MFA programs generally begin with coursework in both theory and practice. In other words, students study the ideas that have shaped art as well as the techniques commonly used in their particular craft. For dancers, this might mean courses in physiology and dance history as well as advanced level technique classes. Writing students will likely study a wide range of literary types and styles and attempt to emulate them. Visual artists may take art history and cultural theory in addition to studio courses.
The early phase of an MFA program can last anywhere from one to two years. It depends on the overall length of the program, the artistic discipline being studied, and the priorities of the program. Theatrical designers (scenic, costume, and lighting), for instance, may spend a bit longer in this phase because they need to learn a number of practical, technical skills related to their art.
In the latter part of an MFA program, students are encouraged to develop their own voices using what they have learned as a foundation. They are likely to start having opportunities to create more original work, collaborate with others, and in some cases conduct research and produce a thesis. Coursework at this stage usually includes a large amount of independent study along with some optional topics, though this varies according to the discipline. Dancers, for instance, will continue to take some technique courses throughout their study simply because they must do so to maintain physical prowess. Alternatively, a writer or painter may discontinue nearly all traditional coursework once he or she has begun to develop a manuscript or portfolio.