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What is an MFA Degree? What You Need to Know

The hand of an MFA student holding a pencil and writing in a notebook

Know before you read
At SNHU, we want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions about your education and your future—no matter where you choose to go to school. That's why our informational articles may reference careers for which we do not offer academic programs, along with salary data for those careers. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts, a graduate-level college degree earned by students who study and practice visual arts, performing arts, design or creative writing. Those who choose to pursue an MFA usually want to work in artistic professions and pursue careers as authors, editors, playwrights, dancers, actors, painters or sculptors. Others plan to teach at the college level.

If refining your art for personal purposes or professional gain interests you, you might consider advancing your education with an MFA degree.

A T chart comparing an MA and MFA with the text MA: Not a terminal degree, Typically fewer credits, MFA: Terminal degree, Typically more credits

What is the Difference Between a Master's and an MFA?

You may come across two different degree types as you research advanced programs focused on your preferred art form: Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Fine Arts (MFA). For instance, if you're interested in creative writing, you might need to choose between an MA in Creative Writing or an MFA in Creative Writing. There are several differences between an MA and an MFA that you'll want to consider.

While both degree types can help you further explore and grow your talent, pursuing one over another might make the most sense for you.

How long it takes to finish is one factor. At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the MFA in Creative Writing is 48 credits, while the MA in Creative Writing program is only 36 credits.

The professional weight of the credential is another factor. An MFA is considered a terminal degree, similar to professional degrees granted in other fields, such as the Doctor of Philosophy or the Doctor of Education, according to guidelines established by the College Art Association of America (CAA).

Find Your Program

Types of MFA Concentrations

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

  • MFA in Creative Writing: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and screenwriting
  • MFA in Design: graphic design and illustration (SNHU does not currently offer an MFA in Design)
  • MFA in Performing Arts: theatre arts, acting and directing (SNHU does not currently offer an MFA in Performing Arts)
  • MFA in Visual Arts: drawing, painting, illustration and sculpting (SNHU does not currently offer an MFA in Visual Arts)

To be accepted into a program, you must have 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

There are more than 250 MFA in Creative Writing programs in the United States, according to the Poets & Writers database. Of those, 193 are full-residency and 59 are considered low-residency programs. Many online MFA programs have 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 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 allow you to teach in exchange for a discounted tuition rate. The Poets & Writers MFA programs database 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 are equally important.

Why Emily Chose Online MFA in Creative Writing

Advantages of an Online MFA

Emily Jones MFA 2020 with the text Emily JonesWhen Emily Jones '20MFA started at her MFA in Creative Writing at SNHU, she was struggling with imposter syndrome and wondering if she could actually succeed as writer. But throughout her program, her confidence grew along with her skills.

"I was given not only the theory but the practical tools to succeed," Jones said. "I now know exactly how to apply for a teaching job. I know exactly how to pursue freelance clients and budget and market myself."

And all of that learning and growth happened online. 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. At the same time, online MFA options allow students the greatest level of accessibility and flexibility

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 a 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. 

Jessica Binkley MFA 2023 with the text Jessica Binkley"I sought the MFA because it was a terminal degree in creative writing, and I wished to gain the experience and knowledge needed to navigate the publishing world," said Jessica Binkley '23MFA.

She noted SNHU's online MFA provided that valuable knowledge and helped her make progress toward her dream. "The direction of my life has completely changed since I began this journey," she said. "Now I am checking my email and getting letters from agents about my latest manuscript. If someone had told me this life was possible for me before I began my school journey I would have laughed it off."

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 certificates 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. For example, the online MFA in Creative Writing at SNHU encourages a focus on speculative fiction, young adult, fantasy and romance, opening the MFA to even more writers.

Advantages of a Low-Residency MFA

You might choose a low-residency program if you want to join an intimate community of writers and have the flexibility to travel to scheduled in-person residencies each year.

In the Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program at SNHU, a cohort of about 16 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 with 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.

The best part: No matter where you are in your life, a low-residency program allows you to participate in a rigorous program without having to move.

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

The low-residency program helped MFA alumni, including David Moloney '17MFA and Nadia Owusu '17MFA, advance their writing careers.

Is an MFA a Good Degree?

Not only can an MFA program give you a structured space to hone your skills and receive feedback from peers and professionals, it can also help you advance your career.

Derrick Craigie MFA 2009 with the text Derrick Craigie"Career opportunities for MFA graduates span a broad range of industries and fields. Organizations continue to seek professionals with exceptional communication skills," said Derrick Craigie '09MFA, senior associate dean of liberal arts at SNHU. Craigie, who earned his MFA at SNHU, said the degree could help students position themselves in any area in which strong writing and critical thinking skills are needed.

Here are some careers MFA graduates — including those who specialize in creative writing and other fine arts — often focus on:

  • Art director: If you have an eye for style and image, a career as an art director allows you 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. 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, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states. The median annual salary for art directors was $105,180 in 2022, with those in the motion picture and video industries earning median salaries of $107,970.* Newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers earned a median salary of $57,830, BLS reported.* The field of art directors is expected to grow by 6% through 2032, faster than the average for all occupations, according to BLS.*
  • 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 communication, journalism or English for entry-level jobs, more experience and education are often required for management jobs, according to BLS. The median annual wage for editors was $73,080 in 2022, and editors in the professional, scientific and technical services fields earned $77,350, BLS noted.*
  • Multimedia artists and animators: If you like to bring your images to life and pair your stories with action, a career as a multimedia artist or animator might appeal to you. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in animation, art or a related field, strong candidates must 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. The median annual wage for multimedia artists and animators was $98,950 in 2022, while those in the advertising and public relations industries earned an average of $81,870, BLS noted.* Also, the multimedia artists and animators field is expected to grow by 8% through 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to BLS.*
  • 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 $80,840 in 2022, English language and literature teachers made an average of $74,280, BLS reported.* Overall employment of post-secondary teachers is projected to grow 8% through 2032.*
  • 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 $73,150 in 2022, BLS reported.*

Whether you choose to pursue an MFA to share your love of art with college students or nurture your talents, you can benefit from a degree program that helps foster discipline while it inspires creativity.

Discover more about SNHU's MFA in Creative Writing; find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

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

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