DEGREE: All You Need To Know About Masters Of Fine Arts Degree



Those who are passionate about art, whether that’s writing, painting, photography, dance, acting or fashion design, might be interested in earning an MFA to advance their skills and career. An MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, is a graduate degree that teaches students about their craft and helps them to improve. If you are a creative person, you may be considering an MFA but be unsure what you need to know about the programs available.

Despite the intense competitiveness of artistic fields and the fact that these disciplines are unlikely to make someone rich unless he or she experiences extraordinary success, these fields continue to attract legions of men and women.

The allure of fine arts careers, which allow for a high degree of autonomy and self-expression and offer the constant challenge to produce original and influential work, entices many people.

Artists who are determined to become experts on their art form may be interested in a Master of Fine Arts degree, commonly known as an MFA.

An MFA helps artists gain confidence and mastery in an art form, whether it is painting or dancing.


An MFA degree signifies that a professional artist has completed a series of rigorous courses in his or her art form and signals that someone is adept at his or her chosen craft, whether it is a technologically intensive field like graphic design or film editing, or a technology-free art form like drawing. An MFA is a graduate-level credential, meaning that before you get an MFA, you typically need a college degree.

MFA degree recipients say their graduate school education allowed them to refine their artistic philosophy and creative techniques while elevating the quality of their art to make it more unique, polished and interesting. In addition, MFA degree holders say having an MFA has given them the credentials necessary to teach courses in their art form at colleges and universities, and that it gives them sufficient knowledge of their art discipline to offer thoughtful critiques.

Frank J. Stockton, a visual artist who earned an MFA in painting and drawing from the University of California—Los Angeles, says his primary motivation for pursuing an MFA was that he loved painting and wanted to do as much of it as humanly possible. “Also, I just wanted to be the best artist that I could be,” he says.

Anthony Borchardt, an assistant professor and gallery director at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, says prospective MFA students should understand that an MFA degree is unlikely to result in an extremely lucrative job.

One is as likely to become wealthy from art as he or she would be to become wealthy from athletics, Borchardt wrote in an email. “It’s a rare opportunity, and it takes commitment, sacrifice and patience. Besides being a full-time working studio artist, students can try to get into the teaching field post-graduation. An MFA is not a guaranteed job. As I tell my students, once they get the degree, that’s when the hard work actually starts. The payoff is the opportunity to do what few people are able to do. Make art and do what you love. To find success in this field, you need to have a burning desire from within and be committed morning, noon and night.”

However, Marta Bistram, a communications professional with an MFA in creative writing from Chapman University in California, says the creativity you cultivate in an MFA program can be applied in multiple career paths. “I pursued a career in communications after defending a creative thesis of original poetry, which some might consider an unusual avenue,” she wrote in an email. “I firmly believe that the way an artistic graduate program encourages you to think is applicable to any career path a graduate chooses, whether or not it directly correlates to their discipline. I continue to work on my poetry outside my 9 to 5, but I find extreme satisfaction from both my career and my artistic pursuits.”

Experts say that though there are some extremely wealthy people with MFA degrees who achieved fame and fortune as a result of their art, the vast majority of MFA degree holders earn modest salaries. According to PayScale, a compensation data company that publishes the going rates for various types of jobs, the average MFA degree-holder in the U.S. earns an annual salary of $58,000.

Maria Cominis – a theater professor, professional director and working actress who has published books about acting and who most recently played Mona Clarke on the TV show “Desperate Housewives” – says that she has “never regretted” getting an MFA.

Cominis, who teaches at California State University—Fullerton says people who pursue an MFA are typically seeking an artistic career, because they believe such a career would be fulfilling. Cominis adds that most prospective MFAs understand that it is unlikely they will become rich and famous, but that’s besides the point.

“I don’t think that anybody goes into the arts to become rich,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody – whether it’s a playwright, an actor, a designer – that enters the arts to become a gazillionaire.”



There are many types of MFAs, which can vary depending on the school. These types include different majors as well as different methods of learning.

There are a variety of MFA programs, with programs that specialize in nearly any artistic discipline you can imagine. For instance, there are MFA programs specially tailored to the interests of aspiring fashion designers, dramatic actors, fiction authors, choreographers, ballet dancers, sculptors, arts critics and movie directors.

