If you want to immerse yourself in your craft and further your career in the arts, a Master of Fine Arts degree may be the right path. An MFA degree combines hands-on experience, mentorship, and scholarship to further your artistic skill beyond the level of an undergraduate degree.
What is an MFA degree?
An MFA is a graduate arts degree that usually takes two to three years to complete, though some programs are longer or shorter. MFAs provide deep immersion in the field through workshops, productions, performances, or studio classes. Some programs are highly selective, admitting only a handful of students in each cohort. Requirements for completing an MFA can include teaching undergraduate classes and a thesis project.
Top 5 Schools for Master of Fine Arts Programs
|1||Yale University||New Haven, Connecticut|
|2||Cornell University||Ithaca, New York|
|3||Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
|4||Marywood University||Scranton, Pennsylvania|
|5||University of Southern California||Los Angeles, California|
What’s the Difference between an MFA and an MA?
MFAs and MAs are both graduate arts degrees, but the MFA degree focuses on practical experience, rather than academic study. Also, an MFA is a terminal degree, meaning it’s considered the highest degree in the field, rather than a prerequisite for a doctoral degree.
What Schools Have the Best MFA Programs?
If you’re looking for the right school for you, we can help you find the best school based on the program you’re looking for. We’ve compiled a list of the best MFA degrees. These colleges are ranked based on their graduate tuition (lowest is best) and faculty-student ratio (lowest is best). We included a mix of both large, well-known universities and less famous institutions.
The Best 26 Schools for MFAs
Yale University offers a plethora of MFA options: in the School of Art, Graphic Design, Painting and Printmaking, Photography, Sculpture, and Critical Practice; in the School of Drama, Acting, Design, Sound Design, Directing, Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Playwriting, Stage Management, Technical Design and Production, and Theater Management. Art programs require two years of residence and drama programs require at least three. The Ivy League school’s MFA program is ranked second-best in the country by U.S. News and World Report, tied with the Art Institute of Chicago.
Cornell University offers two-year MFA programs in Art and Creative Writing. The Creative Writing program has two emphasis options – Fiction and Poetry – and only admits eight students at a time. Because of this small cohort size, the university offers a financial aid package that fully funds each student. Both MFAs feature small cohorts and allow each student to design a personalized program of study by working closely with faculty members.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
PAFA prides itself on its low faculty-student ratio, which allows students to learn directly from artists with diverse experience. The MFA program also invites visiting artists and critics to campus to give feedback to students.
Marywood University is a small, liberal arts, NASAD accredited, Catholic university located in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in close proximity to Philadelphia and New York City. The college offers a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary MFA in Visual Arts with tracks in Clay, Sculpture, Printmaking, Painting, and Photography along with their unique “Get Your Masters with the Masters” MFA program, a low-residency MFA in Graphic Design, Illustration, and Sequential Art for working professionals. With spacious, state of the art facilities and dedicated professional faculty, Marywood is the perfect affordable option for a quality two-year MFA at a school with a low faculty-student ratio.
University of Southern California
The University of Southern California, ranked as the No. 1 college for design by Niche.com, offers a two-year, studio-focused MFA in Art and a five-term Design MFA through the Roski School of Art and Design. USC also offers MFAs in Cinematic Arts, Film and Television Production, Animation and Digital Arts, Interactive Media (with an emphasis option in Games and Health), Producing for Film, Television and New Media, Theatre (with an emphasis in Acting, Directing, Dramatic Writing or Theatrical Design), and Writing for Screen and Television.
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Alfred University offers four MFA programs, each requiring two years of study: Ceramic Art, Electronic Integrated Arts, Alfred-Düsseldorf Painting, and Sculpture-Dimensional Studies. Of these, the ceramic program is ranked No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report. Electronic Integrated Arts is an interdisciplinary program in which students explore emerging technologies. For the Painting MFA, students spend two semesters abroad at a studio in Düsseldorf, Germany.
- *Ceramics, Electronic Integrated Arts, Sculpture / Dimensional Studies: All students receive full tuition funding and semester paid assistantships.
