Last Updated: Nov 13, 2014
The M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) degree has become something of a punch line as of late. The BuzzFeed set seems to view it as a rite of passage for shiftless English majors who don’t know what they want to do after undergrad, or wannabe Picassos who end up in grad school to pass the time as they wait for their big break. All kidding aside, however, there really can be value in earning an M.F.A. You just need to make sure it’s right for you.
An M.F.A. is a creative master’s degree that typically takes two to three years. An M.F.A. differs from an M.A. (Master of Arts) in that the course work focuses more on practice in a given field, while an M.A. is focused more on the academic aspect of a field. Common M.F.A. programs include areas such as creative writing, art, screenwriting, dance, drama and theater, design, and filmmaking.
If you’re debating what to do after undergrad and you’re considering pursuing an M.F.A., it’s important to do some research and ask yourself a few key questions before coming to a decision.
Do you need an M.F.A. for your future career?
Aspiring writers and other artists are often attracted to the idea of an M.F.A., thinking it will guarantee their future success. But it’s important to keep in mind that many successful artists do not have an M.F.A., and many people who’ve earned an M.F.A. haven’t published a book or sold a painting. An M.F.A. can certainly help you expand your knowledge and refine your talent, but it won’t necessarily guarantee your success. That said, an M.F.A. is a terminal degree, which means you’ll need it if you want to teach in your field.
Will the degree really help you hone your craft?
Do you feel that a few years of intense instruction will make you a better writer or artist? An M.F.A. gives you the opportunity to learn from accomplished professors who’ve made a name for themselves in your field. Jobs, internships, volunteer work, and working independently can also help you develop your skills, but if you want the structure—not to mention the networking opportunities—of a classroom environment, then an M.F.A. could be a good option for you.
Are you comfortable in a highly competitive environment?
M.F.A. programs are populated by highly creative students, which can make for a very competitive environment. Everyone is vying for the professor with a Pulitzer in his office to take a look at their manuscript, or the professor with the Oscar to read their screenplay. Though being surrounded by fellow artists can be inspiring and may offer opportunities for collaboration, ultimately everyone wants their own work to be published or hung in a gallery. If you think you can handle the heat, jumping into the fire of a dog-eat-dog M.F.A. program can be good preparation for the real world.
Can you handle (sometimes harsh) criticism?
In such a competitive environment, it stands to reason that your work will be scrutinized and critiqued—sometimes harshly. M.F.A. professors are there to cull from students the best work they’re capable of producing. That can potentially do wonders for your artistic skills, but for some students, it can also be discouraging. It’s important to keep a thick skin and understand that your professors are on your side—they’re just going to expect a lot from you.
Will the investment pay off?
M.F.A. programs can be pricey, and even tuition for low-residency options can ring in at tens of thousands of dollars per year. Costs should never stand in the way of your education, and scholarships can certainly help. But before you decide on an M.F.A. program, you should research your future job prospects and determine whether the investment in a graduate degree will pay off in the long run. Will an M.F.A. give you greater earning power? If you’ll need to take out loans in order to go to grad school, will you be able to comfortably pay them off on your future salary? Many colleges and universities across the country offer excellent M.F.A. programs, and higher tuition doesn’t implicitly mean a better quality education. Look for a program that offers the academics you want and the reasonable tuition rates you need.
Are you considering pursuing an M.F.A.? What are some of the pros and cons you’ve been contemplating? Share your thoughts in the comments!