It is also possible to combine an MFA degree with another graduate credential, such as a MBA degree, if you pursue a dual-degree program. For instance, New York University offers a MBA/MFA graduate program which involves coursework in both the school’s  Tisch School of the Arts and its Stern School of Business.

“A dual degree may be attractive to students because it allows them to gain expertise in two disparate, but complementary academic domains, in order to set themselves apart in their field and foster innovation across sectors,” Kathryn Heidemann, assistant dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s  Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and its College of Fine Arts, wrote in an email. “For example, it’s not uncommon now to see the arts and creativity permeate across the fields of health, law, technology, community development, government, and business. However, as dual degrees typically involve earning two separate degrees (which typically involves two separate curricular agendas, faculty/administration and more), this may put all of the onus on the student to ‘connect the dots’ themselves across disciplines.”

Heidemann, who directs Carnegie Mellon University’s master of arts management program, says that prospective graduate students who want to combine their interest in art with their passion for another discipline, like business, should consider pursuing an interdisciplinary degree. “With this in mind, it is important to note that there is a strong supply of interdisciplinary degree programs available that offer holistically-designed, cross-disciplinary curricula that allow students to achieve full competency of the arts within a specific cross-sector domain,” she wrote in an email.

Here are the different types of MFAs:

Creative writing

Creative writing is a common major for MFAs and is one that is most relevant to those interested in writing fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry. Creative writing MFAs teach students about how to be better writers, the history of their craft and also allows them to study written classics. There are many creative writing MFAs available and while they may be similar, there are some differences. The right creative writing MFA for you will depend on what your needs and interests are.

Visual arts


Visual arts is another common MFA major, although it may not be offered by as many universities as creative writing due to the importance of in-person learning for this type of creative work. Visual arts can encompass many creative disciplines, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking and drawing. Some universities might only offer an MFA in visual arts and let students choose their area of focus, while others may offer specific MFAs for different types of visual arts.

Film making

Filmmaking is a useful MFA for those who are interested in working in television or film, as it teaches skills related to a wide variety of filmmaking responsibilities. These include editing, directing, screenwriting, casting and sound recording. Similar to a visual arts MFA, some schools might offer a general filmmaking MFA, while others might offer more specific MFAs for areas of filmmaking. An MFA in filmmaking is focused on the practical skills of making film projects and often includes film projects as assignments.


Acting is an MFA related to filmmaking, although the two are generally separate degrees given the divergent areas of focus. While a filmmaking MFA concentrates on what happens behind the scenes, an acting MFA focuses on the actors in front of the camera or audience. Those who pursue an acting MFA learn about acting theory and methods, as well as how to improve as an actor. They may also learn about actors who were successful in the past or today and the methods they used to perform.


Photography is an MFA major that might be offered as part of a visual arts degree or might be its own major, especially as much of the theory and processes of photography can differ from other types of visual arts. Photography students will learn about different types of equipment, developing photographs, theory behind taking photographs and critiques from their peers and professors.


Theater MFA programs might include similar subjects to filmmaking and acting MFAs, however the primary focus for a theater MFA is live productions, which do have different considerations than filmed productions. A theater MFA might include acting or acting might be separate, with the theater program instead concentrating on the behind-the-scenes work of producing a theater production.


Dance is a common MFA and depending on the university and student, it might focus on a specific type of dance or all types of dance. For instance, a ballet dancer may want an MFA in ballet but not need one in general dance. Other dancers might want to have knowledge of a wide range of dance styles in order to perform them. Dance can be a good MFA choice for those who are interested in choreography as well as dancing themselves.

Fashion design


Fashion design is an MFA that may seem closely linked to visual arts degrees, however, because of the nature of fashion design it usually is offered separately. That may be because fashion design includes drawing and designing fashion, but also physically putting it together and understanding the materials in a way that is slightly different from other visual arts. Fashion design MFAs are usually intended for those who are interested in becoming fashion designers or working within a fashion company.


It may seem that MFAs and MAs, or Master of Arts, are very similar. They’re both graduate degrees and they cover a variety of arts and creative subjects. However, there are a few key differences. MAs often cover more of the history and academic study of a creative subject, with less focus on creating it yourself. For this reason, they are considered more of a scholarly degree. An MA may cover more types of art or creative work since the goal is not to create it but rather to understand it, such as a master’s in art history.

