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What is an MFA degree, and what opportunities do they provide?

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Maya Ayson

Mar 26, 2022

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 min read

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An MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, is a graduate-level degree obtained from several schools with varying reputation levels. This type of degree is designed to prepare students for careers as artists and teachers.

Before you decide to apply for an MFA, make sure you understand what it is and what it can do for your career.

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What is an MFA?

The Master in Fine Arts (MFA) is a terminal degree considered the equivalent of terminal degrees such as a Ph.D. in other fields. The MFA degree demands the highest professional competency in the visual arts and contemporary practices. MFA degrees can lead to careers in the arts, teaching, or other creative fields.

Painting, sculpture, photography, electronic arts, multimedia, printmaking, ceramics, and textiles are just a few categories of study available to students pursuing a master's in fine art degree.

How long is an MFA?

The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is a two-to-three-year degree that requires the completion of a thesis exhibition in addition to coursework. Studio art, art history, and criticism are common subjects taught in an MFA program. Students may be required to take classes in other fields such as English, philosophy, or business as part of their curriculum.

How much does an MFA degree cost?

Though it is necessary to enroll in an MFA program, it is not free for students. Fine art institutions frequently provide financial assistance or scholarships. In general, though, the cost of top-rated programs in Fine Arts is costly.

Some prominent art schools charge MFA students $30,000 per year. It's also critical to consider if you have the time and energy to devote to an MFA program, which may be expensive, time-consuming, and demanding.

Academic requirements

To qualify for an MFA, there are specific degree requirements. A professional artist must produce a body of work that conveys the highest level of expertise. The work must be able to conceive and communicate effectively by utilizing visual language to express ideas.

The MFA candidate must demonstrate significant theoretical growth and the practical application of tools, materials, and craftsmanship. This includes initiatives that take advantage of new technologies, collaboration among workers, or multidisciplinary endeavors.

The MFA candidate must provide evidence of demonstrating critical abilities relevant to meaning and content, encouraging a broad look at art from diverse perspectives.

Thesis requirements

MFA programs require a thesis to earn an MFA degree. Thesis projects for an MFA degree are often creative and entail thesis exhibition of a body of work publicly. Students may also be required to write or present their thesis project.

Group of fine arts students in their admissions process

Who should enroll in an MFA program?

The MFA program is ideal for those who want to pursue an artistic career. Your practical abilities are enhanced by extensive learning, specialized coaching, and feedback to help you develop them further. You will take a substantial portfolio of work following your course of study.

What is the average age of MFA Candidates?

The average age of MFA students is 29, indicating that it's a good idea to put some space between your BFA and your MFA. It aids in developing world experience and maturity throughout your MFA years.

A BFA is a fine arts degree that will give you context about the art world. An MFA will help you develop your unique perspective and help you answer the question of what you can add to the field.

What does an MFA get you?

A Master of Fine Arts degree is considered the terminal degree for fine artists. MFA degrees demonstrate that a professional artist has completed numerous intensive courses in the arts and signify competence in a particular craft.

As a result, high-selective and well-respected occupations require you to meet this standard. These jobs might include gallery management or museum administration.

What's the difference between an MFA and an MA?

The MFA is usually a two-to-three-year program. The Master of Arts (MA) is a more abbreviated degree that typically takes only two years to complete, and it is broader and more general than the MFA.

Is there a Ph.D. for creatives?

A Ph.D. in Visual Art, also known as a doctorate in Visual Practice, is a doctorate that focuses on creative study rather than a written dissertation.

In visual art, the MFA is still regarded as a terminal degree. Someone who wishes to focus on research might want to pursue a doctorate in Visual Practice, but it is not required for professional advancement right now.

MFA percentages gender data

Male and female creatives with only a Bachelor's degree split 66% to 34%, with considerably more males than females completing their education at a bachelor's degree level.

Women are more likely than males to pursue higher degrees, with 53% of females vs. 47% of male artists having an MFA degree and 64% of females versus 36% of males obtaining a Ph.D.

University level lecture with christine sun kim

Is getting an MFA worthwhile?

This is a beautiful time in life as an adult to participate in a creative setting with others committed to developing their talents and knowledge. There are several reasons to earn a master of fine arts degree:

  1. To enhance your artistic practice
  2. Identify your ideas about your work
  3. Convey the art theory that drives your studio method.

An MFA program can't promise that every graduate student will pursue the arts, but it may assist them in finding their path by nurturing their creative ambitions. They may also give a historical and cultural context for their job and a meaningful community in which to work.

One should be able to explain why one wants to pursue graduate study. These are professional degrees by definition. It is not a good idea to go to graduate school to discover oneself or become a teacher. If you enter for the wrong reasons, it can be very damaging.

A new opportunity to increase the level of your work

An MFA in fine arts is a noble pursuit; something special about putting this kind of time into your career. It's essential to have a clear vision of your aims and objectives. What do you want to accomplish during your two years of graduate study? What process or themes would you like to focus on for the dedicated time? It would be best to start when you are ready to make the most of it.

