MFA Degree Overview: Types, Jobs, and Salaries

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Learn about the Master of Fine Arts degree program, what you’ll need to apply for admission into graduate school, and the job and salary outlook for MFA degree holders.

[Featured image] An MFA degree student stands in front of paintings in art gallery.

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is a graduate degree program that provides you with the opportunity to focus on a specific discipline related to the arts, such as creative writing, studio art, or theater. There are many reasons for pursuing an MFA, including getting concentrated time to dedicate to your craft, receiving peer and professional feedback, and further honing your skill set. What’s more, you may qualify for more opportunities after completing your MFA degree. 

Learn about the areas in which you can earn an MFA, the benefits of attending an MFA program, and the salaries you may be able to achieve after graduation. 

What is an MFA degree?

An MFA is a master’s degree that focuses on coursework in a specific artistic field, such as visual arts, performing arts, creative writing, or design. Many MFAs are considered terminal degrees, meaning that it’s the highest degree you can earn in that subject matter. As such, the degree often qualifies you to teach at the university level, in addition to pursuing other opportunities related to your field. 

MFA degree: Areas and concentrations

You can earn your MFA in a number of areas pertaining to the fine arts. That includes both creative fields such as fiction writing, acting, and sculpture, as well as more technical-creative fields, such as film production and stage design. 

Visual arts

In a visual arts program (sometimes called studio arts), you can concentrate in ceramics, sculpture, drawing, painting, illustration, photography, and metalsmithing. A visual arts program often includes studio time, so you’ll have a dedicated space to work on your technique while networking with other students and sharing resources. 

Performing arts

In a performing arts program, you can study theater, acting, dance, directing, stage management, and dramaturgy. A performing arts program often provides you with talent development and hands-on opportunities to participate in live productions—both on campus and elsewhere. 

Media arts

In a media arts program, you can study aspects of documentary or narrative film, including production, directing, cinematography, and scriptwriting. You will likely have the opportunity to contribute in some way to a short- or full-length film as part of your degree requirements. 

Design

In a design program, you can study graphic design, game design, illustration, industrial design, and communication design. Your studies can consist of technology-related courses that improve your ability to work with an array of digital tools, as well as art courses that hone your creative technique. 

Creative writing

In a creative writing program, you have the option of concentrating in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. You will likely take part in workshops where faculty and fellow students critique your work and offer feedback to strengthen your craft. 

Fashion 

In a fashion program, you have the option of studying fashion design, costume design, or textiles. In addition to attending lecture-heavy courses about fashion style and fashion history, you will also focus your efforts on creating and making your own designs.  

Types of MFA programs

Most graduate schools offer two types of MFA degree programs: 

  • Low-residency programs tend to be more flexible because students do most of their learning remotely with occasional visits to campus.  

  • High-residency programs tend to be more involved because students do all of their learning on-campus, immersing themselves more fully in the community. 

Both low- and high-residency programs offer coursework to help you meet your artistic goals and advance your professional development. As you research potential MFA programs, pay attention to the type of residency they offer and how they might address your larger goals and needs.  

MFA: Time and costs 

While each school is different, completing an MFA degree can take between two to three years when you’re able to attend full-time. The cost of an MFA degree depends on whether you attend a public or private institution, and whether your program is low- or high-residency. In 2022, the total cost of an MFA program ranged from $24,000 to $73,000 [1]. Options exist to help alleviate the cost of graduate education, such as assistantships, scholarships, and grants.  

What are the benefits of getting an MFA degree?

Pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree can help you refine your craft, grow and develop professionally, and learn more about your chosen artistic field. The program is often viewed as an opportunity to build your portfolio, network with professionals and peers, explore new techniques, and take advantage of mentorship and fellowship opportunities.  The MFA may also help you qualify for more job opportunities and prepare you for multiple career paths. 