- *Painting annual tuition: $22,520. All students receive two, one semester paid assistantships.
At Edinboro University, graduate students can earn a three-year MFA in Ceramics, Metals, Painting, Printmaking, or Sculpture. According to GradReports, Edinboro alumni had the highest starting salary among MFA graduates, at $44,200.
School of Visual Arts
The School of Visual Arts New York City offers an MFA in Fine Arts ranked fifth in the nation by GradReports. Each student has access to a private studio and receives mentoring from internationally renowned artists. SVA also offers MFAs in Art Practice, Art Writing, Computer Arts, Design, Design for Social Innovation, Illustration as Visual Essay, Interaction Design, Photography, Video and Related Media, Products of Design, Social Documentary Film, and Visual Narrative
Adelphi University, located on Long Island, offers an MFA in Creative Writing that emphasizes cross-genre learning. In this program, students learn from award-winning professors and can specialize in Poetry, Fiction, or Creative Nonfiction.
Columbia University offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing. Columbia’s MFA programs are ranked No. 10 in the country by U.S. News and World Report, and all programs offer individualized instruction and the ability to learn from experienced guest lecturers.
California Institute of Integral Studies
The School of Consciousness and Transformation at the California Institute of Integral Studies offers an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing. This program is a two-year, low-residency MFA which emphasizes the value of conversation across the arts, social, cultural, and global contexts, and inquiry-driven practice.
Washington University in St. Louis has a competitive MFA in Writing program which accepts 12 students each year and offers emphases in Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction. Through the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, WashU also offers MFAs in Visual Art and in Illustration and Visual Culture. The school also doesn’t charge tuition for MFAs. Students get a complete tuition remission and every student also receives a University Fellowship to meet expenses, this year in the amount of $26,831.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Virginia Commonwealth University offers MFAs in Fine Arts (concentration in Jewelry/Metalworking, Glassworking, Furniture Design, Fibers, Ceramics, Kinetic Imaging, Painting and Printmaking, Photography and Film, or Sculpture), Theatre (concentration in Pedagogy/Literature or Pedagogy/Performance), Design (concentration in Interior Environments or Visual Communications), and Creative Writing (concentration in Fiction, Poetry, or Dual Genre). The Creative Writing MFA has a 4:1 faculty-student ratio, and the Dual Genre track includes creative nonfiction classes.
California College of the Arts
The California College of the Arts offers six MFA programs: Comics, Design (concentrations in Graphic, Industrial, or Interaction Design), Film, Fine Arts, and Writing. Besides offering a wide variety of options for two- and three-year programs, CCA is one of the top art and design schools in the U.S. with close access to San Francisco’s thriving art scene.
New York University
Among the graduate programs offered at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts are a two-year MFA in Game Design, which teaches not only game development but criticism, and a three-year MFA in Design for Stage and Film. In the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, students can earn MFAs in Creative Writing (with a Fiction or Poetry emphasis) and Creative Writing in Spanish, led by prominent Spanish-language writers. NYU’s graduate programs are ranked among the best in the country, and alumni have gone on to earn accolades such as the National Book Award.
New York Academy of Art
Graduate students at the New York Academy of Art earn a two-year MFA that requires 85% of coursework to be in studio art. Available concentrations are Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, and students can complete elective tracks in Anatomy and Printmaking. The program is designed to teach traditional techniques, contemporary methodologies, and art criticism.
Duke University offers a unique MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, which combines video production with art theory and experimentation. Duke also offers a two-year MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis. Dance students can pursue a college teaching certificate or entrepreneurship elective as part of their MFA.
Minneapolis College of Art and Design
The Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a two-year MFA in Visual Studies. In this program, students are encouraged to self-direct their study, and have access to faculty mentorship and personal studio space. The MFA is an interdisciplinary program in which students learn to perfect their craft in the visual arts through studio and seminar experience.
