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What is the difference between an MA and an MFA?

09 FEB 2022

Whether you are an aspiring novelist, contemporary dancer, or prolific painter, pursuing an MA or MFA is a wonderful way to deepen your artistic practice and gain access to a valuable creative community. But how do you know which type of graduate programs is right for you? This largely depends on your goals as a creator and professional.

What is an MA and MFA Degree?

Let’s start with the basics:

MA stands for Master of Arts and typically consists of 120 course credits, which can be completed over the course of 1 year (full time) or 2 years (part time).

MFA stands for Master of Fine Art and typically requires around 150 credits; for this reason, an MFA usually takes longer to complete than an MA.


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MA vs MFA Main Differences To Consider

1. Broad v Narrow Focus

As a current MA student, I would describe the main difference between the two degrees as broad v narrow focus. MA degrees can be interdisciplinary and cover a wide range of humanities subjects and/or artistic disciplines. For example, my program at Plymouth College of Art is an MA in Creative Education and allows me to collaborate with students and staff from all over campus: ceramics, painting, education, glass etc. For this reason, MAs are also more broadly applied in terms of career options post-graduation. With an MA, I can work in education, arts administration, curation, or craft.

MFAs on the other hand usually require students to focus on a specific discipline, such as dance, performance, creative writing, metal work etc. MFA students are asked to deep dive into their chosen craft and spend their MFA creating as much self-directed work as possible.

2. Research v Artistic Development

MA programs also tend to be more research-oriented and ask students to base their practice in theory. This requires MA students to spend a significant amount of time reading and writing, rather than only working on their making practice.

MFA programs, however, lean more toward the making. These programs are designed to develop students’ individual artistic skills and practices, allowing them to focus solely on their craft over the course of their program; this culminates in an exhibit and/or final show that demonstrates the MFA graduates’ skills to the wider community.

3. Acclaim

Broadly speaking, it is also worth keeping in mind that MFAs tend to carry more weight in the professional world. The U.S. News & World Report reported in 2018 that artists with MFAs are more likely to have their work shown in LA galleries than their MA counterparts.

That being said, I would argue that a program’s alumni network and partner programs are just as important as the acclaim attached to the degree title itself. A big part of any post-graduate program is the connections you make with fellow professionals in your field; these are the people that will hire you, connect you with opportunities, and have your back as you move into the industry. Whether you are in an MA or MFA (or another grad program altogether) be sure to prioritize these professional connections.

Frequently Asked Questions About MA and MFA Programs

Do I need a Bachelor of Fine Art to get accepted into an MA or MFA?

No! Most MA/MFA programs, though it varies depending on the country, accept students with any relevant bachelor’s degree - they just require that you have a bachelor’s. The most important part of your application to an MA or MFA program is

  1. how you articulate your goals in your personal statement and
  2. your portfolio. Most MA/MFA programs will require a portfolio of your work, which you can create inside or outside of a bachelor’s program. This can include: digital art, writing samples, painting, fashion designs, drawings, music, videos etc.

The sky's the limit! Just make sure you include the work you are most proud of!

Are MFAs much harder to get into than an MA?

Yes and no. It depends on the school. Especially if you are considering MA/MFA programs all over the world, admissions rates are hugely varied. Some programs, like Yale or NYU, are notoriously competitive. For example, NYU graduate programs accept about 2.5% of applications; this is true for their MA and MFA programs.

In general, MFAs are probably slightly more competitive. But keep in mind that there are also dual-degree programs: programs that allow you to complete your MA and MFA in 2-3 years. Additionally, there are schools that allow MA students to jump straight into their MFA after completing their MA. Both options are clever ways to avoid the full MFA application process.

Lastly, there are many MA/MFA programs that accept applications on a first come first serve basis. Most schools are invested in accepting interesting, hard-working applicants, rather than people with exceptional technical skills.

Do I need to have work experience in the arts industry / exhibition experience to get into an MA/MFA?

No! Speaking from experience, neither are required to be accepted into a program. You do, however, need pieces for your portfolio. This means that while you may not have worked in the industry or exhibited, you do need to show evidence of your work - whether that be writing samples or illustrations. In my case, all my pieces were compositions I had worked on at home during quarantine.

I hope this was helpful in giving you more insight into MA/MFA programs! Look out for our next post: “Day in the life of a Master of Arts student.”

For more information regarding MA or MFA degrees, check out our Graduate Admissions Consulting Program or book a free consultation with one of our expert admissions advisors!

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Written by

Tressa T

Tressa is a current student pursuing an MA in Creative Education at Plymouth College of Art

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