In times of economic stress, going back to school and completing a degree program becomes an attractive option for many. There are many different kinds of programs to choose from, ranging from the familiar master's and doctorate tracks to specialized degrees, such as the juris doctor (J.D.) program offered at most U.S. law schools. However, for students in the arts, there is one commonly sought degree: the MFA.
MFA stands for master of fine arts, and is exactly as advertised: a graduate degree for students wishing to pursue advanced studies in one or more of the fine arts. There are multiple areas in which an MFA can be earned: acting, sculpting, photography, music, and dance are only a few of the areas available. However, especially in smaller universities, the most common MFA program is generally creative writing. Within this category, degree specialties available usually include fiction, nonfiction and poetry, although other specialties, such as screenwriting, are not uncommon. MFA programs generally last two to three years for full-time students.
Most MFA programs require that an applicant already have an undergraduate degree; however, the degree need not be in the same field. For example, my MFA is in creative writing, but my undergraduate degree is in mathematics. As part of the application process, a portfolio of previously completed work, or an audition in some cases, is required for acceptance. Portfolios can range widely in size and substance; if applying to study in an MFA program, pay careful attention to the program's requirements.
An MFA is not to be confused with a master of arts (MA) degree; the goals and foci of each program are different. In an MA program, the course of study is generally very academic and focused on critical theory and analysis of a given specialty. The MFA, on the other hand, is very much geared toward the practice of the art itself. Thus, an MA in, for example, modern literature will focus on close readings of the material studied, detailed analysis and the ability to concatenate research and critical readings in the field into original ideas and arguments. An MFA, while covering similar ground in theory and analysis to a lesser extent, is designed to train a student to write more effectively in their given field.
Another difference, and perhaps a more important one, is that while both degrees contribute to an academic career, the MFA is considered a terminal degree, which means that it is the end point of studies in that field and is sufficient academic credential (along with other qualifications) to obtain a professorship. The MA, while valuable, is not considered a terminal degree. There are Ph.D. programs in the fine arts, but obtaining one isn't necessary for professorship.
While teaching at the university level is the primary goal for most MFA seekers, it isn't the only reason to pursue the degree. Many students take MFA coursework as preparation for working as teachers, editors or other creative positions. Others take on MFA studies to become more familiar with the art, to become better practitioners. An MFA is a narrowly focused degree, but once it's in hand, it can open unexpected doors. For those reasons, the MFA can be expected to be a popular choice for many students for years to come.