What is an MFA Degree? What You Need to Know

An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts, a graduate-level degree for students studying visual and performing arts, design or creative writing.
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A man's hand holding a pencil and writing in an open notebook and the text What Does MFA Stand For?

What does MFA stand for in college? An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts; a graduate-level degree earned by students who study and practice visual arts, performing arts, design or creative writing.

Not to be confused with an MA, or Master of Arts degree, an MFA is a terminal degree similar to professional degrees granted in other fields, such as the Ph.D. or the Ed.D., according to guidelines established by the College Art Association of America. Those who choose to pursue an MFA usually want to work in artistic careers and pursue jobs as authors, editors, playwrights, dancers, actors, painters or sculptors. Others plan to teach at the college level.

Types of MFA Concentrations

MFA programs span across broad academic disciplines of art. These include:

  • Visual Arts: Drawing, Painting, Illustration, Sculpting
  • Performing Arts: Theatre Arts, Acting, Directing,
  • Design: Graphic Design and Illustration
  • Creative Writing: Fiction and Nonfiction

To be accepted into a program, you must have already earned a bachelor’s degree. Typically, you’ll also be asked to furnish letters of recommendation, provide a strong personal statement and show samples of your work.

Top MFA Programs: What to Consider

According to Poets & Writers, last year there were more than 200 MFA in creative writing programs in the United States. Of those, 158 are full-residency and 64 are considered low-residency programs.  Many online MFA programs have also emerged in recent years, making an MFA even more attainable for career-changers and students with families. 

If you are weighing the pros and cons of different MFA programs, the Authors Guild suggests you ask yourself these three important questions to ensure the best fit.

  1. Do you want to attend part-time or full-time?
    MFA programs can take anywhere from a year to as long as four years to finish, although most take 2-3 years to complete. If you need to juggle work and family with your MFA program, you might consider programs that allow you to study part-time or online.
  2. Where do you want to live?
    Even if you choose to study part-time, many MFA programs require students to take part in a residency. A residency is a period of study that takes place with other students either on campus or at a specific site. Residencies can be as short as a weekend or last several weeks. MFA programs offer both low-residency and high-residency options; although some can be completed entirely online with no travel necessary.
  3. Do you want to teach?
    Some MFA programs require you to teach undergraduate classes if you are studying on a full scholarship; whereas others afford you the opportunity to teach in exchange for a discounted tuition rate.  The Poets & Writers 2019 MFA Index: Your Guide to More Than 220 Programs identifies those programs that offer stipends, partial or full scholarships – and the teaching requirements necessary to receive MFA financial assistance. A program with a teaching component can give you valuable experience if you plan on teaching at the university level after you graduate.

While an MFA program’s ranking and reputation are important, who you study with and how you study is equally important.

Advantages of a Low-residency MFA

In the Low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), a cohort of 12-17 students attend two, week-long residencies at the Mountainview Grand Resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire each year of their 2-year program. There, they meet with one another, faculty and visiting authors to workshop their writing and hone their craft.

Benjamin Nugent and the text Benjamin NugentAgents and publishers also visit students during these residencies and can answer questions, provide tips on how to get published, and tell writers what they need to know about the industry, said Benjamin Nugent, director of the program and critically acclaimed author of "Good Kids" and "American Nerd."

The low-residency program can give you a unique opportunity to have your work read and critiqued by your peers and other faculty twice a year, Nugent said.

While not in residency, students in the program work intensely on their writing from home, submitting 30 pages of work every five weeks. They are paired with faculty members who provide frequent, 1-on-1 feedback in the form of notes and phone calls, Nugent said.

The best part: Parents, students pursuing second careers, and writers with other obligations have the opportunity to take part in a rigorous program without having to move.

“We have a flexible enough writing schedule that will work with your daily commitments,” Nugent said.

Advantages of an Online MFA

An online MFA program allows you to earn your degree from anywhere in the world, often giving you the opportunity to connect with students and faculty internationally, according to Poets & Writers.  At the same time, online MFA options allow students the greatest level of accessibility and flexibility, said Joan Smith, associate dean of liberal arts, creative writing at SNHU and author of "The Half Orphan's Handbook," a young adult novel coming from Macmillan's Imprint in 2021.

