What Is an MFA Degree?

Definition & Examples of an MFA Degree

fine artist
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An MFA degree is issued to those who graduate from a post-secondary education program focusing on the arts. It stands for Master of Fine Arts degree.

Learn more about MFA degrees and their requirements.

What Is an MFA Degree?

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

Alternate name: MFA

How an MFA Degree Works

Colleges and universities offer these two- or three-year applied arts programs for students who want to become professional working artists. Students can choose to pursue areas such as filmmaking, creative writing, visual arts, graphic design, photography, dance, theater, and other performing arts.

MFA Degree 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 that student take the GRE. Some may require that applicants already have an Master of Arts (MA) degree 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 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.

Types of MFA Degree Programs

There are two main 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. These types of 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, and both come with their advantages and disadvantages.

Pros and Cons of MFA Degree 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

Cons of Low-Residency Programs

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

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 name recognition and prestige
  • Include opportunities for mentorship from professors and networking with classmates

Cons of High-Residency Programs

  • Often 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 can be challenging and competitive

MFA Degree vs. MA Degree

MFA

MA

Focused on one area of artistic study Focuses on many areas of artistic study
Recognized as a terminal degree Not recognized as a terminal degree

An MFA is an academic and practical program concentrated on one particular area of study. Master of Arts (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. An MA is not considered a terminal degree.

Key Takeaways

  • An MFA degree is a Master of Fine Arts degree.
  • Colleges and universities offer two- or three-year MFA programs for students who want to become professional working artists.
  • Students can choose between low-residency or high-residency MFA programs, both of which have pros and cons.
  • An MFA degree is not the same as a Master of Arts (MA) degree.