State University of New York – New Paltz
SUNY New Paltz offers an MFA in Studio Art, the largest in the SUNY system. Students can specialize in Ceramics, Metal, Painting and Drawing, Photography & Related Media, Printmaking, and Sculpture. The metal program, which explores modern jewelry and metalsmithing, is nationally ranked and one of the largest in the U.S. Situated in the scenic Hudson Valley, SUNY New Paltz offers tuition waivers and stipends as part of their teaching assistantships, as well as access to the New York City art scene. They have an affordable tuition because all of their students receive a scholarship that allows them to pay in-state tuition rates.
Georgia State University
At Georgia State University, students can earn an MFA in Studio Art with concentrations in Ceramics, Drawing and Painting, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Photography, Sculpture, Printmaking, and Textiles or an MFA in Creative Writing with concentrations in Fiction or Poetry. The Studio program offers full tuition waivers as part of teaching assistantships, as well as access to the Atlanta art and design community (Nine of the top 10 interior design firms have offices in the City in the Forest.).
Carnegie Mellon University
According to U.S. News and World Report, Carnegie Mellon’s graduate fine arts programs are among the top 10 in the country. CMU’s three-year Art MFA offers a highly interdisciplinary approach which teaches students about art criticism and production through close interaction with faculty. Through the School of Drama, students can earn MFAs in Costume Production, Design (concentration in Scenery, Costumes, Lighting, Sound, or Video and Media Design), Directing, Dramatic Writing, and Production Technology and Management.
University of Montana
The University of Montana offers MFAs in Art and in Media Arts, in which students learn to produce art in a variety of digital fields, from game design to animation to filmmaking. Ninety percent of Art MFA graduates become professional artists after graduation, and 25% are in full-time academic positions. Other MFA options are Theatre and Creative Writing (concentrations in Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry)
University of California – Los Angeles
The MFA programs at UC Los Angeles are recognized as No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report. The university offers six Art MFAs (Ceramics, Interdisciplinary Studio, New Genres, Painting and Drawing, Photography, and Sculpture) as well as Choreographic Inquiry, for students pursuing a career in dance choreography, and Design/Media Arts, Film and Television, and Theatre. Regardless of which path students follow, they will benefit from UCLA’s experienced faculty and guest lecturers, as well as close proximity to the LA art and film community.
Boston University offers a unique one-year MFA in Literary Translation, in which students learn to translate texts across languages and critically evaluate translations. In the Creative Writing program, which can also be completed in one year (including summer), students study abroad for up to three months and learn about international literature. Other MFA programs at Boston include Graphic Design, Painting, Sculpture, Costume Design, Costume Production, Directing, Lighting Design, Production Management, Scene Design, Sound Design, Technical Production, Cinema and Media Production, Screenwriting, Film and Television Studies, and Playwriting.
University of Florida
Dating back to 1949, the University of Florida’s Creative Writing program is one of the oldest in the country. According to its website, the MFA has a strong international perspective. Of its seven faculty, all of which are full-time, four were born outside the U.S. The University of Florida also offers MFAs in Theatre (specializations in Acting and Design) and Art (specializations in Art and Technology, Ceramics, Creative Photography, Drawing, Graphic Design, Painting, Printmaking, and Sculpture).
University of Massachusetts – Boston
UMass Boston offers a three-year MFA in Creative Writing which accepts five poetry students and five fiction students each year. Students complete writing workshops and seminars and learn through mentorship of accomplished professors and visiting writers.
How Did We Rank this List?
Our ranking was based 55.6% on faculty-student ratio and 44.4% on tuition.
From each institution’s website, we gathered rates for in-person graduate tuition for out-of-state domestic students. Where tuition was only listed on a per-credit or per-semester basis, the year was assumed to consist of two semesters, twelve credits each. Tuition figures do not include fees or other expenses. Where rates varied based on program, the least expensive MFA was used.
Each school was given a score from 1 for the highest tuition to 26 for the lowest. Schools were also scored from 1 to 26 for faculty-student ratio based on data from U.S. News and World Report. For the New York Academy of Art, for which data was unavailable, the average faculty-student ratio of the other colleges was used for the ranking. Tuition scores were multiplied by two and faculty-student ratio points by 2.5. These weighted scores were added together to produce the final ranking.
