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What to look for in an MFA program - A guide for artists

Portrait of Symposia author Colin Fisher
Colin Fisher

Mar 30, 2022

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MFA art history student at a fine arts program
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Graduate school is one of the most common paths from undergraduate to professional life in the fine arts. The inclination to enroll in graduate school is often taken quickly; many art students with an undergraduate degree have preconceived ideas about what a grad degree will provide (i.e., a teaching career, gallery access, and validation/professional credentials). This is a big, life-changing decision.

Setting specific goals and objectives is critical before seeking an MFA degree in a studio art program. What do you want to get out of extending your art education? What do you want to accomplish in the two years of graduate study? What kind of ideas do you want to explore?

This article is about assisting you in sifting through the issues and providing you with the tools to make an educated decision. The cost of grad school has never been higher, and you must enter into this next stage of your life with complete knowledge of your options and alternatives.

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How do I choose between MFA programs?

There are numerous criteria to consider when picking a graduate art school. As a result, you must do your research into art schools. To get you started, here's a compiled list of the essential subjects and questions to ask while looking for the ideal graduate institution for your graduate fine arts degree.

A suggestion for research: gather as much information as possible and ask the same questions of various people at each art school you're considering. Talk to current students, professors, program chairs, industry experts, and even your past instructors about the program. Don't forget to ask around to hear from other prospective students for their opinions.

Program Reputation

Learn as much as possible about your field of study. How reputable is the institution you're applying to? A university may be well regarded in one area, but that does not imply it is equally respected in another.

When choosing between MFA programs, remember that each program is unique, so try to visit the physical campus if at all possible. Walk around, meet faculty, and see the work. It's critical to see what it's like in person and not just go by a catalog. It becomes a personal experience, so you need to decide if you fit there.

Pay attention to the style of the fine arts education and consider how accepted you will feel there. Is the program/style of the school flexible and open or highly structured with lots of oversight and direction? Or is it less structured, more independent where you're responsible for your work and leadership?

  • Is the institution/program well regarded in the art world?
  • Does the institution host any public events or exhibits?
  • Are there any notable graduates?
  • Ability to progress in your profession through the institution.
  • Focus and philosophy of the school.
  • What programs are accessible to you, and how many and what type of classes are required?
  • Is there a study-abroad option for other graduate programs? If so, where and in what areas of study are they available?
  • Is the school's basic philosophy in line with your work? For example, if you are doing figure drawing and the school is conceptually based, you may not receive the assistance you require.
  • What is the program's overall size? How many individuals are majoring in the field you wish to study, and how many students per class?
Creative writing program mfa degree at many schools in New York City

Location of an art school

Choosing where to study for your master of fine arts is crucial since you'll be building a network of contacts that will last for years and are primarily based in that region.

Engaging with the surrounding community is a crucial part of your master of fine arts education, so it's essential to consider what kind of cultural and social context will help you thrive as an artist. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Proximity to family and friends
  • Making a fresh start in an unknown city vs. maintaining where you are familiar with
  • A location in a major city or a smaller town.
  • Both city and campus areas are safe.
  • Access to cultural institutions such as museums.
  • Fine arts scene and community.
  • Rent, utilities, and moving expenses.
  • Efficiency and accessibility of public transportation
  • Job opportunities during and after a course of study; Internships or artist apprenticeships.

The school's faculty and teaching staff

Find out what you can about who you will potentially have as a professor. The level of professional engagement of your graduate professors or their engagement in the community is especially vital since they will be teaching you this crucial next step in your profession.

  • Who is on the faculty, and what is their reputation both inside and outside the institution?
  • Do the faculty actively engage in their careers, and where do they exhibit?
  • Where did the faculty earn their degrees? Is it a fine arts degree? Are the faculty known as good, effective, and caring teachers?
  • Do you admire faculty member for their work and respect them as educators?
  • Are they on campus and known for being accessible and working with students rather than competing with students or focused on their careers?
  • How many faculty are full-time vs. adjunct, and what is their relationship and commitment to the institution?
  • What is the student/faculty ratio, and how many faculty teach in your area of interest?
Creative writing professor at her artistic practice

Visiting Artists and Critics

Guest critics at art school a great way to start to build your network with artists - there usually is a rotating selection of people they invite to interact with the students.

  • Who are they? And what's their work like?
  • How many times do they visit each semester, and how long are they there?
  • Do they offer courses in the master's program? Do they give lectures or provide feedback and work with students in the studio?
  • How do your pieces relate to the visiting critics' work, and is it vital or not?

Student Body and Community

Look at the student work that's being created in addition to the faculty employment when choosing an art school. In your brief visit to a fine arts program, it's challenging to get a sense of the student body and community; nevertheless, you may obtain a better perspective on both by visiting the campus in person and asking the following questions:

  • What concepts are the students undertaking? What does their work like?
  • What is the makeup of the student body? Are they all from the same area, from across the country, or from outside of the country?
  • Does the school have undergraduate students in a similar program?
  • Is the institution a reflection of your background? Is there variety in terms of ethnic and economic backgrounds?
  • The size of the school and the classroom enrollment.
  • Is there a vibrant student life on campus? What extracurricular activities are available?
  • What is the quality of life for students like? Is there a dating scene, health care, access to gym facilities, and food?
Black artist at the right MFA program


For MFA Degrees, the importance of these facilities cannot be overstated; they are the key to whether you can produce your work, and it's critical to your health, safety, and mental well-being. Fine artists require a dedicated, private studio area to concentrate on their craft and have quiet so that their creation is conducive to doing outstanding work.

