The Blessing and the Curse of Graduate School

There is a term among river rafters that describes the feeling of bewilderment, depression and confusion they experience after a rafting trip as they leave the tranquility and escape of the river to go back to normal life. It is called “re-entry.” Many serial rafters have a ritual for how they ease back into their daily routine. It usually involves padding the trip with time in populated areas with traditional amenities so that the shock of society is lessened, and the transition back into everyday life is manageable.

Looking down on whitewater (photo: Brooke Chornyak)

Contemplating re-entry. (photo: Brooke Chornyak)

I have recently graduated from North Carolina State University's graduate program in graphic design. And I find myself, along with many of my fellow classmates, attempting a re-entry of my own. When I first applied to graduate school, I had what I imagine were similar goals and aspirations for my education as many of my colleagues (at NC State and other institutions). I imagined graduate school to be the opportunity that I had been missing in my professional life—a chance to explore, push boundaries, immerse myself in new topics, ways of thinking, experiences. Grad school was, of course, all of that. It was liberating at points, frustrating at others. It was transformational. And while I knew all along that I likely wouldn't want to go back into a traditional role as a designer—or project manager, art director or client consultant—I struggle to define an alternative. That is the blessing of a graduate education. It is also the curse of it.

Many of my fellow classmates feel as bewildered as I do. We find ourselves wanting to continue our work outside of traditional design settings. Thinking about design and ways of communicating within the limitations that are typical of client work will not satiate our creative, independent urges. We find ourselves unwilling and unable to re-insert ourselves into these environments because of our exposure and experiences over the past 2+ years of speculating, exploring, failing (and sometimes succeeding). Is there a place for us, we who are straddling and negotiating boundaries that are unfixed? We are not worried about failing. In fact, we embrace that opportunity. Failure is liberating, and telling, and exciting. In order to fail, we must put enough of ourselves out there to be at risk. We are interested in how people understand design and also how they might change it, own it, tear it apart and reconstruct it. The notion of 'measuring success' has taken on new meaning—it is not absolute. We want to understand our world, to think about how we understand each other, what makes us love something, hate it, react against it, champion it or be complacent about it. And while many of us griped about the challenges we faced during our graduate educations, we now find ourselves wanting to continue it—to find opportunities to work together and extend the explorations that we only just began.

On the inside looking out (photo: Brooke Chornyak)

Ready for the real world? (photo: Brooke Chornyak)

So the question becomes, who are we designing for? Is it for ourselves? Is it for the public? Obviously, in school it was primarily for us. And while the undergrad experience prepared and excited us for the real world, the graduate experience has invited us to question what it was that we thought was “real.” So our re-entry to the professional world becomes about reconciling what we thought we knew and what we now think we know.

Much of the design world—especially the most successful designers and design firms—work to define methodologies and apply identical or similar approaches to the work that they do, and become known and successful for that approach. What grad school taught me was how nimble and flexible that approach really needs to be. That it's less about defining or designing a formula and more about looking at situations and contexts and designing not just an object, but a system for that set of particulars. Even more than that, the role of the designer is not just to respond to a problem but rather to identify and call out issues and problems that exist in our lives and experiences. This is what is exciting about design. That is where I want to live in the design world.

What does this mean for us? Some of us are cobbling together work that is a mixture of the mundane and the experimental. Some of us are going back into settings in which we are familiar, with the hopes that we can find some new stimulation there. Some of us are trying to make a new way—in education or practice. But I think all of us are seeing our future not as climbing some ladder of measured success, because success as a designer has taken on completely new meanings. It's not about design awards or titles; it's about personal satisfaction, and research, and finding new ways to understand our world. That is the thrill of design today, and we are not willing to give that up just yet, or ever.