What Is an MFA Degree?

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An MFA degree is a graduate degree in a creative field such as writing, acting, film, painting, or graphic design. Short for Master of Fine Arts, an MFA program typically includes rigorous coursework in an artistic field as well as a significant capstone project in which students demonstrate their accomplishment in their chosen area of study.

MFA Degree: Key Takeaways

  • An MFA, unlike an MA or MS, focuses on the practice of art. It is less academic and research-based than other graduate degrees.
  • Most MFA programs take two to three years to complete.
  • Common fields for MFA programs include creative writing, painting, music, acting, and film.
  • Full-time, on-campus MFA programs may be the least convenient, but they are likely to be the least expensive because of teaching assistantships and stipends.

A student will typically need a bachelor's degree before entering an MFA program, and programs typically take two to three years to complete although both longer and shorter options exist. Numerous modes of delivery exist for MFA programs including on-campus, low-residency, and online options.

What Is an MFA Degree?

An MFA or Master of Fine Arts is a graduate degree with a focus on artistic practice. While students will likely learn some history and theory in an MFA program, the primary emphasis is on the practice and development of one's craft. For this reason, only certain areas of study offer MFA degrees including writing, painting, dance, acting, and music. Fields that are more technical, professional, or academic do not have an MFA option. For example, you cannot earn an MFA in history, biology, or finance.

Students can enter an MFA program straight from a bachelor's degree program, or they can begin after having been out of college for years. Applications for admission to MFA programs will often require letters of recommendation, a college transcript, and an essay, but the most important component will be a portfolio or audition. Admissions decisions are typically made by experts in your area of artistic interest, and the admissions folks will use your portfolio or audition to assess your potential for making a meaningful contribution to the field.

MFA degrees can take between one and four years to complete, with two to three years being the most common. An accelerated one-year program is likely to require year-round work and provide some credit for either previous coursework or experience. A long four-year program is likely to include professional internship experience such as work at a film studio or fashion design studio.

Historically, an MFA was considered a terminal degree. In other words, the MFA represented the highest level of educational achievement in an artistic field. For this reason, an MFA was usually the required qualification for teaching fine arts at four-year colleges and universities. However, with the proliferation of graduate programs in recent decades, many fields such as acting and creative writing have PhD options, and some MFA students will continue on to doctoral-level study. For many faculty positions today, employers will consider MFA applicants but give preference to applicants with a PhD.

Note that an MA (Master of Arts) or MS (Master of Science) degree is not at all like an MFA degree. An MA or MS can often be completed in a year or two, and its focus is going to be on the academic study of a field much more than the practice of art. MA and MS students typically take a year of coursework beyond the bachelor's degree, and they are also likely to complete an independent research project. MA and MS degrees can be found in nearly all academic fields, and they have value for people looking to expand their knowledge, increase their salary potential, gain specialized knowledge, or gain teaching credentials. MFA programs, on the other hand, are much less about professional advancement than they are about becoming a more accomplished artist.

Similarly, a PhD program has a stronger academic and scholarly focus than an MFA program. Doctoral students often take two or three years of coursework and then devote another couple years to researching and writing a dissertation—a book-length study that contributes new knowledge to one's field.

MFA Concentrations and Requirements

MFA degrees are offered in a wide range of creative and artistic disciplines, and the exact requirements for an MFA will vary significantly from school to school and discipline to discipline. Broadly speaking, students typically take two to three years to complete an MFA, and during that time they will take roughly 60 credits of coursework (compared to about 120 hours of coursework to earn a bachelor's degree).

MFA coursework will involve a range of classes so that students graduate with skills not just in their craft, but also in pedagogy and critique. Nearly all programs conclude with some kind of thesis or capstone project. For example, a student in an MFA in writing program will need to complete a portfolio of poetry or fiction, and a film student will need to create an original film. Students often present this projects in a public forum where they are critiqued by experts in the field.

MFA programs in professional disciplines such as fashion and film may also have a practicum or internship requirement so that they gain real-world experience and begin to make the professional connections that will be valuable in their future careers,

The number of MFA programs in the United States is constantly growing both because of demand and because technology has made programs accessible for more people. MFA opportunities exist in dozens of areas of study that can be grouped into several broad categories:

  • Creative Writing: This is one of the largest field for MFAs, and the United States is home to over 200 programs. Students will concentrate in fiction, poetry, drama, or creative non-fiction. Some programs also offer screen writing. Funding will often depend upon a teaching assistantship, and writing MFA students are likely to teach first-year composition classes.
  • Art and Design: Fine arts is another large MFA field with well over 200 programs in the U.S. It's also a broad area with programs focusing on specialties including painting, drawing, illustration, sculpture, metal work, ceramics, and photography.
  • Performing Arts: Students interested in music, theater, and dance will find a range of MFA programs that focus on both the technical and artistic sides of the performing arts. Acting, set design, conducting, and musicianship are all areas of focus for MFA programs.
  • Graphic and Digital Design: More and more MFA programs are emerging that bring together arts and technology, for employer demand in this area continues to grow.
  • Fashion and Textiles: From designing runway fashions to the textiles used to make those fashions, MFA programs cover all aspects of the fashion industry.
  • Film Production: If you want to work in film or television, you'll find MFA programs to give you the necessary training. Subspecialties include directing, producing, acting, and screenwriting.

