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Planning Your StudiesThe Complete Guide to MFA Degree

The Complete Guide to MFA Degree

There are various Master’s Degrees with different specializations and focuses. One of them is the MFA degree.

This article will focus on explaining and answering the following questions:

What Is An MFA Degree?

MFA is a practice based degree and stands for Masters of Fine Arts

If you are an artistic type of person with talents in the fine arts, then an MFA is the degree for you. It stands for Masters of Fine Arts and allows students to develop and improve their skills. It focuses on equipping students with the theoretical and practical abilities to both discuss their specific subject in arts and practice it.

The MFA is given in almost all artistic topics such as:

  • Visual Arts
  • Graphic Design
  • Creative Writing
  • Dance
  • Theatre and filmmaking
  • Photography
  • Performing arts

The degree is not a taught or course based degree, but falls into the category of the research or practical degrees. This means that at the end of your MFA you will be a professional working artist with skills that can get you employed in various fields.

getting an mfa degree in theatre and filmmakingMany people ask whether you need an MFA to be a successful artist. The answer to that depends on your level of skills. There are many artists who have become successful without the added degree. But if you want to improve your chances of success, the MFA is a degree which can add value to your career.

Stat: Around 17% of all artists hold an MFA degree.

The MFA is more interactive and it strives to create a community of artists and critics who support and improve each other. The benefits of an MFA translate into the fact that you refine your creative and artistic abilities, improve your techniques, and enhance your theoretical development.

getting an mfa degree with a focus on painting

The MFA relies and encourages individualism and expression. Art in and on itself is a form of emotional expression of the artist and the universities offering the MFA try to create the environment and space that gives artists just that. That is why many universities have studios and one-on-one sessions to build the confidence of their students and prepare them for a challenging job market.

What Is The Format Of The MFA?

The unique fields that make up the MFA mean that it also has a format different from other fields of study. Its curriculum is concentrated on combining theory and practice, with an emphasis on the practice. The classes are usually in the forms of:

  • Lectures
  • Workshops
  • Studio classes
  • Visiting artist lectures
  • Critiques

Universities realize that practice makes perfect so they have designed the curricula of the MFA in such a way that the majority of time of the students is spent practicing.

This interesting format makes students enrolled in the MFA degree critical thinkers, better art interpreters, and highly engaged members of the arts community. The focus of the degree in most universities is the studio work.

Studio work entails the performance of your field of study. It means that if you are studying painting, then during studio hours you will paint. If you are studying photography, during studio hours you will take pictures.

becoming a dance expert with an mfa degreeJust like in more theoretical degrees, to get the MFA degree you will need to have a capstone or a thesis. But whereas other degrees have more written and research components of their thesis, the MFA will have more performance based components. A dancer will compose and choreograph their own dance routine and perform it in front of professors, experts, and fellow peers. They will evaluate and critique it, and if it passes on the important criteria, they will award the MFA degree.


The MA as outlined in our guide to getting an MA degree, is focused on the social sciences and humanities. It takes more of a theoretical and cultural approach to learning new skills. The MFA though is a lot more different.

  • Whereas the MA takes a broader perspective on the field of study, the MFA is more focused in one artistic field. It is much more similar to the MBA in this regard, even though they take on different areas of study.
  • The MA is a taught or course based degree, while the MFA is a practical degree.
  • The MFA is considered a terminal degree, meaning that you do not need to get a PhD in your field of art. It is considered the highest degree possible to gain academic and professional achievement. Even though PhDs exist for it, students only finish them if they want to become academics in their art subject. If you want a PhD though, it is better to get an MA degree.
  • MFA students participate in workshops and do practical projects, while MA students have seminars and complete a theoretical and research thesis.
  • The MA degree is focused more on studying your field, while the MFA is actually practicing it.

What Are The Types Of MFA Degrees?

There are generally two types of MFA degrees:

  • Low residency
  • High residency

Low residency programs

Low residency programs are similar to distance learning or part time study. They involve students working on their assignments and practicing their art field from a distance and only rarely meeting with professors or mentors. These meetings are maybe a few times during the semester and are scheduled on weekends.

These types of programs are increasing in popularity because of how flexible they are. People who are working and have other obligations cannot move to a different location and start on-campus studies so they choose low residency MFA programs.

