The MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, is considered the terminal degree in the practice of dance, theatre, visual art, and other creative disciplines such as writing and filmmaking. While other advanced degrees including the MA and Ph.D. are also awarded in these fields, they are primarily designed to serve those who want to study and pursue careers in history, theory, or arts administration. Alternatively, the MFA is the degree for those who wish to focus on technique and craft – dancers, actors, directors, sculptors, painters, designers, and so forth.
Coursework for the MFA varies widely between disciplines and programs to allow for specialization. Many students can even choose a program based on the concentration or concentrations offered. The MFA program in dance at the University of Illinois, for example, draws students who want to focus on choreography. As program director Sara Hook explains, their diverse population of students – who vary in age, experience, and personal background – pursue this common goal in highly individualized ways. The faculty encourages students to collaborate and share but also to tailor their education by completing carefully selected coursework both in and outside of the department as part of their creative exploration.
For some, the opportunity to get this kind of personalized training is enough reason to earn an MFA. This is especially true for those whose undergraduate degree is not in the arts – those who may have planned or even pursued an alternate career path but later decided to turn their artistic passion into a profession. For others, the practical experience of working with and being mentored by both full-time faculty and guest artists is appealing. For many, though, the primary reason to earn an MFA is a desire to teach. It is often required – and almost always preferred – to teach at the college level, and it is certainly an advantage in all other forms of arts education.
Of course, the career paths of people with MFA degrees are often a mixture of different professional activities. Those with full-time teaching jobs usually continue to practice their art on a professional level, and, many of those who work primarily as dancers, actors, designers, and so forth supplement their income with part-time teaching. Furthermore, an artist’s activities often change at different stages of his or her career, sometimes by choice and sometimes out of necessity. As such, most programs strive to produce artists who have a range of techniques as well as specific strengths. For example, Hook and her colleagues at the University of Illinois want their MFA students to leave with the ability to write and speak about their work, to teach, and to use their bodies to the fullest. They hope to produce choreographers who are also well-rounded artists.
The MFA does require a lot of time and energy; it typically takes three years of full-time study to complete, and it usually involves a substantial final project of some kind. If you want specialized training, an opportunity to work with leading artists in your field, and a comprehensive artistic career that includes teaching, though, it may well be worth the investment.
Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.