"Nationwide, the MFA has been typically reserved for people of privilege, and the online program allows us to break that (mold) a little bit," Smith said. "Students can maintain work and family balance in their lives while they put in the hard work to pursue a dream," she said.

Joan Smith and the text Joan Smith.Students enrolled in the online MFA in Creative Writing at SNHU still focus intensely on their writing, but are not required to attend residencies. The program offers greater exploration into the "business" of entering the publishing world, allowing you to fully understand how to market your writing and navigate the publishing ecosystem. Learning strategies related to publishing, freelancing, and building an effective online writer’s platform to attract your audience are all covered in the program, especially in the professional writing certificate path, one of two certificate paths the program offers. Those interested in teaching writing can choose to pursue the other graduate certificate focused on teaching creative writing online, which includes learning how to develop web-based courses and coach students virtually.

Online MFAs may also allow students to explore a wider range of fiction writing genres as well. For example, the online MFA in Creative Writing at SNHU encourages a focus on  speculative fiction, young adult, fantasy,  and romance – opening up the MFA to even more writers.

"One of the major benefits of the online MFA is that it helps you learn to communicate in an online space, and today's career authors need to know how to navigate their way through online communities and social media," Smith said.

MFA Degree Careers

"Career opportunities for MFA graduates span a broad range of industries and fields. Organizations continue to seek professionals with exceptional communication skills," according to Derrick Craigie, associate dean of liberal arts, creative writing at SNHU. Craigie, who earned his MFA in 2009, said the degree can help students position themselves in any area in which strong writing and critical thinking skills are needed.

Derrick Craigie and the text Derrick Craigie.Here are a few careers MFAs --including those who specialize in creative writing and other fine arts--can expect to enter.

  • Post-secondary teacher – Most post-secondary teachers work in public and private colleges and universities, professional schools and junior or community colleges. They may also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books. Like a doctorate, an MFA qualifies you to teach at the college level. The median annual salary for post-secondary teachers was $78,470 in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although English language and literature teachers made an average of $66,590. Overall employment of post-secondary teachers is projected to grow 15% through 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations, BLS reports. (Both part-time and full-time teachers are included in this projection.)
  • Art Director – If you have an eye for style and image, a career as an art director affords you the opportunity to oversee publication layouts and movie and television productions. Art directors create the overall design of a project and direct others who develop artwork and layouts, according to BLS. While a bachelor’s degree is the entry-level requirement, some art directors earn an MFA to supplement their work experience and show their creative or managerial ability, BLS states. The median annual salary for art directors was $92,780 in 2018, with those in the motion picture and video industries earning median salaries of $117,360. Newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers earned a median salary of $81,060, according to BLS.
  • Writer or Author – Whether you develop content for books, magazines, film scripts or the internet – today’s writers and authors write for all media. Although a bachelor’s degree is the entry level requirement for most writing jobs, demonstrating frequent, published work is important for career advancement, according to BLS. The median annual salary for writers and authors was $62,170 in 2018. Although employment of writers and authors is projected to grow 8% through 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations, you can expect strong competition because many people are attracted to this occupation, BLS reports.
  • Editor – Thanks to the intense focus and creativity an MFA inspires, the degree more than prepares you for a variety of editing jobs that call on you to plan, review and revise content for print or digital publications. While employers only require that candidates have at least a bachelor’s degree in communications, journalism or English for entry-level jobs, more experience and education is often required for management jobs, according to BLS. The median annual wage for editors was $59,480 in 2018, BLS reports, and editors in the professional, scientific and technical services fields earned $67,220.
  • Multi-media artists and animators – If you like to bring your images to life and pair your stories with action, a career as a multi-media artist or animator might appeal to you. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in computer graphics, art or a related field, strong candidates must be able to show both an impressive portfolio of work and strong technical skills, BLS reports. Although an MFA is not required, it can help you develop the portfolio you need to show examples of your work to employers. According to BLS, the median annual wage for multimedia artists and animators was $72,520 in 2018, while those in the motion picture and video industries  earned an average of $77,860.
    Whether you choose to pursue an MFA to share your love of writing with college students or to perfect your own novel, you can benefit from a degree program that helps foster discipline while it inspires creativity. 

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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