What it looks like to fail a masters candidacy review

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ~ W. Churchill

After spending an incredible amount of time last week finishing all preparations and submitting all of my work for my masters candidacy review I learned last evening that after the hundreds of hours I have spend this past year devoted to my studies I have failed my masters candidacy review by merely 2 points. The process involves students submitting a minimum of 8 projects, process books and design narratives to a committee of faculty who collaboratively review each students work and evaluate based on a point rated rubric system where students receive 1-5 points across 11 defined objectives. The review ratings share with the students the review committees assessment of their work as excellent, good, average, weak, or unsatisfactory. The news has been devastating for me to hear and now I spend the time to reflect and seek out the feedback needed to some how make it past this highly subjective process.

Last week as I completed all of my work I recall feeling a sense of accomplishment and nearly shared my work last week because I know I have had many of you curious to see exactly what has consumed me so much this past year. I know in the case of many of my own students who have or are highly considering transferring to SCAD and my classmates who either already have or will soon undergo a review that you all are curious to hear more of the genuine and honest feedback from a student at SCAD. It is something I never had the benefit of having as I pursued my studies this past year. So though last week I hesitated sharing my work until I received the results and though part of me feels quite self conscious of sharing work that a committee has deemed as a “failing” quality of work I sit here and realize that my objective in life should not be to be perfect. I am not. I highly value learning and I think sharing these experiences and the work I have done to date that I have shared in my candidacy review may not only aide you all in seeing just how subjective the process is, but also somehow help me in this reflective process of figuring out a way of how I will push forward and pass my review the next time around. After failing this time around I am left with sincere concerns of just how subjective the review is and to fail by merely two points make me fear how subjective the next group of committee reviewers may be. Yes, it’s that much more stressful knowing we only have two opportunities to submit work for our candidacy review. If we fail both we are not able to continue with our MFA studies.

So I share with you the process books for the 10 projects I submitted in the order in which they were submitted, which was also the order in which I completed my last year at SCAD. I am NOT ashamed of the work I have done. I do not consider myself the world’s best designer, however, never had I envisioned I would receive a failing score in my review. What I am sharing is not every project I have completed at SCAD. I also wish to remind you that all projects are ones completed for educational purposes so often times things were redesigned or used as a basis for a project, however, I want to make it very clear that my ideas are NOT a representative of any of the organization I have completed design work for. Additionally, I did incorporate some of my own photography in some of these projects and hope every understands that the photographs also are not representative of any of the organizations or individuals who may be in the photographs which are intended to pitch my visual and conceptual ideas for each project.

As you view the process books you may go directly to slideshare (on the bottom right corner of the presentation) and once there you will see an opportunity to view the work “fullscreen” which helps reviewing the details if you care to learn more.

The Neverending Miscarriage
I suppose it makes it that much more upsetting knowing that I, unlike most students, have fought an incomprehensible amount of medical, physical, and emotional factors since miscarrying last fall. This project was an experimental typographic project which I used a fraction of my own writing from last fall. The process book outlines my approach and I still have the pdf online of the 50+ page book for any of you who care to review it more closely.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom book cover redesign
Again, the process book outlines for all projects share the detailed process behind the making of each project.

Design of a Typeface

Design Methodologies process book


Fort Christmas web site redesign

Bodegas multiple version CSS web site

3D product, point of purchase & tradeshow design

Kill Bill 6 social awareness campaign


Homeless Social Awareness campaign

The Map to My Mind
This is the one professional project I submitted. We were permitted only one opportunity to share work from outside of our coursework at SCAD.

And I imagine to some I may sound very bitter about this review process, however, I think what is especially tough for me at this point is understanding how I could fail. I understand and respect the fact that there is a review process in place. In fact, I have been in courses where I am puzzled how some students were even granted admission into the masters program so I appreciate this level of scrutiny of our work. However, I would think the goal is not just to give us input to help us improve but to weed out those who do not possess the abilities and quality of work. I was told today by one of the reviewers that “the committee recognizes your talent and abilities, but feels with the areas noted, will bring your work to a much higher level of achievement.” However, from a student’s perspective and hoping for a process which is learning centered I would hope the goal is not to fail students whose work could be improved. If potential and talent are evident in the work I would think, or hope that this would be the purpose of the required portfolio review course taken towards the end of our degree where students have more than a week to perfect and make updates to projects that are representative of their time at SCAD. When you fail a student by merely 2 points it is completely discouraging and looking back at the rating system I am baffled by the number of “weak” ratings I received. According to the rubric “weak” demonstrates marginal understanding of the criteria and that major improvements are needed.Weak ratings in the following categories leave me still baffled by this subjective process:

  • The student’s work demonstrates a knowledgeable and appropriate application of typography.
  • The student’s work displays a mature and effective use of layout techniques.
  • The student has shown consistent grown in intellectual and artistic maturity since entering the program.
  • Based on observations of departmental faculty, the level of student participation in classroom activities, critiques, discussions, and presentations.