To build your network

Many of the ties you make in graduate school will last a lifetime, particularly those with mentors. In many ways, this is your launching pad into your professional life as you become more concise and clear in expressing who you are as an artist.

Creative writing students with faculty

Teaching options

The MFA is frequently advertised as a stepping-stone to a teaching position at a university. While this can happen, it is less common than someone receiving an MA in education. Educators in higher education frequently speak about their teaching and art careers as distinct activities. It can be a fantastic professional path if you can manage a complicated existence while still loving to teach.

Professional Goals and reasons to enroll in an MFA fine arts program

Attending graduate school is a significant commitment. The following are some of the reasons why you might want to study at a graduate level:

  • To create a professional portfolio of work.
  • To have more time to focus only on your work to advance.
  • To convey your work articulately by improving your critical and communication abilities.
  • To form a network of fellow creatives.
  • To identify and cultivate a mentor.
  • To acquire teaching credentials.
  • Advance in your career with such credentials to increase your earnings or take you to a higher position.
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When considering whether or not to pursue an MFA degree, it is essential to understand what this type of degree can offer. An MFA degree can help you enhance your artistic practice, identify your ideas about your work, and convey the art theory that drives your studio method.

How soon after a BFA should I get an MFA?

The decision of whether or not to pursue graduate study is complicated by the fact that timing is critical. Graduate schools necessitate at least two to three years of study, during which time most students accumulate significant financial debt.

While picking a college is not an easy task, understanding your reasons for attending graduate school can be more manageable. To ensure that your budget and time commitment are in sync, be as honest as possible regarding your reasons for going to graduate school. After all, whether you attend a public or private institution, you will be required to pay tuition.

On the other hand, many artists opt to acquire professional expertise before enrolling in graduate school, bringing the skills and concentration to use the graduate study to further their professional prospects.

Creative writing students in a wider range of completed disciplines

Art school programs: What to Consider

Look past the instructors and evaluate what sort of student work is produced. What concepts are the students working on? What kind of work is it like? Is this a topic you want to be engaged in and learn from? What are the facilities like? Is it possible for you to produce the type of work that you need to get through college? Is it a place where you can envision yourself working for two years?

Location is crucial. There are a lot of art centers in the United States and across the world, including Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Berlin, and recently Beijing.

Location choices for professional artists

Creatives earning their bachelor's is still primarily concentrated in New York and London. New York accounts for 11% of all bachelor graduates (based on top 500 professional artists), followed by London's 8% share. Paris is in the third position, with 3% of practicing professionals.

On the other hand, London has a huge lead with 17% who have obtained a Master's from London, 14% from New York, 8% from Los Angeles, and 7% from Frankfurt.

Top BFA programs for fine artists

  1. The Cooper Union (New York)
  2. Rhode Island School of Design (Providence)
  3. Central Saint Martins (London)
  4. Goldsmiths (London)
  5. School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago)

Top MFA programs for fine artists

  1. The Yale School of Art (New Haven)
  2. Columbia University School of the Arts (New York)
  3. Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Städelschule (Frankfurt)
  4. Goldsmiths (London)
  5. Bard College, Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts (New York)

If you want to enroll in a grad program for an MFA, only apply to schools that provide professional practice programs for fine artists.

Other students applying for graphic design

How do you become a competitive applicant for an MFA program?

According to MFA professors and alumni, a portfolio is the essential component of the application. Most graduate programs in other fields value test scores and undergraduate classes' achievements. Still, MFA programs focus on a candidate's artistic talent and the quality of their artwork rather than solely on academic achievement.

Will an MFA help me get gallery representation?

Although it's not guaranteed, MFA programs can fast-track you to being represented by a gallery. If this is your aim, figure out which MFA programs are generating successful artists and what trends seem to be circulating among these schools, then become a recognizable name to the gallery with which you may want to be represented. To do this effectively, you should live in one of the primary art cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Berlin.


When deciding to attend grad school, it is vital to be clear about your reasons. For visual creatives, attending a school with a studio practice program is essential to developing their professional skills. Make sure you research the grad schools that offer these programs and understand what is required of you as an applicant. Being located in one of the major art cities is also beneficial if you aim to get gallery representation and build a robust network of artists.

  1. Be clear in your goals before applying to a program. It is a massive financial and time commitment.
  2. When considering a school, be sure they offer professional practice programs for fine artists.
  3. Look not only at instructors but evaluate what sort of student work is produced at the school you're considering attending to get an idea of the level of critical thought you'll be surrounded by.
  4. Be mindful that location is crucial when deciding which school to attend, as most graduates remain in the area where they earned their degree.
  5. Attending an MFA program may fast-track you to being represented by a gallery, especially in top locations like NYC or Los Angeles.
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