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Pursuing an MFA Degree – What You Need to Know
Graduate programs are becoming an increasingly common next step for those with an undergraduate degree. For many professional and aspiring artists, a Master of Fine Arts is worth considering. An MFA can be a great choice for artists who are passionate about their craft and want to hone their skills. MFA’s are also a good choice for artists who want to add credentials to their resumes to give them a competitive edge in their field and advance their careers.
Whether you’re interested in visual arts, creative writing, theatre, dance, or any other creative field, an MFA can help artists become masters of their craft. Not only will you have the highest degree in fine arts, but the right program will also allow you to meet like-minded individuals and connect with experts in your field.
So, where do you start? Before taking the big step of applying for an MFA program, there are some questions you must ask yourself:
- What am I interested in?
- What do I want to study?
- How do I choose the right program?
- What do I want to do once I complete my degree?
Read on to learn more about MFA degrees, their requirements, and potential outcomes.
Types of MFA Programs
The decision to pursue a graduate degree of any kind is never an easy one to make, and neither is pursuing a career in art. A career in fine arts is generally thought to be tough – most fine arts fields are competitive and require artists to have a passion for what they do. If you choose to complete an MFA, you are committing to your craft. Having an MFA signifies that an artist has undergone rigorous study and practice in their field.
What Am I Interested In?
Before you start looking at schools, get a general idea of what type of MFA program you are interested in, as well as what discipline you want to concentrate on. Chances are that if you are looking into completing an MFA, you already have a creative background in some form of art. If you already have a background in fine arts or are interested in several disciplines, the first step is to narrow down your interests based on your goals and where you want to take your career.
If you’re passionate about art, then a visual arts program could be what you’re looking for. If you want to become a better writer, a creative writing program would be the best choice for you. Some schools offer interdisciplinary programs, meaning you can complete an MFA degree in two or more disciplines. This option can be more challenging, but also more rewarding as they allow you to expand your skillset.
MFA Degree or MA Degree?
Ensure that it is indeed an MFA that you are interested in attaining and not an MA (Master of Arts). While they are both recognized graduate degrees, their objectives and potential post-graduate outcomes differ greatly.
An MA gears more to those who are interested in theory and analysis. If you want to study liberal arts, you should pursue an MA. During this type of graduate program, you’ll spend more time writing academic papers on art created by other artists than you would spend creating your art. You don’t necessarily have to be an artist to pursue an MA.
An MFA is considered a terminal degree meant for professional artists that focuses on developing their creative skills. The practice and training you receive during an MFA provide a more in-depth immersion into your craft. You’ll spend more time in the studio or participating in workshops than you write essays or analyze other peoples’ work.
Be sure to understand whether your interests are more aligned with creativity or theory and analysis before applying to an MFA program. For example, if you are more interested in art history, rather than creating your art, an MA in art history is more suitable for you.
While the nature of the two degrees differ, you will be required to complete and defend a thesis at a thesis exhibition at the end of your program.
In summary, if you want to be a scholar, pursue an MA degree. If you want to continue as an artist, pursue an MFA degree.
Full-time or Part-time?
Not only is it important to determine the time-frame in which you want to complete your MFA program, but you also have to think about whether you are willing to complete the program full-time or part-time. Most schools offer at least one of two options for their programs: “low-residency” and “high-residency.”
- Low-Residency: Low-residency programs are part-time and allow more flexibility than high-residency programs. While some schools may require their low-residency students to be on-campus a couple of times a year, most schools that offer low-residency options rely primarily on distance learning and online courses, depending on your discipline. An online master’s degree is especially common for creative writing programs.
A low-residency program is a great option for an MFA student who wants to work full-time while they complete their MFA, or for those who are unable to relocate to the city that their desired school is located. Keep in mind that funding is usually reserved for high-residency students, and there are few graduate opportunities such as teaching or research assistantship for low-residency students.
- High-Residency: High-residency programs, also known as full programs, are full-time and more intense, requiring more hours dedicated to completing the program. High-residency programs provide an immersive experience. You will interact and collaborate with your classmates and professors more than you would in a part-time program because you’ll probably end up spending most of your time with them.