  • What is the school's geographical location? Is it in a city or on a rural campus?
  • Is there enough space for each student in a separate studio?
  • What tools and safety procedures do you have in place?
  • Is there a place for students to work alone? Do you get your studio in what year?
  • What is the state of the school's facilities and resources?
  • Is there specialized equipment for a print studio or a photography lab?
  • Are there any computers available for you to use? Are they up to date and have access to the appropriate software?
  • Are there a student art gallery on campus, and how many opportunities for student shows?
  • Is there a professional library system in use? What sorts of fine arts collections are accessible?
  • What is university housing like? Is there a lot of inexpensive on-campus housing?

Critique culture

Graduate art education is based on studio critiques. The critical feedback you'll get on your work during sessions with instructors, guest artists, and other MFA students will help you develop as an artist.

However, each program has its method of providing this feedback. Find out how the MFA program encourages critical thinking: What will it do to help me think about my work differently? Will it help me develop my voice?

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It's important to consider how the MFA program encourages critical thinking. You want to make sure that the program will help you develop your voice and think about your work differently.

Financial Considerations

When applying to an MFA program, it's essential to consider the financial implications. The cost of tuition and living expenses can add up, and although many programs offer scholarships or grants, your loss in wages from the time you'll be in school will be significant in addition to the cost of the program itself. It's important to budget wisely and make sure you can afford to attend the program you choose. Things to consider:

  • Cost of tuition
  • Health insurance
  • Art supplies and books
  • Technology access, labs, and equipment • Housing and meals
  • Transportation
  • Social life
  • Ongoing family/personal financial obligations (for example, undergraduate degree loans)

Financial aid packages

Before you give up enrolling in an MFA program from the sticker price, keep in mind that most colleges provide substantial scholarship options, so the expense may be far lower than what statistics indicate.

A simple bit of wisdom, Follow the money. In most cases, it does not make financial sense to obtain an MFA if a school with a lesser reputation provides a significantly better economic deal than one with a better reputation.

All else being equal, a top-rated institution may be an edge. A superior portfolio and exhibition record outweigh a distinguished diploma.

Creative writing for multiple schools

Fellowships and teaching assistant opportunities

Graduate scholarships are difficult to obtain, and they often provide tuition reimbursements and generous stipends. They're intended to help students in MFA programs without requiring them to work outside of class hours.

The responsibilities of an assistant include instructing undergraduate courses under the direction of full-time faculty members. An assistantship in research entails non-teaching duties such as studio maintenance or lab aid. Although tuition waivers are frequently provided along with graduate assistantships, they are usually accompanied by work demands.

Professional and Career Support

MFA programs vary in the amount and type of career assistance they provide. Support services are not always crucial to grad programs, but they are now frequently essential keys to a successful career.

Career Services for the visual arts offers various services and support, including résumé evaluations, internship and job fairs, internet job boards, career development/alumni panel discussions, one-on-one career counseling, portfolio reviews, and other tools.

  • Ask a school whether there are specialized career services or programs for the fine arts or if the career service department is a generalist job counseling service.
  • Is there access to internship and professional development programs? Many graduate students desire to work as assistants to more experienced artists.
  • Do you have access to alums? The alumni relation or career services office will often provide current students and graduates with access to an alumni network system. After completing your graduate degree, find out what perks and levels of access the alumni relations office will grant you.
Considering a studio practice for the best mfa programs

Alternatives to graduate school

Many artists take the time between undergraduate and an MFA program to develop their work at their own pace. Here are some options to consider that may prepare you to get admittance to MFA programs later in your career.

  • Enter the workforce in a creative field.
  • Try different fields: for example, work part-time in teaching to see if you like it and if it's worth the time and financial commitment to an MFA program.
  • Explore residencies and artists' co-ops.
  • Work for another artist and learn the trade.
  • Start a business or a freelance career, or start an artist-led gallery.
  • Assist in a gallery to learn the business side of the art world.

Low-residency program

The fast-track fine arts degree craze has also resulted in a rise in low-residency programs that allow students to interact with their professors online and require less time on campus. Nothing, however, can compare to the one-on-one mentoring that ideally occurs in a graduate art program. The friendships established with other grad students may endure a lifetime and begin your professional network.

mfa applicants at a private institution

Self-directed MFA program

If you already have a group of artist friends, who are at similar stages in their careers, you may want to consider the option of a self-directed MFA program. You can get together and agree on a set of goals, critique regularly, visit galleries and find exhibition opportunities that will help you all to grow as artists.

All of our research at Symposia points to the fact that it is more likely to have a longer career as an artist with more opportunities when you have a strong network of artist peers.

Conclusion and final thoughts

MFA programs can provide artists with the tools to have successful careers. However, not all programs are created equal, and it is essential to do a proper school search and evaluation before applying. You should consider the faculty, the facilities, and what kind of writing community the program offers. You should also consider your own artistic goals and ensure the program can help you achieve them. If you are not sure whether an MFA is right for you, several alternatives are to consider.

Applying to graduate school is a significant step, so don't be in a rush right after your bachelor's degree. Do your research, and don't put off starting your career in the arts. You don't need an MFA to work in your studio, run a successful art practice, or exhibit what you make.

  1. Although encouraged, an MFA degree is not necessary to have a successful art career.
  2. Consider the financial burden or financial aid opportunities in your search
  3. The faculty, facilities, and writing community are important factors to consider when applying to an MFA program.
  4. Make sure your artistic goals align with what the program can offer you.
  5. Consider alternative options if an MFA degree is not right for you.
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