Since MFAs are what’s known as a terminal degree, they qualify graduates to teach at a collegiate level, since they are considered the highest level of education for that field. MAs are not considered terminal degrees, so in order to teach at a university, students would need to also earn a doctorate.

The requirements for being accepted into an MFA program can vary broadly depending on the university and even the major. Some MFAs require you have an MA while others only require a bachelor’s degree. For some, you might need to take the GRE, although it’s less common than it is for other types of master’s degrees.

It’s not usually necessary to have a bachelor’s degree in a related subject, so even if you studied something different previously it shouldn’t affect your admission.

The most important part for applying to an MFA program is usually your portfolio, which includes examples of your work in that type of creative media. Depending on your art, this might be a literal portfolio of artwork, it might be a collection of fiction you’ve written, it might be photos of your sculptures or it might be videos of you acting or dancing.



MFAs have both pros and cons, although these may also vary depending on the individual. Choosing what type of degree to earn and what school to attend is best when you keep in mind your own goals and interests.

Here are some of the pros of an MFA:

. Greater knowledge of your art and how to create it
. Chance to be critiqued by knowledgeable peers
. May offer career opportunities not otherwise available
. Potential to teach college afterward
. High residency often offers a chance to gain teaching experience
. Networking opportunities
. Improved quality in your work
. Having an MFA shows you’re educated on your craft

Here are some of the cons of getting an MFA:

. Can be expensive, depending on the university
. High residency programs may require a move
. Can be difficult to succeed in the arts even with an MFA
. Low residency programs may offer fewer networking and teaching opportunities


MFA programs vary in length, with some accelerated programs lasting only a year and others lasting as long as three or four years. Typically, an MFA program lasts between two and three years, experts say, and a strong MFA program is a demanding one which requires serious commitment. Experts say that an MFA that can be obtained easily, with minimal effort, is of limited utility, since one of the benefits of high-quality MFA programs is that they teach artists how to be disciplined about their creative process and respond to critiques.


Michael Markowsky – a studio artist with an MFA who teaches on the faculty of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada – says an MFA is a large investment of time, energy and money. It’s not right for everybody, but it’s been very rewarding for him personally.

“I had a fantastic experience, which I always describe to people as saving me 10 years worth of struggling to refine my art practice and ultimately my life,” Markowsky wrote in an email. “It was an intense experience, but it was instrumental in helping me understand the core ideas and themes that run throughout all of the diverse artworks that I make.”

Markowsky adds that an MFA is only the right choice for someone who is both passionate about becoming a better artist and interested in learning the history and theory of a particular craft. He notes that someone who pursues an MFA needs to be ready and willing to learn from criticism, but he or she must also be confident enough to know that criticism doesn’t necessarily mean failure.

“I often discourage students from pursuing an MFA because I don’t believe most of them are ready or willing or capable of undergoing such an intense experience, and therefore it would not only be a waste of money, but also might destroy their interest in making art altogether,” he says.

“I personally believe someone interested in pursuing an MFA should have both a very clear idea of what they are doing and want to do, and also an extremely open mind to working with people who will ruthlessly challenge those ideas. Anyone who is stubborn and inflexible won’t get anything else but frustration out of the exercise, and anyone who is lost and timid will find themselves traumatized and torn to pieces, and – as one of my former MFA advisors once said – incapable of putting themselves back together again.”

Experts say it is also important to consider whether your financial, professional and family obligations will permit investment in an MFA program, which tends to be very expensive, time-intensive and stressful.


How much does an MFA degree cost?

The cost of an MFA program varies from school to school and from student to student. Fine arts schools often give scholarships and financial awards. However, sticker prices at the nation’s most prestigious fine arts programs are significant. Some nationally renowned art schools charge MFA students more than $30,000 annually for tuition and fees.

Bistram says price was a key factor for her when she was choosing an MFA program. “I knew that paying for my graduate degree would be challenging for me, so I looked for programs that were willing to invest in their students,” she says. “I only applied to programs that offered full or partial fellowships.

This financial assistance allowed me to spend my two years of graduate school focusing primarily on perfecting my craft, rather than splitting my time between competing priorities, and was extremely rewarding.”


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