While most high-residency programs discourage their students from working full-time jobs while they complete their MFA degree, many schools have generous funding available for their high-residency students. They also often offer mentorship opportunities and to teach your courses. Since you will probably be dedicating every day to workshops or studios, most MFA students don’t have time for a full-time job anyway.
Whether you choose a low-residency or high-residency program, the length of time that it takes to complete an MFA is typically 2-3 years.
What Can I Study?
MFA programs usually have a wide variety of disciplines, concentrations, and specializations to choose from. The most common MFA disciplines are creative writing and visual art. From there, you will find programs that break these disciplines down into sub-disciplines such as poetry, creative nonfiction, contemporary art, studio art, and more.
Some other common MFA disciplines are:
Some schools offer advanced music programs as MFA degrees. Many institutions continue to incorporate technology into their MFA programs, resulting in newer fields of study such as graphic design.
Although most schools offer MFA degrees in writing and visual art, every school has a unique set of concentrations for their programs. Be sure to take the time to research what schools offer your desired field of study.
Requirements for MFA Programs
Before choosing a school for an MFA program, make sure to know the basic requirements, as they differ at every institution.
Most graduate schools in the United States require candidates to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). For entry to an MFA program, the GRE is often not required.
As with most graduate programs, you are required to have completed a bachelor’s degree before being admitted to an MFA program. A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete.
Don’t be discouraged if your academic background does not match your desired MFA field of study! A bachelor’s in fine arts (BFA) is a great foundation to build on if you want to pursue an MFA, but it isn’t necessary. Although some schools will encourage candidates to have completed a BFA before applying for an MFA program, it is usually not required. An undergraduate degree in any field can prove to be beneficial in preparing you for an MFA.
Institutions consider many factors when evaluating potential MFA candidates, including skill, resume, references, and portfolio.
The portfolio is probably the most important part of an MFA candidate’s application. Your portfolio is your chance to demonstrate the quality of your work and show off what you’ve accomplished so far. Ensure you follow your desired institution’s guidelines on how to assemble your portfolio and what type of content to include. The content can range from writing samples for an MFA in creative writing or an audition tape for an MFA in theatre.
If you are applying to an MFA program that focuses on performance, like drama, music, or dance, be prepared to either go in for a live audition or send in an audition tape.
Although your undergraduate major may not be an issue when applying for an MFA program, some schools may require you to have taken certain courses to be eligible for an MFA program. Visit your preferred school’s MFA application requirements page to make sure you meet all of their requirements before applying.
If you did not take certain prerequisites during your undergraduate degree, you may have to go back to school for a bit to take those courses before applying to the program you’re interested in. With proper planning, you usually complete these in a semester. Be sure to discuss your options with the academic advisors at your school of choice.
Get All of Your Documents Together
Once you’re done with your research, make a list of everything your desired school requires to complete the application process. This generally includes:
- Completed Application Form
- Portfolio and/or Writing Sample(s)
- References/Letters of Recommendation
Be sure to start gathering these documents early to avoid missing deadlines. For example, if you’re asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, be sure to give them at least a few week’s notice to have the letter submitted on time.
Most schools have their MFA programs start in the Fall, so you should begin the application process a year before you want to begin the program. If you are in your last year of undergraduate study, you can apply for tentative admission on the condition that you will complete your undergraduate degree before beginning your MFA.
Make sure you start applications early and mark down the deadlines of the schools you plan on applying to. Most schools open applications in the Fall, and close applications in the Winter. The most competitive programs have an application deadline of early January. Schools generally make their final decisions by the Spring.
Benefits of an MFA Degree
Many benefits come with holding an MFA degree. In the world of fine arts, an MFA is a highly respected degree that demonstrates discipline and dedication to your craft. As an MFA is usually considered a terminal degree, you will most likely hold the highest degree of education possible in your field, which gives you an advantage over those who may have a similar experience to you, but who only hold a Bachelor’s degree. Artists often find that they leave their MFA having significantly added to their portfolio or having created an important body of work, such as their thesis.
