent ID graduates and professionals an opportunity to pivot their career focus while opening up the possibility to teach at the collegiate level. Both are needed and necessary but offer dramatically different expectations and experiences, alongside the differences in support for funding. Furthermore, the growth in non-terminal degrees in complementary fields offer students MA or MS degrees in everything from human factors to product management to anthropology. These are important distinctions to consider in light of one’s own goals and aspirations when considering a return to the classroom. 

The University of Notre Dame’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program falls into that second category, offering a terminal degree through design driven research projects and undergraduate teaching experience. We offer candidates the opportunity to pursue a topic or interest of their choosing, dedicating themselves to deepening their expertise through projects likely challenging to undertake in commercial settings. Our fully funded three-year program provides a tuition waiver and an annual stipend to support students financially allowing them to focus completely on their research endeavours alongside a wealth of additional funding opportunities to pursue beyond the classroom experiences from research trips to conferences to professional development.

MFA candidates have the freedom to craft their own trajectory, utilizing the faculty expertise not only within our department, but from across the spectrum of a national research institution. The opportunities to engage with other constituencies with shared synergies deeply contextualize design studies within the broader spectrum. The academic research undertaken by graduate students utilizes the form of a series of projects or more aptly, case studies that are vehicles to investigate various strands of design knowledge disseminated with the larger design community through publication, presentation and competitions. This body of work prepares students both for an academic career if desired but also for those intending to pivot their professional work in new directions. 

Charlotte Lux MFA '11, Defining patient-centered design opportunities in stereotactic breast biopsy

A scan of graduates over the past decade highlight the various pathways students come from and move on to after their time with us. Charlotte Lux MFA ‘11 returned to academia after working in industry as a means to pivot her career towards design research, a more personally fulfilling direction, moving into a variety of senior research positions with top consultancies upon graduation.

Kevin Phaup MFA '16, PACK Rapid Shelter System

Kevin Phaup MFA ‘16 parlayed a background in architecture to explore the communal responses to sheltering and rebuilding in the wake of disaster, traveling to Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes to conduct crucial on-site research while contributing to relief efforts. Now a tenure track faculty member at James Madison University, Kevin continues to utilize design education as a vehicle for response to social and humanitarian issues, including an impressive response to our current pandemic.

Shreejan Shrestha MFA '19, DIYO Lighting 

The more untraditional background of Shreejan Shrestha MFA ‘19 includes a BFA in visual communication design and self instruction in industrial design due to the lack of formal ID education programming in Nepal. His focus on the intersection between a modernist design and the vernacular aesthetic often associated with art and craft heritages has opened up opportunities post graduation for entrepreneurial endeavors, particularly in his association with ND IDEA center for commercialization.

Jason Carley MFA '23 Candidate, MYO Mix Your Own Household Cleaners

And finally Jason Carley, MFA ‘23 candidate, left a decade long consulting career to pursue his deep interest in sustainability, engaging with our Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values to simultaneously taking coursework in the GLOBES program in environment and society for a multi-disciplinary grounding in the skill sets, methodologies and policies integral to addressing environmental challenges.

Graduate studies in Industrial Design at Notre Dame affords the appropriate candidate with an opportunity to shift the trajectory of not only their own career, but also an opportunity to pursue meaningful and substantive design projects with impact. Notre Dame embraces a vision that is rooted in purpose and passion, through a commitment to our shared humanity. These principles animate our belief in the considerable power of design to put into practice these values of social responsibility to each other, to our communities and to the planet. Deciding to return to grad school and pursue an MFA can help a design professional figure out what is truly meaningful to them by more closely aligning their practice with their passion. 

Reach out to to start a conversation about whether an MFA at Notre Dame might be the right opportunity for you.