Pros of low residency MFA programs

  • Flexibility in schedules
  • Similar to online or distance learning
  • Not as competitive as high residency programs
  • Less intense compared to high residency programs

Cons of low residency MFA programs

  • Higher tuition expenses and less financial air/scholarships
  • Little or no graduate teaching experience
  • Less prestigious than high residency programs

High residency programs

High residency programs are typical on-campus master’s degrees. They are full time studies which expect students to attend all classes and conduct their work on time. They have the usual semester format and more practical work.

Pros of high residency programs

  • Lower tuition or fully funded due to scholarships and grants
  • More publishing opportunities
  • A lot of graduate teaching experience
  • More prestigious
  • Accessible feedback from professors and peers

Cons of high residency programs

  • Less flexible than low residency programs
  • More intense in terms of the work and fewer part time opportunities
  • Higher competition in terms of admissions, especially for students with no experience

Both types of MFA degrees are highly beneficial to students so it doesn’t matter which one you choose. However, if your goals in your career include teaching, it is better to enroll in a high residency program which gives more graduate teaching opportunities.

How Long Does It Take To Get An MFA?

The length of an MFA degree depends on the country and the type you select. It is typically one to two years of full-time study and increases if you become a part time student.

In the U.S it is typically up to two years, but can be completed faster if you take more courses. In the UK and in some European countries it might go on from one to three years of study. So in this case, the MFA will take longer than the MA or the MS degrees.

What Are The Requirements Of An MFA?

There are two types of requirements to get admission into an MFA program:

  • Academic requirements
  • Practical requirements

Academic requirements

Academic requirements include criteria such as:

  • Having a relevant Bachelor’s Degree – You need to have completed a degree which has taught you the basic skills of the artistic field of your choice (not necessarily a Bachelors in Fine Arts or BFA). If you do not have such a degree, then experience is needed in that field of study to make up for the missing academic requirements.
  • A portfolio of work – This can include work that you have previously done or work that you do just for your application. It could have been published or non-published, but needs to be relevant to your area of interest. This is also applicable for people who can present a portfolio such as creative writers, painters, or graphic designers. It is not relevant for dance or drama.
  • A high enough GPA – A minimum threshold is a GPA of 2.1, but it is better to have a higher one.

Note: Many MFA programs do not necessarily require graduate examinations, so check with the school in which you are applying to see whether they require the GRE.

Practical requirements

Practical requirements could be the demonstration of skills through performing in your area of interest. This applies for those who have to dance, perform, or recite and want to get MFAs in dance, drama, or other performing arts.

Ultimately, the decision of whether you will be admitted into an MFA program depends on the quality of your portfolio. The more skill and experience you have, the better your chances of being accepted will be.

What Can You Do With An MFA Degree?

MFA degrees can be beneficial in a variety of ways and open a lot of career opportunities for the artists. Depending on their field of study MFA degree holders can:

  • Open their own practices – this can include galleries, theatres, or creative writing agencies
  • Work for an existing practice

If you are seeking for a specific position, then with an MFA degree you can become:

  • Photographer
  • Graphic Designer
  • Web Developer
  • Art Director
  • Writer, author, or publisher
  • Animator

In addition, since the MFA is a terminal degree, you are qualified to actually become a teacher or a professor in a college. This will allow you to teach your field of study in a theoretical and practical way.

Where To Get An MFA Degree?

The MFA degree originated in the United States of America and then dispersed into other countries. Because of this the first best place to get an MFA degree is the US. They specialize in their teaching methods and have a lot more opportunities for practical applications of the arts.

The second best place is the United Kingdom. It is the first place where the degree was introduced in after the US, so they have taken into account many of their methods. If you want to do your MFA degree in other countries such as Europe, you first need to do your research and see whether the degree is given there. Many European countries do not have it as an option, so you need to contact universities and ask.

Is An MFA Worth It?

Ultimately, the worth of the MFA is determined by its holder. The degree can give you opportunities to further your career and become a successful and professional artist. It equips you with the right skills and tools to apply it and reach the highest level of excellence in your field.

However, if you want a more theoretical approach or want to gain your PhD, it might be better to consider getting an MA degree or look into other types of Masters Degrees.

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