Earning a master’s degree in fine arts provides two things:

  1. Advanced education in artistic disciplines such as painting, design, creative writing, dance, theater, and film
  2. The education that may be required to pursue teaching in these disciplines at the university level.

Some practitioners in a fine arts discipline earn a Master of Fine Arts or MFA, which is considered a terminal degree. Alternatively, historians and other academic analysts of the arts might earn a Master of Arts (MA) and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

MFA Coursework

Coursework for an MFA varies widely depending on both the artistic discipline and specialty of the student. Within graduate theater and film programs, for instance, curriculum requirement for actors differ significantly from those for scenic and lighting designers. Similarly, students in the visual arts follow a path that allows them to focus heavily on their particular area, such as painting, sculpture, or photography and complement their study with classes in other relevant areas. Only a handful of courses, such as core requirements in history and theory, are likely to be taken by everyone in the department.

MFA Research Requirements

Because the MFA is a degree designed for practicing artists, the research requirements may not extensive in some programs. Students may only be required to become familiar with research methods in their field and complete a short research project rather than a lengthy thesis or dissertation. Instead, the bulk of their work is creative. Dancers and actors must perform, direct, and choreograph; visual artists, designers, and writers must create a portfolio of their work.

The MFA vs. The MA

MFA graduates may be well-equipped to pursue careers focused on practicing their discipline, but many also choose to pursue teaching at the university level – either as a supplement to their work or as a full-time alternative. Their combination of education and experience could provide an excellent background for preparing other young artists to enhance their careers. 

For those primarily interested in researching and writing about the arts, MA and PhD programs in the fine arts may be more useful. Coursework in these programs might focus more on history, theory, and research methods for the arts and humanities. Students may choose to develop their own artistic skills as well if they are interested, but course requirements in these areas are usually minimal. They are instead expected to spend the bulk of their time working towards a substantial thesis or dissertation. As a result, the time required to complete these degrees varies quite a bit. Some students may complete both in 4-5 years, but others may take much longer – particularly at the PhD level. It really depends on the nature of the student’s research as well as whether they are studying full-time or part-time.

MA and PhD programs in the fine arts are generally designed to prepare students to pursue careers in higher education, though other options are certainly possible. One or both of these degrees might help someone jumpstart his or her career as an arts and entertainment journalist, a curator in an art museum or film archive, or an arts administrator. 

Online MFA Degrees

Even though online graduate programs are becoming increasingly available in many fields, most graduate programs in the fine arts continue to be campus-based. The primary reason is that training in the arts really requires regular in-person interaction with faculty – especially those in MFA programs. And, though MA and PhD students may find more of their coursework adaptable to a distance learning environment, the limited availability of research resources and advising opportunities means they also need to spend a fair amount of time on campus.

Another reason fine arts programs continue to reside in traditional academic environments is that they provide one of the best opportunities for schools to fundraise for the programs. If they are on campus, qualifying MFA students might find opportunities to teach introductory undergraduate courses in return for tuition remission or a stipend. Since some MFA students may have teaching aspirations, the experience might also valuable on a professional level and therefore even more attractive.

Of course, being in a campus-based program does not mean you need to be there for the entirety of your degree-earning years. Travel is a big part of being an artist, and some students might opt to study in more than one place – not only because it broadens their horizons but also because it may allow for additional funding opportunities. 

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