And again, as upsetting as this is I do not share it out of an emotional out lash but rather as a way of both sharing my work and perhaps continuing to take in all the feedback that is shared to help me prepare for the next review. Up until this point I have truly stood behind the quality of my education at SCAD and feel that it has been a positive experience that has broadened my knowledge of not just design but also teaching. And if I were to be brutally honest, though I have learned and experienced plenty about design during my time at SCAD I feel as though my education has only helped me grow more as an educator. What I have taken away most from every course are the positive and negative learning experiences which have shaped me into the educator I am today.

If you happen to take the time to review my work I do value any input you wish to share either publicly if you prefer you may email me privately at amanda [at] amandakern.com. Perhaps I am totally crazy but looking back at all my work I still find it very hard to believe I have failed so just as I encourage in the courses I teach, I value critique and am not opposed to the positive or negative impressions of my work. I think illustrator Kevin Cornell states it best in his article titled, “taking critique”, “Criticism is a necessary evil for growth. We all get it, and we all unfortunately need it.” Yes, Kevin is correct critiques can be like a punch in the stomach but the scrutiny and subjectivity of such diverse opinions of design and art work are certainly necessary in the evolution of learning and becoming a stronger designer, artist and photographer. So as always, I welcome it.

I suppose I am feeling only more discouraged after experiencing such a challenging year. I have always tried so hard to understand the “why” behind being challenged but this past year has only caused me to stop trying to understand but instead “believe” and not doubt that all things happen for a reason…a reason which often times we do not understand. For those that know me best the know that I’m not typically a highly religious or biblical person, but I do believe and this past year has caused me to reflect so much more and some how seek out a renewed sense of faith to help see me through every challenge God throws my way. Ironically yesterday I shared a quote from the Book of James in facebook after trying to understand again after doing on an NILMDTS photo shoot earlier that day. And I now share it as a reminder to myself that some how I find the perseverance to see myself through this tough news that has made me feel like a complete failure after spending hundreds of hours this past year pouring out my heart and energy into my studies.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt…” —James 1:2-6

So now I will “believe” and not doubt myself or the reasons I have now been challenged once again because it’s likely I will never understand.

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September 25, 2010 - 5:16 pm

Lily - That can’t be right! you are one of the most talented and accomplished woman I know. A real inspiration to all of us. What that review board doesn’t know is how you bend over backwards to help your students, no matter how busy you are. Also they don’t know how passionate you are about everything you do. I think that’s one of the problems with an online program. You are so much more than the sum of your projects (although they do stand by themselves). Where do you go from here? Will you be able to tweak a few things for those extra points?

September 25, 2010 - 5:50 pm

Amanda Kern - Lily I really don’t know “where” I go from here. I have only one more opportunity to submit my work for review to continue with my MFA. We can do this at either week 7 of this quarter (just over 5 weeks away) or during the next quarter I’m enrolled, which given the fact that I will take time off to have the baby that will not be until the summer. I will take the advise of my faculty adviser, review committee and any other faculty who care to offer me insight that will assist me in being better prepared next time around. Though to be honest, the subjective nature of this entire process has left me questioning if I truly need to further my design education knowing that I have proven myself in the industry and as an educator. Perhaps there is some other plan that God has that I am still unaware of. But to be truthful I just wish to finish this chapter in my life in order to continue to passionately pursue my career and also my photography & non-profit endeavors. Who knows there may be other big opportunities ahead that will follow once my education is behind me. More importantly I just truly wish to give all this time I’ve been spending in school back to my family. They are the ones who make the ultimate sacrifice in supporting my educational and career goals and as I experience this failure I am reminded and also fearful of how much time slips away from us and before I know it the kids will be grown and I begin to wonder how much I or they will have to remember beyond my time immersed in either books or my computer pursuing my studies.

January 9, 2011 - 12:05 pm

Meg - Dear Amanda,
I found your site today, and could not help but to comment. I failed my 45 hr review last March, and have been working non-stop at improving my skills via any mode possible. The crazy thing is, you are not the first person I have discovered failed just like myself after no indication from professors or advisers. I contacted my adviser asap and explained my situation. I was basically told that I should have known that even though I received As on EVERY project I submitted, I should be better.

So- know that there are others out there that have gone through the exact same thing. I wish you good luck in your future endeavors, and cross your fingers I pass my second time around (next friday). Keep On Keeping On- You can do it.

October 31, 2014 - 3:09 pm

Michele - Hi Amanda,

I came across your blog today after failing my graduate review this morning and feeling a lot like you described. I was told that I lack most of the basic fundamentals of graphic design, though I do have a great work ethic and passion for learning – and despite receiving all As and Bs thus far in my studies. I am feeling extremely discouraged and feeling like I want to just give up on the program all together. I know this was a few years ago now and just wanted to see if you had better luck your second go-around with the review and if you had any helpful words to share with someone going through it right now. Hopefully you still check this and are able to see this comment, but I’m certainly glad to know I’m not alone. Thanks for sharing!

January 31, 2015 - 6:34 pm

Amanda Kern - Michele,
I did take a second attempt – but before I got too far into the process I had to stop…my 3rd child was born with spina bifida – and has had a lot of medical needs so it was not in my best interest to continue – and to be honest, I really wasn’t fond of their process, even with the revisions.

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