For most post-undergraduate designers, the biggest challenge after college is whether to head straight into the workforce and experience the real world or to find the right graduate design program to earn an MFA. I found the answer to these questions is a combination of both. Working in the real world and attending graduate school go hand-in-hand.

I spent the past year and a half, straight out of college, working in the industry as a lighting designer, technical direction intern, and master electrician before applying to a graduate program. Practical work experience should never be overlooked. Internships, summer stock, and professional gigs are three of the best ways to learn basic skills and make connections. A year of work will quickly reveal whether or not designing is for you, or at the very least, it will fine-tune what you want to specialize in. Working after college is essential, in my opinion, because it provides the added edge needed to succeed in grad school.

If you are looking to get started and in search of a job, there are a variety of great websites to visit. Backstage Jobs (www.backstagejobs.com) and Playbill (www.playbill.com), free sites that provide updated listings in almost all technical fields, are great resources with which to start. ARTSEARCH (www.tcg.org/artsearch), a subscription-based service that is also circulated as a printed issue, contains current listings as well. Many college theatre departments subscribe to ARTSEARCH and can provide listings upon request.

If you are serious about earning your MFA, then consider attending the University/Resident Theatre Association (www.urta.com) auditions, held yearly in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in late January and early February. U/RTA is essentially speed-dating between you and the top graduate schools in the country. It requires a lot of prep work, and the day will be nerve-wracking while your portfolio is reviewed. You will be dead-tired by the end of it, but it is one of the fastest and best ways to narrow down your school selection.

It is important to explore some programs before going to U/RTA. Specific programs only accept students every three years, while others take students every year, and some are hit or miss, based on funding. If there is a program you are dead-set on attending, but it is not accepting applications at the current time, then consider an internship, a year-long tour, or another job in the industry until the school is looking for applicants.

One benefit of attending U/RTA is that it saves you money in the long run. Schools often waive their application fees for designers who attend, and at $60 to $100 per application, it adds up fast.

Another little-known fact is that many state schools will waive out-of-state tuition fees for non-residents during their first year of grad school. Remember to change your permanent residence by your second year.

When you do find a school that interests you, research, research, research! Look through brochures and websites to make sure the program offers what you want. Ask yourself some basic questions: How many shows will you design while you are there? Is being able to teach an undergraduate class important to you? Does the school offer a work-study program? Will faculty members allow you to accompany them on professional gigs? Most importantly, find a program that has a mentor whom you find amiable and with whom you can collaborate. There is nothing worse than being miserable for three years because you do not like the head of your design program.

The two most important things to focus on, regardless of your future endeavors, are your résumé and portfolio. Both should be updated regularly, or you will spend hours trying to recall what, where, and when you did something the night before an interview.

A strong portfolio and résumé will get you noticed immediately. In an industry where everything is talent-based, documentation of photos, videos, and assignments with clear, concise explanations are necessary to illustrate your design concepts to others. Many designers have established online or digital portfolios in addition to hard copies for easier distribution.

From my experience, working for just over a year enhanced my résumé and portfolio to be competitive enough to get into a great MFA design program. During that time, I learned a lot of useful tips from professionals who have been in the business for a number of years. I also know that I would not be attending CalArts or have an amazing opportunity to work with the LA Opera if it were not for auditioning at U/RTA and having a diverse portfolio.

R. Christopher Stokes is an MFA candidate in the Lighting Design and Production program at California Institute of the Arts, as well as a lighting intern at the Los Angeles Opera. He received his BA in theatre from Bucknell University.