How Getting Your MFA Works

Becoming a professional painter requires talent and skill. And an MFA doesn't hurt, either.
Andy Ryan/Getty Images

Have you ever been moved by a poem, marveled at a theatrical performance or admired a stunning piece of jewelry and wondered -- how did they do that?

Innovative artists and designers of all kinds -- from metalsmiths to dancers and painters to computer animators -- have been able to elevate their technical and creative abilities and achieve remarkable success within their fields with the help of a Master of Fine Arts degree, or MFA.


An MFA is a specialized graduate degree in design or fine arts. The degree program is typically 60 credits and takes two years to complete in the United States (some are three- or four-year stints). Almost every state considers it a terminal degree, even though some competing Ph.D. programs exist. This means an MFA is the highest academic degree typically awarded for particular fine arts specializations in visual arts, creative writing, filmmaking, theater or performing arts.

The focus of an MFA program is on the actual practice of art or design, unlike undergraduate or masters degree programs that focus on scholarly study. This concentrated professional degree is intended to provide the student with an advanced education prior to becoming a practicing professional.

To earn this advanced degree, be ready to spend about two years plugging away at a full course load. If you are thinking about starting an MFA program, there are many things to consider. Besides the quality and reputation of a particular program, also pay attention to the school's location, faculty, program coursework, concentration options and even the percentage of graduates who found meaningful work within a year of getting their diploma. When all of these factors are in alignment with your personality and preferences, you'll enjoy your graduate experience much more.

But before you can begin any MFA program, you have to get accepted first. On the next page, discover what the application process is like and what admissions boards are impressed by most.


How to Apply to an MFA Program

All MFA admissions boards request a sample of your work. This is by far the most important part of the application process. To apply for an MFA in photography or another visual arts specialty, for example, you must provide a portfolio of your work. If you're pursuing creative writing, you must submit an original manuscript. And MFA programs in acting require an audition. Ultimately, admissions boards are looking for strong work that shows talent and creativity. Experience and a strong record of performance are important to not only getting accepted, but also securing scholarships.

The application process varies by graduate program; however, many are quite similar to one another. Some of the biggest differences among programs include deadlines and required application materials. Standardized tests like the GRE aren't always mandatory to apply to an MFA program, but official transcripts and a completed graduate college application form are. Typical MFA applications require recommendations from people familiar with your talent, whether that's acting, filmmaking or another specialty. Programs ask you for a personal statement that addresses your goals and reasons for pursuing the degree. Others may also request a professional resume that identifies employment, awards or special achievements of distinction.


Usually, applications need to be received by early January for entry into the fall semester. This includes everything: samples of work, letters of recommendation, personal statement, transcripts and any other materials requested by the school to which you're applying. Admissions decisions and financial aid awards are usually made the following March or April.

MFA programs emphasize the execution of a performance, artwork or design more than academic study. So, what's the coursework like? Turn to the next page to find out.


MFA Coursework

Want to be a filmmaker? An MFA program can give you the technical training you'll need to succeed in your field.
Heath Korvola/Getty Images

All MFA programs are different, and so are the courses they offer and require. Consider the University of Oregon's MFA in dance.

This three-year program requires two kinds of required core classes. Core theory courses include Research Methods and Music for Dancers, and core performance and choreography classes include Technique Lab and Workshop in Rehearsal and Performance. As a graduate student, you would need to fulfill this core coursework, and also select from a smattering of optional classes called electives. Under this scenario, Choreography, Production and Teaching Dance are examples of electives.


Besides electives, another way to shape your graduate education is by choosing a specific concentration within your subject area. If you're pursuing an MFA in creative writing, you can concentrate in poetry or fiction, for example. And even within your concentration, there are many subtle distinctions and paths that you can take. For instance, some schools offer an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in fiction, while other schools simply offer an MFA in fiction. The same is true for a number of other subject areas like painting, sculpture and photography.

If you want a program that allows you to jump from painting to sculpting to classroom discussion on art history -- while staying true to your concentration -- then a non-genre-specific MFA might best fit your interests. On the other hand, if you prefer to focus on one specific area or you're interested solely in a fairly esoteric discipline like costume design or lighting, then a more specialized MFA would be in order.

The MFA is offered in many subject areas. Despite their differences, all types of MFAs share one important commonality: To earn this degree, you must show the highest level of accomplishment by generating a unique body of work or a final project. This substantial final exhibit can take many forms: writing a book-length manuscript, directing a play, presenting a concert or much more.

Have you ever wondered what kind of careers an MFA prepares you for? Go to the next page to find out. You might be surprised by what you discover.


MFA Careers and Accreditation

When you earn an MFA degree, expect to have developed strong conceptual skills and to be able to skillfully execute your craft using the tools of your trade.

If you graduate with an MFA in creative writing, you should be well-prepared to become a publisher, professor, editor or writer. Program coursework tends to emphasize helping writers develop a process for their craft, rather than conduct research.


With an MFA in theater, you can go on to become an actor, director, theater educator, set designer, costume designer or much more. This graduate program lets you focus on many of the dramatic arts on and off the stage. Unlike other subject areas, drama has become much more broken down into subspecialties over time, allowing greater opportunity to specialize within this arena.

There are numerous subjects in which you can earn an MFA, and there are just as many (if not more) careers it prepares you for. To name just a few, consider that holding an MFA will prepare you for careers as an art therapist, painter, videographer, animator, sculptor, jewelry maker, photographer, interior designer, set designer, lighting person, book author or professor. And that's just a short list!

As we've learned, earning this degree begins with choosing a program. And only you know what's best for your future. It's up to you to choose an MFA program that meets your needs, interests, lifestyle and budget. However, you'll want to make sure that whatever program you choose is accredited by a recognized institutional agency, such as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). NASAD accreditation is a non-governmental system of academic review. This review follows a process that determines how well a school or program meets NASAD's standards as well as its own. Schools in the United States aren't required to have accreditation, although without it, they're ineligible for certain program funding. An MFA from an institution that isn't accredited may not be recognized by some employers.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD). (Jan. 8, 2010).
  • College Art Association (CAA). 2010. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • Cornell University, College of Arts and Science, Liberal Arts. 2009. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • Department of Dance Home Page, University of Oregon. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • "Masters of Fine Arts Subject Concentrations for Graduate School." 2010. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). 2003. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • National Portfolio Day Association (NPDA). (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • School of Theatre and Film | ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • "Terminal degree." 2010. (Jan. 8, 2010).
  • UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. (Jan. 9, 2010).
  • The University of Iowa. 2008. (Jan. 9, 2010).