Types of MFAs

Whether you are looking for a traditional degree program on a college campus or one that you can balance with work and family responsibilities, you'll find a range of MFA program options.

High-Residency Programs: A high-residency or full residency program is one in which students work and study on campus much like undergraduates do at residential colleges. MFA students typically don't live in dorms unless they get jobs as residence directors. Instead, they are likely to live in designated graduate housing or off-campus apartments. Unlike undergraduate classes, MFA classes often meet just once a week for several hours, and the rest of the week is spent doing independent work in the studio or lab. Living on or near campus and attending in-person fulltime has advantages, for students can often get stipends or tuition waivers for serving as research assistants, teaching assistants, or graduate instructors. The most prestigious and selective MFA programs are almost all high-residency programs.

Low-Residency Programs: For students who hope to earn an MFA but don't have the luxury of relocating and devoting years exclusively to the degree, a low-residency program might be a good choice. Much of the program will be delivered online—synchronously, asynchronously, or both—and then students will have brief but intense visits to campus once to several times a year. During these on-campus residencies, students participate in workshops, critiques, and craft seminars. They also meet with their professors and professional advisors to discuss their work and goals. Although most work is done from home, the better low-residency programs are designed to create peer groups and foster a sense of community.

Online Programs: For some students with limited financial resources or unforgiving work and family obligations, even the short on-campus commitment of a low-residency program is a challenge. There are, however, more and more MFA programs that are 100% online. The convenience of such programs is attractive, but students do lose the benefits of the campus's resources. This may not be a huge detriment for a field like creative writing, but students in fields such as film and the fine arts students won't have access to the studios and lab spaces that are often central to the field.

Along with the above options, you'll find that many schools offer joint degree programs in which you can earn your MFA and PhD. This can save you a year or two of study from what would be required to earn the MFA and PhD separately, and the joint degree program combines the artistic focus of an MFA program with the scholarly research focus of a PhD. This type of joint degree can be ideal if your goal is to work in higher education since doctoral students will often have an advantage when competing for professorships.

Pros and Cons of Getting an MFA

Before you apply to an MFA program, be sure to balance the pros and cons, and you'll see that these vary depending on the type of MFA program.

Pros:

  • First and foremost, you get to spend two or three years focused almost exclusively on your craft. An MFA program is a fabulous opportunity to develop your skills, exchange ideas with like-minded artists, and receive professional critiques of your work.
  • You'll be working with highly accomplished faculty members in your area of interest.
  • High-residency MFA programs can be inexpensive or free. Some have endowed scholarships, and others offer tuition waivers and stipends for serving as a teaching assistant or graduate instructor.
  • High-residency programs often provide opportunities for you to show your work professionally through exhibitions, readings, concerts, and screenings.
  • Low-residency and online programs provide a lot of flexibility so that it is possible to balance your MFA with a fulltime job or family responsibilities.
  • In the process of earning your MFA, you'll make professional connections that will be valuable throughout your career.

Cons:

  • An MFA degree won't always pay you back, and average salaries of workers with MFA degrees are often lower than for other graduate degrees.
  • Programs can be expensive, especially low-residency and online programs that don't have opportunities to serve as an instructor or teaching assistant.
  • MFA programs require a lot of self-discipline. Classes may meet just once a week, but students will be expected to be working on their craft throughout the week. Online and Low-residence programs are even less structured and may have no formal meeting times.
  • If your goal is to teach at the college level, MFAs have gradually been losing their status as a terminal degree, and you may find you need a PhD.
  • Many careers in the arts—whether as a professional musician, an actor, a dancer, a writer, or a studio artist—do not require an MFA. Your skills, not the degree, are what matter (the degree may, of course, enhance your skills).
  • Programs can require you to have a thick skin. Your art will get critiqued and workshopped, and the feedback won't always be kind.
  • Some high-residency programs are extremely selective with just a handful of students admitted each year.
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Grove, Allen. "What Is an MFA Degree?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-mfa-degree-5119881. Grove, Allen. (2021, April 1). What Is an MFA Degree? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-mfa-degree-5119881 Grove, Allen. "What Is an MFA Degree?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-mfa-degree-5119881 (accessed April 16, 2021).