What Is an MFA Degree?

MFA requirements, program types, and more.

A fine art painter.
••• Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

In most areas of study, students have the option of enrolling in a master's or doctoral program to continue their education. Students interested in the creative arts can pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA).

An MFA is a two- or three-year program in filmmaking, creative writing, visual arts, graphic design, photography, dance, theater, and other performing arts. It's an applied arts program for students who want to become professional working artists.

Difference Between MFA and MA

The Master of Fine Arts degree is different from the Master of Arts (MA) degree. An MFA is an academic and practical program concentrated on one particular area of study. MA programs are more liberal arts-based, and they include a scholarly study of the subject.

In the United States, an MFA is recognized as a terminal degree, meaning it's the highest degree available in a field of study. A terminal degree is necessary to become a professor at a college or university.

MFA Requirements

Master of Fine Arts degrees are offered at institutions around the world, and each has its own set of requirements.

Unlike other graduate programs, MFA programs don't always require the GRE. Some may require that applicants already have an MA in their field, while others require only a bachelor's degree. Many institutions don't require that the bachelor's degree be the same major as the MFA's area of study.

Most MFA programs require that students submit a portfolio of work along with their application, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation. This portfolio should be composed of professional-level work in the field of study.

Portfolio content varies depending on the area of study. For example, a student wishing to pursue an MFA in creative writing will present a portfolio of writing samples. A student who wants to pursue an MFA in dance, however, will complete a performance audition. Admittance into an MFA program largely depends on the quality of the applicant's portfolio.

Low Residency MFA vs. High Residency MFA

There are two different types of MFA programs: low residency and high residency.

A low residency program typically involves distance education and brief on-campus residencies that are held over weekends or a few times a semester. Low residency programs are becoming increasingly more popular given their flexibility.

A high residency ​program, also referred to as a full residency or on-campus program, is held entirely on campus. These programs are more intense, with less flexible schedules, than low-residency MFAs.

Both low and high residency MFA programs can advance your abilities and career in your artistic field.

Pros and Cons of Low Residency MFA Programs

Pros of Low Residency Programs

  • Flexible schedules designed for students who have jobs, families, and other commitments in addition to going to school.
  • Rooted in distance education and online learning; face-to-face workshops on campus are held on occasion.
  • Fewer admission requirements and more spots available.
  • Less intense due to the infrequency of face-to-face classes.
  • MFA degree awarded upon completion of the program.

Cons of Low Residency Programs

  • Tuition is expensive and self-financed.
  • Little to no graduate teaching experience.
  • Often offered at universities with less national name-recognition, though the programs themselves may be well-regarded.

Pros and Cons of High Residency MFA Programs

Pros of High Residency Programs

  • Typically fully funded, with grants and stipends available.
  • In-program opportunities to have work published, displayed, or performed.
  • Usually include teaching graduate or undergraduate classes.
  • Often offered at universities with high name recognition and prestige.
  • Include opportunities for mentorship from professors and networking with classmates.
  • MFA degree awarded upon completion of the program.

Cons of High Residency Programs

  • Require relocation to a new city and intense commitment for the duration of the program.
  • Students often discouraged from working during the program.
  • Less flexibility in scheduling.
  • Fewer spots available.
  • Admission is more challenging and competitive.

If you are having trouble deciding which type of MFA program is right for you, speak to students who are currently enrolled in a variety of programs to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. When you are choosing, consider your personal needs, professional goals, and financial situation to find the right MFA program for you.