Other benefits include:

  • Advanced professional development

  • Gaining additional knowledge of your craft

  • Concentrated time to focus on your art 

  • Teaching opportunities at a college or university

  • The opportunity to be critiqued by knowledgeable peers

Advantages of an online MFA degree

For learners who require more flexibility, an online college or low-residency program may offer the opportunity to take asynchronous classes from anywhere and at your own pace. Although some MFA programs, such as acting, tend to require an in-person presence, you can effectively study visual arts, design, and creative writing remotely. 

Learn more: 10 Surprising Benefits of Online Learning

What are the entry requirements for an MFA?

Requirements for MFA degrees vary by institution, but most require that you’ve earned your bachelor's degree, though it doesn’t always have to be in the same subject. MFA programs also usually require a portfolio or performance audition. As with any graduate program, you’ll generally need a copy of your previous college transcripts, a resume or CV, three letters of recommendation, an artist statement, and an application fee. 

Creative portfolio 

You'll showcase your creative skills with a portfolio or performance audition. As part of your application, you’ll submit a sample of your work that best speaks to your abilities in that medium. For example, you’ll submit a portfolio of your artwork for a studio art concentration, or a writing sample for a creative writing concentration. Schools will typically ask performing arts applicants for a resume and headshot. Each school will announce its upcoming auditions and the time allowed for each performance. 

What’s the difference between an MFA and an MA?

Although the Master of Fine Arts degree and the Master of Arts (MA) degree are both master’s degrees, they are not the same. Let’s review those differences below. 

The Master of Arts is an academic degree that focuses on subjects in the humanities or social sciences. The degree typically takes around two years to earn and tends to require critical thinking and original research. The MA is not a terminal degree, but students who earn one can go on to pursue their PhD. 

The Master of Fine Arts is a practice-based degree. It's discipline-specific and can take longer to complete than the MA. The focus is on one artistic specialty, and the program is more hands-on. The MFA is also considered a terminal degree.

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Career outlook: Salaries and job growth

With an MFA, you can go on to work in your chosen field, such as designing costumes, writing novels, or producing films. Thanks to the terminal nature of the degree, you can also teach at the university level. 

The average salary for MFA degree holders is $64,000 [2]. Your salary will depend on your chosen profession, the industry you work in, your location, the company your work for, and years of experience. The table below gives you a closer look at the average salaries for MFA degree holders in specific concentrations: 

MFA concentrationAverage US salary*
Culture studies$57,000
Photography$58,000
Jewelry design$60,000
Creative writing$60,000
Animation$61,000
Acting$62,000
Technical theater$64,000
Interactive design (game development)$65,000
Graphic design$70,000

*All salary data from Payscale

Demand for graduates of an MFA program varies by discipline. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for craft and fine artists are projected to increase 14 percent from 2020 to 2030 [3]. This is faster than the average growth rate of 8 percent for all occupations in the US. Other fine arts areas projected to increase include writers and authors (9 percent), actors (32 percent), museum curators (19 percent), and postsecondary teachers (12 percent) [4, 5, 6, 7]. 

Explore further

If you need help narrowing down which fine arts discipline you'd like to pursue, explore artistic career topics on Coursera, such as modern and contemporary art, graphic design, game design, or creative writing. All courses come from leading universities and are available entirely online, so you can learn at your own pace. 

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Article sources 

1. Bouchrika, Imed. “15 Most Affordable Online MFA Programs for 2022, https://research.com/degrees/most-affordable-online-mfa-programs." Accessed May 3, 2022. 

2. Payscale. “Master of Fine Arts (MFA).”  Accessed May 13, 2022.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Craft and Fine Artists: Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/craft-and-fine-artists.htm#tab-6." Accessed ‌May 3, 2022.

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Writers and Authors: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm." Accessed ‌May 3, 2022.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Actors: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/actors.htm." Accessed ‌May 3, 2022.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/curators-museum-technicians-and-conservators.htm." Accessed ‌May 3, 2022.

7. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Postsecondary Teache rs: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm." Accessed ‌May 3, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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