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Project Runway: a lot like grad school

Project Runway is a lot of grad school. Competition is fierce; some contenders have strong academic backgrounds, others not so much. The one common thread grad students and Project Runway contestants share is vision and determination.

Heidi Klum in June 2014
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Heidi Klum is the equivalent of a grad school celebrity professor

Not every grad school program has professors as precise as Tim Gunn or Nina Garcia. Even fewer are likely to have sympathetically responsible professors like Heidi Klum. On tonight’s episode, Heidi Klum noted that designer Angela Sum deserved to stay despite her poor design because Sum took the judges (professors) advice from a previous session.

Like Project Runway judges: Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia, and Zac Posen, grad school professors convene and discuss a student's work. In grad school and on Project Runway, students with an aversion to criticism get kicked out or they quit.

Nina Garcia’s critiques may be painful, but designers work harder or grow bitter and retaliatory. Heidi Klum also delivers rough critiques. She’s the celebrity professor everyone hears is nice and then signs up for the class to experience academia outside of the box.

Some graduate courses are taught by multiple professors. Thesis and dissertation projects require a committee and are judged and graded by a few professors. Last night's episode asked designers for an abstract. The designers were asked to create one piece that spoke to their vision of an entire spring line.

On the Project Runway series at the end of the season, designers show one coherent collection of eleven to thirteen pieces in the final runway show at Bryant Park. That final runway show is comparable to a master’s thesis presentation after one or two years of study or a dissertation presentation after four or more years of study.

Project Runway contestants are housed as roommates in a highly desirable NYC Gotham neighborhood. They’re competing for a grand prize. And high art, like academics, draws the world’s most competitive students together in small spaces. In three hour evening grad classes, like a Project Runway designer’s time spent in the Parsons sewing room, particular talents are carefully refined.

In the end, grad students and designers have new, elevated and far more respected platforms to share their intellectual and artistic gifts with larger audiences.

Project Runway is in its 13th season. Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and Zac Posen sent their first designer, 25-year-old Jefferson Musanda, home in the season’s second episode (Thursday 8/24/2014) on Lifetime. The designer’s ill proportioned shorts home got “WTF” from Nina Garcia. The poor showing was the equivalent of a research paper without citations, or a research paper withouot a point.

The Project Runway grand prize isn’t a graduate degree, but a Lexus, Mary Kay make up for models at runway shows, Brother Sewing machines, world travel at Best Western Hotels in inspiring fashion cities all over the world. There’s more and the prize total is worth $300,000. The show's winner is much more like the PhD candidate who's been recruited for one of the nation's top job. The Project Runway winner's rewards is a lot more like a visiting speaker job or a one year contract.

Graduate degrees open opportunities for travel and the grand prize, the degree, is a passport to better work and salaries for those who are as determined to succeed with the degree as they were to pursue and finish it.

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