During your MFA program, you will most likely meet many other like-minded individuals, whether they be your instructors, your fellow students, or important artists in your field. Your peers will probably go on to pursue different opportunities than you and may meet new people who interest you, so it’s great to have a network of colleagues and professionals as you continue with your career.
Additionally, your program may allow you to work with professionals and attend events that would have been difficult to access without being enrolled in the program. Plus, you may create some great long-term friendships.
An MFA can open you up to many career possibilities, or help you advance in your current career. Below is a list of different career paths your MFA may lead you to, depending on your program and discipline.
- Creative Writer
- Graphic Designer
- Screen Actor
- Stage Actor
Having an MFA doesn’t mean you have to remain in the fine arts world. The skills that you will attain during your MFA can be transferred to several fields.
Other fields you can consider entering after completing an MFA are:
Because an MFA suggests that you are an expert in your field, you may be eligible for more executive roles, such as managing an art gallery or becoming the director of a museum. You can even start your own business.
You often will not be restricted to just one career path and may have the freedom to move around within your discipline.
An MFA usually qualifies you to teach at a university or college level. Most full-time MFA students are required to spend at least one semester as a teaching assistant, so you will end up graduating with some teaching experience under your belt. This experience that you’ll get during your MFA will help you determine whether teaching is a career path that interests you. With additional certifications, an MFA graduate may also be able to teach grade school.
Choosing an MFA Program
Now that you know what you want to study and have an idea of what you can expect to gain from an MFA degree, you can move on to the most important part – choosing the school you want to attend. The right school can make or break your MFA experience, so choose wisely!
Where Do I Want to Live?
Location may not be as important for other graduate programs, but you should strongly consider location if pursuing an MFA degree in some programs. Location doesn’t matter as much if you are pursuing a low-residency program. For a high-residency program, though, location plays a crucial part in your graduate experience. The city you live in will determine who you will have the opportunity to meet, and the opportunities in certain cities may appeal to you more than in others.
For example, if you want to study performing arts to work in theatre, a school in New York City might be the best option for you. However, if you want to pursue an MFA in creative writing with hopes of beginning a career in screenwriting, attending a school in Los Angeles would give you more opportunities in film and to meet people already in the industry.
Your environment also plays a large role in your success in an MFA program. In what type of environment are you most creative? You might be a writer who enjoys the big city and finds inspiration while people-watching in cafes. Or maybe you’re a painter who needs calm and the constant view of a natural landscape to create. If your family is your support system, keep in mind how far you’re willing to move away from them.
You must also think about funding and the type of lifestyle you want to live. Although many schools will fully fund their MFA students, this isn’t always guaranteed. While New York City and Los Angeles provide ample opportunities for MFA graduates to hone their craft and advance in their careers, they are also expensive cities to live in. If money is an issue, you may want to consider a school in a city with a lower cost of living,
Faculty and Potential Mentors
Another important thing to think about is the faculty that is currently at your desired school. There may be an artist you look up to in your discipline who is also teaching MFA courses at a certain school. That school may be worth considering for the opportunity to work with them or have them as a supervisor. There may also be a renowned instructor in your discipline who has a track record of producing very successful artists.
If you’re extra keen, you can reach out to faculty members with who you would be interested in working. They may be able to give you extra insight into your potential program and discipline, plus you’ll be building a relationship with them before stepping foot on campus.
Connect With Current and Past Students
Reach out to other people who are currently enrolled in MFA programs or have already completed an MFA degree. Get the inside scoop on what a day in the life of a graduate student is like. It’s also beneficial to take some time to learn about what others chose to do with their degrees. It’s always good to seek out advice.
If you’ve chosen to pursue an MFA, you’ve decided to embark on an exciting journey. You’ll get to immerse yourself in your creative passion and excel at it for the rest of your life. Start your research to find the right MFA program sooner rather than later to determine what school you want to go to and what your field of study will be. You want to be sure that you’re ready for this commitment.
An MFA is not easy, but worth it to do what you love as an aspiring writer or artist. With the right school and the right program, you’ll be well on your way to making your dreams come true.