What an MFA Degree Is and What You Need to Know

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.

What is an MFA degree?

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.

[Read: Determine the Risks, Rewards of a Master’s in Fine Arts.]

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.”

What types of MFA degrees are there, and how do dual-degree programs fit in?

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 an 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.

How long is an MFA program, and how hard is it to get an MFA degree?

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.

Who should get an MFA?

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.”

[Read: Fine Arts Programs Slowly Move Online.]

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.”

How much should prestige matter when choosing an MFA program?

MFA recipients disagree about how much MFA applicants should weigh the importance of a program’s reputation and name recognition when choosing a program.

Stockton says some art institutions and galleries in Los Angeles do have a preference for featuring artists with MFAs, so visual artists who want to have their work displayed in prestigious art shows may want to get an MFA. “It’s no secret that the art world looks at all kinds of different criteria for deciding who is worthy of working with and who to take seriously, and there is a perception that you are a professional artist, I find, if you have a master’s degree,” Stockton says. He notes that the MFA can add credibility to an artist’s resume and help him or her get a second look from art curators, but ultimately, the quality of the art is what matters most for artistic career success.

[Read: Fine Arts School Tips for Success.]

Stockton says enrolling in an MFA program with an exceptionally talented cohort of students allows you to learn from those students, both during and after the program, assuming you establish and maintain strong relationship with classmates.

Markowsky notes that another important factor to consider is the quality of professors at an MFA program, since having top-notch artistic mentors in the area of art that you are interested in can be very valuable.

However, experts says prospective MFA students who are unable to gain admittance to the most competitive fine arts schools should find reassurance in the idea that they can become great artists and produce beauitful art, regardless of which art school they attend, so long as they are committed to their craft.

Steve Almond, a published author who earned an MFA in creative writing and who teaches narrative journalism courses at Harvard University, says the quality of a person’s artwork is the primary metric that matters in artistic careers, so if someone can become a tremendous artist without going to a big-name art school, that’s fine.

Almond says in creative writing, good editors and publishers judge work based on its own merits, rather than the credentials of the person who made it. “What matters is whether it’s a gripping story,” he says.

What is the best way to judge the quality of an MFA program?

Borchardt says one key thing to look for when evaluating MFA programs is rigor.

“The degree is an intense multiyear commitment to creating a style of art that will separate you in a very difficult market,” he says. “It is a study in which you may end up not creating the art that you love or first desired but an art that can be both marketable and self worthy.”

Borchardt says a solid MFA program will provide students with highly technical training in their particular art form. “A good program will focus on the technical aspects of how to make art, whether that’s learning new painting processes or studies in different firing techniques for ceramics,” he wrote. “Knowledge is what needs to be gained to be able to create art that stands the test of time. Art work will flourish out of those studies. Some programs focus on just creating work and not focusing on the processes, but a good program should be technical and offer the freedom to create after the skills are built up….Red flags for a subpar program include limited instruction in technical processes and fundamentals.”

How does someone become a competitive applicant for an MFA program?

MFA professors and alumni say the most important component of an MFA application is the quality of the art that is included in the application. Depending on the type of MFA a person is applying for, he or she would either be submitting an artistic portfolio or writing sample, or he or she would be auditioning before a panel of judges.

Bistram says when she applied for an MFA program, the component of her application which she focused on was her portfolio. “The portfolio component of the application was most important in my admissions process,” she wrote. “While other graduate programs place a great deal of value on test scores and undergraduate transcripts, MFA programs evaluate a candidate primarily based on the artistic work they can produce.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

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What an MFA Degree Is and What You Need to Know originally appeared on usnews.com

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